Travel out of focus: the language of touch

Now that touch is my most reliable sense, I’ve developed a quite paradoxical relationship with being touched. Touch both brings me closer to and distances me from others

I have Usher syndrome type I, which means that I was born profoundly deaf and with retinitis pigmentosa (RP). RP causes progressive vision loss and mine sent me into legal blindness about five years ago. Even though I’ve had a cochlear implant since 1991 and am able to listen and speak well enough to carry on a conversation under many circumstances, it is far from reliable. Touch remains an useful tool of communication when something is too difficult or too time-consuming to convey through speech (or I can’t understand the words).

Many such instances over the past five years have made me dread those moments when others — mostly strangers — touch me. A well-meaning man once grasped my upper arm so hard while attempting to guide me to a bus that it left a bruise. Encounters where people grab my arm without warning as I cross the street have left me with a racing heart from being taken unawares. Some people go to the opposite extreme, simply nudging me rather than guiding me, which leaves me confused and them exasperated. These experiences have repeated themselves so often that I tense up instinctively at the thought of being touched. Touch had begun to separate me rather than bringing me closer to others.

Not everyone’s touches were invasive and jarring. An elderly woman showed me around a pool house with the sort of deft touch I rarely experience. She led me with enough firmness so I knew where to go and enough gentleness so I didn’t feel dragged along. When she wanted to convey where the showers were, she simply said, “Shower” and placed my hands on the faucet — long enough for me to recognize what it was — and left it at that. I felt as if we were using the same language, the language of touch, with perfect fluency.

After my boyfriend and I decided to circumnavigate the world for 4 months, I couldn’t help but dread these moments where others would touch me as a form of communication. This was bound to happen even more often as I wouldn’t speak their language and wouldn’t be able to perceive their gestures. Will it be different abroad? I wondered. Will* it be better or worse?*

A series of somewhat awkward situations that cropped up in Thailand gave me the answer.

After being dazzled by the lights (and consumerism) of Bangkok, we headed southward to the relatively underdeveloped Trang Islands. People said that the beaches there were beautiful and unspoiled by resorts — what paradise should be like. The only problem was that paradise is hard to get to.

After a riding in the back of cars, ferries, and trucks, the tough part finally came. Or at least it was tough for me. Not only would I have to go abroad a boat, but I would have to jump between boats and then *I would need to walk from the boat to shore in thigh-high waves. I was uncertain *how precisely I would do all of this using a white cane.

The white cane gives a wonderfully precise picture of what is in front of you, but it has some limitations. It works best on solid, predictable, and perpendicular surfaces. It only gives you information on a small point in front of you, so you must make calculated inferences. In angular, steady environments, you can infer things like: the tip *dropped down, which means that there must be a step down. *This system of inferences breaks down when you’re confronted with a new, curved environs, such as a Thai longboat. (Mind you, I hadn’t been on a boat in years.)

Things didn’t go well immediately. I got stuck as I straddled the edge of the boat, trying to find a foothold on the plastic curve of the boat’s insides. When my foot slipped on the curved step, a Thai boatman caught me as I stumbled into his arms. We both chortled as he set me on my feet. I was too frazzled to remember “Thank you” in Thai, so I ended up saying it in English. The guy just laughed good-naturedly and patted my shoulder in a way that I was certain meant: No problem, glad to help.

After I regained my composure, I settled into my seat, but it wasn’t the end of my misadventures. I hopped awkwardly between boats, simultaneously gripping my boyfriend’s hand as I tapped around to discern where the gap between the boats was so I wouldn’t fall into the sea. Then came the trickiest part: maneuvering to and descending a ladder to the water as the waves rocked the boat.

What few know about using a white cane is that you lose a hand since one is quite occupied with the task of using the white cane. This means that if I am carrying something in one hand while using the cane, I cannot do things like open the door or feel the surface in front of me. This leads to the inevitable awkwardness in such situations as I juggle thing around to get a sense of my environs. This also means that if I must use both of my hands — to grip something, to carry a large item, to pull myself up — I am truly blind. Without the ability to use my cane to sense the world around me, I’m as good as a blindfolded sighted person.

I needed to use both hands to descend the ladder. It was also noisy with the engine’s roar and the crash of waves all around me. My cochlear implants proved to be no match for the cacophony. I was now truly blind and deaf.

My boyfriend got one of my hands onto the ladder and shouted something, but it was lost to the engine’s roar. Whatever he said didn’t really matter. I had figured out what to do by feel and was already maneuvering myself to the first step. The boatman who was already in the water gripped my foot as I descended the unsteady ladder. His touch said: Hey, your foot goes here … and here … and you’re home free! After I made it into the water, I stood there swaying in the waves as he patted me on the shoulder: Good job, now off you go! his touch said.I nodded and tottered away with the waves alternating between pulling me from and pushing me toward the shore.

When I finally got to relax on the beach — a tranquil paradise well worth the trouble — it occurred to me that I hadn’t felt the least bit disturbed or even inconvenienced by these men’s touches. I actually felt respected, *as if they were saying: *Welcome and make yourself at home. Whereas the people who had variously grabbed or jostled me in the United States had been screaming: Get over there already!

It would be easy to attribute the effortless touch-communication I had with the Thai to its laid-back culture already full of tactile interactions such as Thai massage. (Ixnay on the sex industry jokes!) But I experienced this phenomenon almost everywhere I went. A woman laid a gentle, but firm, hand on my shoulder when I was blocking her way during rush hour in Madrid. An Italian ferry master gripped my upper arm with just the right amount of pressure to help me out of the ferry-bus in Venice. A Japanese man led me, all gentleness and shyness, to a subway seat during rush hour. In the more reserved cultures, such as Finland and Portugal, people simply left me alone, which I was more than fine with. Never once did I experience the intrusive and invasive touch I experienced so often in the United States.

Why are my own countrymen and countrywomen so rough with me compared to others? Is it simply a matter of statistics? I live in the United States, so I interact with more people and therefore am more likely to meet ones who are more rough than gentle. Or is it something inherent in American culture? I’m not sure. Whatever it is, I hope that my fellow Americans learn the language of touch one day. It’s a nice language that everyone can learn.

Check out my other “Travel Out of Focus” posts: