Imagine an 8-year-old Chinese girl, blind since infancy, who thinks herself lucky. Her luck is that her parents neither abandoned her by a roadside, to live or die as the fates might decree, nor were forced by poverty to sell her to a slave mistress, to be raised as a mang mui, a singing street beggar before puberty, a prostitute thereafter. The slavery would be lifelong unless the girl managed to hide enough of her earnings to buy her freedom, at which point she might herself become a slave mistress.
This is no medieval tale but an account of the superstitious beliefs, in the China of our own times, that blindness was a punishment for sins, one's own or one's ancestors', and that blind people were to be shunned as harbingers of bad luck.
Lucy Ching's parents were not ignorant peasants (her father was a prosperous architect and builder in Canton), but they, too, were ashamed of their blind child, afraid of how people would react if subjected to her presence. She was kept secluded at home, never allowed to join the family outings or vacations. Her parents saw her as their lifelong burden. "Little Girl," her mother said, "I hope you die before I do -- then I shall know you are being well cared for."
How "Little Girl" (her family's name for her) grew up to care for herself, despite the skepticism of her parents, despite their resistance to her every effort to learn independence, and despite changes in the family fortunes caused by revolution, war and exile, is the story told in this autobiography. Its title might equally have been "One of the Plucky Ones," for it tells of a child's stubborn determination to get an education and become self-supporting.
Her life, Lucy Ching writes, had three milestones. The first was when, having heard that Western blind children were somehow taught to read with their fingers, she persuaded her older brother to use his ham radio to ask if anyone knew how this could be done. In schoolboy English and halting Mandarin he repeated this appeal each day until an American physician in Manila responded: He knew some people in the United States who could help.
The help came in the form of a package from the John Milton Society in New York. Its contents were bewildering: thick papers covered with raised dots, a hinged metal strip with holes on one side and tiny knobs on the other, and "a strange little round thing that felt like a spinning top with the point of a knitting needle sticking out of it." What she had received was a Braille slate and stylus, an alphabet card that showed the English ABCs in print and in Braille dots, and a beginner's Braille text.
Her older siblings, who were learning English in school, told her what was printed on the alphabet card. Thanks to the Chinese practice of study-chanting, Lucy had heard her brother and sister reciting their English lessons and had thus learned the alphabet. By trial and error she found that inserting a thick layer of paper in the slate and using the stylus would produce raised dots, and that dot combinations spelled words. When, by coincidence, she found that one of the dot combinations spelled p-e-n-c-i-l, a word her sister was studying at that very moment, an insight dawned: it was not true, as she had always been told, "that it was no use a blind child trying to study because blind children and sighted children do not live in the same world." She, Lucy, could and would live in the same world as everyone else.
Her second milestone was discovering Christianity. When she heard a brother reading a verse from the Bible, "For God so loved the world . . . ," she asked: "Did it really mean what it said? Who was this loving God? Would he love a blind girl? Almost everyone said it was better for the blind to die than to live. Did God regard blind people differently?" To find out about this God, she and her brother visited a nearby church. The Ching family worshipped their ancestral tablets, and although Lucy's parents expected their children to continue doing so, they allowed Lucy and her brother to become members of the Southern Baptist Church.
Lucy's third milestone was her encounter with a mang mui. When she learned of the bitter misery and beatings the girl endured, she made a promise to God that she would give her life to helping blind people.
Written in unassuming style, devoid of hyperbole, "One of the Lucky Ones" tells how Lucy cajoled and pushed her way into a series of regular schools, the first Chinese blind child to do so; how she struggled to complete eight years of schooling and, at age 17, earned a scholarship to the Perkins School for the Blind in the United States, after which she returned to the Orient to serve blind people as a social worker in a Hong Kong rehabilitation office. In the course of the telling, we learn much about Chinese life styles. Interspersed in the narration of her life, first in Canton and then in Hong Kong and Macao, are explanations of Chinese parent-child relationships, family structures, marital customs, concubinage, ghost weddings, geomancy, funeral practices.
We learn, too, of a singular love story. At Lucy's side from infancy onward was the amah Ah Wor, one of the family's servants, who never once doubted the blind child's ability to learn and achieve, who championed her struggles in the face of parental obstruction and spent her own meager savings to pay for tutors so that Lucy could keep up in school, who worked without pay when the refugee Chings could no longer afford servants and even took in after-hours handwork to earn money for Lucy's school expenses. Unlettered but possessed of sound common sense, Ah Wor stood steadfast guard over Lucy's welfare. There came a point, the author writes, "when I felt that Ah Wor really loved me more than anyone else in the world did. Impulsively, I threw my arms around her neck and cried and told her I loved her and would never be parted from her."
And so it has been. Today the elderly Ah Wor and 45-year-old Lucy share a household in Hong Kong. It is Lucy who is now the caretaker and protector of the devoted companion to whom she has dedicated this admirable and inspiring book.