With the fun-loving attitude of a college student and the wisdom of a woman three times her age, Christine Ha continuously does what many think to be impossible by being a blind chef.
The Student Undergraduate Board of Governors (SUBOG) invited Ha to speak Thursday night about the obstacles she has faced throughout her life and how to overcome them.
Ha is the first blind contestant and winner of the third season of Gordon Ramsey’s competitive cooking reality show “Master Chef.” However, Ha didn’t begin cooking until the age of 20 during her sophomore year at the University of Texas at Austin, where she received her bachelor of business administration in finance and management information systems.
“Actually I didn’t know how to cook at all,” Ha said. “Growing up my mom was a very good cook, but I never learned to cook from her. She was actually very protective… She was like, ‘Stay away from the knives. Stay away from the stove,’ so I never learned to cook.”
It was not until she moved off campus that Ha decided to teach herself how to cook through memories of the taste and smell of her mother’s cooking and through cookbooks. It was after one of her first attempts cooking for her roommate that Ha realized her love for cooking.
“That was probably my first successful dish and I remember at that time I still had vision and I was looking around the table at my roommates and everyone looked satisfied and happy and satiated,” Ha said. “I remember thinking to myself that these are people that are enjoying something that I was able to create with my own two hands and I thought there was something magical about that.”
It was shortly after this time in her early twenties that Ha began to lose her vision. Ha suffers from neuromyelitis optica, which she described as a rare autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis in which her immune system attacks her nervous system.
After a particularly intense flare up in which she was paralyzed from the neck down, Ha said that her life “turned upside down” and she seriously questioned her purpose in life. During this time Ha rediscovered her love of literature and how it had always been a way for her to escape the monotonous and difficult times in her life.
“[Reading] was a way for me to grow in compassion and realize that, ‘Hey I’m going through this tough time but there are other people who have experienced difficult things that may or may not be similar to what I’m going through,’” Ha said. “But as human beings we’ve all felt sadness, we’ve all felt happiness, we’ve all laughed, we’ve all cried.”
This love of reading inspired Ha to go back to school and obtain her Masters of Fine Arts in creative fiction from the University of Houston in 2012. However, by this time Ha had lost most of her vision, so things that are difficult for able-bodied students proved extremely difficult for Ha.
Ha has not let the challenges in her life hold her back. Rather, they have taught her not to fear failure and instead to pursue her passions.
“You just kind of try again and then you just keep picking yourself up and trying again,” Ha said.
Ha also stressed the importance of living a full life where you tend to your mental and emotional needs as often as you strive towards your professional goals.
“Happiness comes also when you feel like you’re living a life that’s fulfilled and living a life of purpose… Honestly I can say that I’m happier now having lost my vision than when I have vision,” Ha said.
The challenges in her life motivated her to live a life of true fulfillment where she could advocate for others like her.
Eighth-semester material science and engineering major Andrew Nguyen felt the weight of these sentiments.
“As a last semester senior going into the real world, I’m trying to figure out what I want to do too,” Nguyen said. “So hearing from her going through so much challenges in life and being successful in her own way was really inspiring.”
Kiana Cao, an eighth-semester graphic design major echoed Nguyen’s thoughts.
“She was very real,” Cao said. “When you talk to people that have made it really high up in like Hollywood, it just seems like there’s a disconnect, but she’s been in our shoes before, she’s been an undergraduate, and she’s been lost before. She’s gone through the struggles that we’ve gone through so it’s also, again, very relatable and empathetic.”
Alexis Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.