Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Culture Club

A few years ago, I received a gift certificate for a manicure. As I am a former hair dresser, nail services were a part of my job many years ago. Up to that time, I had never gone to a salon to have one myself. I held onto that piece of cardboard for several months before finally deciding to go cash it in and get my own nails done.

The salon that issued the certificate is located just a few miles from my home, and is owned, I was soon to learn, by two young brothers who were born in Vietnam.
All the employees of the salon are Vietnamese, yet they all claim classic, “American” names, such as Patricia, Daniel, Crystal and Terry. My tech later told me that none of them use their real names, as they believe they would be too difficult for customers to pronounce.

The men are slim and short, sloppy chic and fashionably shabby in their designer t-shirts, jeans and flip-flops. They sport black, puttied, faux-hawks. The women run the gamut from very young to grandmothers, some plump and cherubic, others waif-thin. All of them have almond eyes and dark hair. Some are fair skinned and others quite dark; all of them are beautiful.

The two young men keep a tight rein on the front desk and the telephone, exercising firm control over the flow of clients that come into their salon. They appear to want to keep the money in the family to the extent that they can do it. The day of my first manicure in their salon turns out to be a very busy one, so I am assigned to a girl they call Tina. Since Tina is the only one who is not related to the owners, she is last to be assigned new customers. Although her accent is heavy and she frequently chooses the wrong words, after the brothers, she is the one who has the best command of the English language. This makes her most desirable to the local women who are uncomfortable sitting in silence as a non-verbal tech buffs their nails. The two owners and their relatives appear to take notice of this fact with some resentment.

Tina is a diminutive woman. She is short and thin, with a wide, round face free of makeup, with dark eyes. Her hair is stick-straight, black silk, worn either down, brushing her collar-bone, or up in a plastic clip. She rarely looks directly at me, keeping her eyes cast down most of the time.

Tina is meticulous in the removal of excess cuticle, as I soon discover. My jagged, peeling, dried-out fingertips become smooth, even and perfectly glossed under her skilled ministrations. And while nail enamel applied by the other techs invariably chips after a few days, Tina’s paint job lasts nearly two weeks. I am hooked. I make a bi-monthly appointment. Soon, I forget how to apply my own nail enamel without getting it all over my hands. I feel nasty and unkempt if I don’t sit in Tina’s chair at least every other Thursday. The eleven dollar fee is a small price to pay to feel so good about my hands for two weeks. It is a small luxury that I cannot deny myself while I am working full-time.

Almost immediately, I notice that Tina is eager to try out her English on me. I discern that she seems to be using me to help her learn about the American culture and the language, and this delights me. She looks at me quizzically, and repeats phrases she does not understand back to me, for interpretation and explanation, and I patiently oblige. I find her almost painfully sweet and feel a fondness for her from our very first meeting.

For the next several years, I meet with Tina every few weeks. She is curious about all manner of things in my life, from what I do for work, to how much I pay for rent each month, to whether I cook each day, and what foods I prepare. In turn, I ask her about various things, and I learn what life is like in urban America for a young immigrant from south-east Asia. I am allowed a glimpse into a different culture, and in this, I find a gift.

She went to college back in Vietnam, and earned a degree in accounting, but here it is not worth anything, so she does the only other thing she knows how to do, working in the nail salon. I am privy to her difficulties with her aunt and twenty year old cousin, with whom she lives. I learn that she rises before dawn to cook all three meals for the day for the entire household. She buys the fresh ingredients daily, from Asian markets in the heart of Boston, before leaving for her hour commute to work in our suburb. She rides with another girl now. Because her young cousin needed transportation to get to his new job, she has given him her car.

I hear about her uncertainty as she considers a marriage proposal, and I endure the painful sense of longing that fills the silence after she tells me of the birth of her first niece, back in Vietnam. I feel her palpable sorrow when she talks about her parents on the farm back in her homeland and how much she misses them. I take note of the look that flashes in her eyes at the sharp sounds, foreign to my ears, that come from Daniel, one of the salon owners, as my allotted time ends and we have been sitting too long, laughing and chatting while my nails dry. She walks behind me and rests a hand on my left shoulder for a moment and thanks me softly each time as I prepare to leave after paying her.

Last fall, Tina left for a six month hiatus from the salon. She and her new husband were expecting a baby. My nail appointments dwindled down to once every month or so. The new manicurists stare blankly at me when I attempt conversation with them. One shakes her head desperately and barks a few syllables at a co-worker, apparently asking her if she knows what the hell I am saying. After that, I stare up at the flat screen T.V. on the wall and resolve to sit in silence until she finishes. I wonder when Tina will come back to the salon.

It seems none of the other technicians can match Tina’s skill. I am dissatisfied with my rough cuticles and the substandard polish applications, time and again. I even attempt to care for my nails myself, at home, with dismal results. Then one day I hear that Tina is back. I make an appointment for a manicure after work a few days later.

She is there with a new haircut and pictures of her baby son when I arrive. My eyes fill up with tears and my heart swells when I look at her little boy, so tiny and beautiful, with his dark, feathered head and precious little face. I have brought her a gift: a green and blue fleece blanket festooned with little animals and geometric shapes, and a matching crib sheet.

As she files my nails, she tells me a story about when she first came to this country and got lost in the city. She was walking alone to a new restaurant job in a strange neighborhood and stopped at a gas station to ask for help. Inside the station’s mini-mart grocery, several middle aged men were hanging out. Tina tried to get directions from them, but they couldn’t understand her broken English and laughed at her. An older woman came in to pay for her gas and heard their banter. When Tina left the store and went back outside, the woman was waiting. She implored Tina to get into her car, and when she did, the good Samaritan drove her to a nearby Vietnamese market where she knew they would understand her. The market’s proprietor then told her that, according to the woman who had brought her there, the men at the gas station had bad intentions and might have been planning to do Tina harm, had she not left the gas station with the woman. The store owner then gave her instructions on how to find her new workplace.

When she finished her story, Tina looked up directly into my eyes and said: “I tell you this today because I want to say that I was so surprised that your people here in this country would be so kind to me, and to tell you that I feel so grateful.”

I reflect on this in my heart, and I find there a wish, that every person who comes to this country might feel the same way as Tina. I find there, a deep conviction that the things that unite us all are much greater than the things that separate us.
In the final analysis, we are all citizens of the same planet. We are all children of God. We are all human.