Local Personalities

Wanjai (Wan) Nujan – the librarian with a difference

by Dr. Iain Corness

Every so often you meet someone who can humble you, make you sit down and do a ‘reality check’ on yourself, and make you realize just how lucky you have been in life. Wanjai (Wan) Nujan is one of those people. Still only 20 years of age, she has overcome obstacles so large that the average person would give up. However, Wan is not an average person, even though she is by day a mild-mannered librarian, looking after the North Star Library on Sukhumvit Road, next to the Redemptorist Center.

She is not a local girl, coming from Surat Thani in the south, where she is the 10th child in a family of 12 (seven boys and five girls). When I say that her parents were market gardeners, you can soon imagine that it would have been difficult to feed the 12 children, especially when one, Wan, was handicapped and initially not able to feed herself. Being born with no hands and no left forearm is really an enormous handicap, but to watch Wan writing out library loan cards, in a perfectly legible script using her two handless arms, made me instantly embarrassed by my doctor’s scrawl. Reality check time again!

When she was first born, her father apparently hoped that she would die, rather than face a lifetime of challenges. “But my mother loved me and took care of me,” she said simply. But in a family of 12 children there was not all that much time for her mother to give individual care to any one child. Wan understood her unique situation and taught herself ways to hold utensils with her stumps, to gain a degree of independence. “I can make it, but I am slow,” said Wan.

She first began to understand the true enormity of her loss when she went to school and other children made fun of her. “Sometimes I cried,” said Wan, “It made me shy.” Children can be very cruel with their direct approach to these things. It also made her ponder on why her situation was different from other children. “I think very much,” said Wan. A simplistic Buddhist response was given to her questioning that in a previous lifetime a relative had cut off a monkey’s paw. However, this was not really acceptable as a reason for the young girl. Karma is a personal matter. The sins of the relatives are not passed down to cousins.

So she persevered, doing well at school, and after school, doing as her brothers and sisters did – working in the family garden. “I can grow rubber trees, grow flowers, I can grow anything,” she said with that bright smile which can light up a room (or a library).

In school she excelled at mathematics and science and loved reading the stories of famous people and animals. However, in a house where there was a minimum of three people to a bedroom, there was no space (or food) to indulge in pets, something most children take for granted as one of the rights of passage. Another childhood milestone is learning to ride a two wheeled bicycle. Wan was 15 when she mastered that art, and the mind boggles trying to imagine a teenager with no hands and half an arm managing this feat. The independence that she had exhibited as a very young child learning to feed herself was still just as strong.

The next stage in her life was sheer serendipity. Her teacher in Surat Thani saw a TV show featuring the Redemptorist Center in Pattaya, and she encouraged Wan to enroll. The center was impressed enough by the young girl that they accepted her and assisted her with her fervent desire for knowledge. Her subjects included Computers and Business Management, all done in English, which was another subject she had to master in a hurry.

Two years later, and now 20 years old, she felt she was ready to start work, with her new-found knowledge and skills, despite the lack of hands. Like all young job seekers, she sent off her resumes and applications. “They did not believe me in what I can do,” said Wan, beginning perhaps to see that life was still not a bed of roses. There is bias everywhere!

But the North Star Library was prepared to give her a chance, and she is reveling in it. I asked some (obvious) questions such as how did she get the books off the shelves, thinking about her lack of hands. Her answer took me back somewhat. “I use a ladder for the top shelves!” Getting the books was no problem in her mind, it was just the height of the shelves that posed difficulty! With alacrity she then showed me how she dragged the ladder around and climbed to the top, selecting the books with her right arm, while steadying them with her left. Easy when you know how.

Her main ambition at this stage is to further her study of the English language, so she wants to earn enough money to make this possible. “If I can speak English I can always get a job.” I asked were there any other items she had high on her personal agenda, expecting that she would talk about raising her own family, but no. “I don’t have a dream of getting married,” said Wan. “What I want to do is build a house for my mother and father. My elder brothers and sisters are mainly married and have their own families to look after back in Surat Thani.”

So in this topsy-turvy world, the young girl with no hands and initially no hope of a future, has become the only one of the 12 to leave the southern province, is the only one to learn English and is the one most likely to become a success in the world of business.

As I mentioned at the outset, being in her presence is a humbling experience.