Throughout my childhood and most of my teens, Vietnam and its people were the enemy.
I never really understood why. Perhaps because I was too busy being a kid in Brooklyn, playing everything from stickball to Skelly with the Black kids, the Jewish kids, the Hispanic kids, the Japanese kids, and every kid who made up the mosaic that was my Crown Heights neighborhood to realize that there were people in the world who despised my friends and their families because they were different.
Thankfully, “all news all the time” was still a few years into the future, sheltering my friends and me from the horrors of the war in Vietnam, images that would have poisoned our young minds and denied us the right to be children.
Fast forward to today.
Today’s generation has no idea the Vietnamese were once the enemy.
You can’t drive more than a block along the neighborhoods of South Florida without being enticed to try Pho. In Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the towns where my partner is from, the Vietnamese residents fish in the Gulf of Mexico and sell their wares along Highway 90. But I don’t have to go very far to find what perhaps is the largest niche of Vietnamese people in our society today. If you’ve had a “mani-pedi” lately, you know what I mean. It’s a trend that has been going on for a while.
While the nail technicians (that’s a fancy name for the person who does my nails) is busy working on me, he or she is speaking in Vietnamese to the technicians around them, keeping their culture alive, much like immigrants have done in this country since its birth.
Most of the people who work in my neighborhood nail salon know limited, if any, English. Their vocabulary consists of words like “Choose your color,” “You want gel today?” and the famous upsell, “You want eyebrows waxed?”
Manicures are usually a silent ritual because the people who do my nails don’t speak English and I don’t speak Vietnamese.
Then this happened.
Last Wednesday, I went in for a manicure. And to my surprise, the young woman who did my nails spoke fluent English.
At the side of the small table across from which we sat was her iPhone, tuned to a video of a little girl laughing, playing, and occasionally looking directly into the camera and holding up a toy, waving it happily for whoever was watching to see.
It didn’t take me long to realize I was watching a live Facetime video.
The young woman doing my nails glanced at me and said, “That’s my daughter. She’s in my country getting ready for bed.”
The journalist in me immediately took over and started asking questions fast and furiously.
“How old is she?” I asked.
“She’s 4 years old,” the young woman replied.
“Do you see her often?” I asked.
“I haven’t seen her in two years,” she said.
“How often do you Facetime?”
“At least two times a day,” she said. “If I’m busy and can’t Facetime, she sometimes tells my husband, ‘Mommy forgot about me.'”
(OK, seriously? Why don’t you just rip my heart out while you’re cutting my cuticles?)
Words cannot describe the emotions I experienced and the bond that young woman and I formed during the rest of our conversation.
She reminded me so much of my parents and the story that brought our family to the U.S. My dad sent my mom and me here from Cuba in the early 1960s on a wing and a prayer, not knowing how the story would play out, but believing that it would ultimately be better than what we were leaving behind.
I’ll fast forward through the details of the rest of my manicure that day and let you draw your own conclusions.
Two years ago, this young woman left Vietnam with her parents, leaving her husband and daughter behind, risking everything and seizing the opportunity of a better life in the U.S., hoping that one day they would all be reunited.
That dream will soon become a reality.
I didn’t quite get all the details, but in about a year, after all the paperwork is processed, her daughter and husband will move to the U.S.
In the meantime, she relies on technology to keep them united. And through that technology, she’s preparing her daughter for her new life in a new country, so as to ease the transition once she gets here.
I asked her how she had mastered the English language and she told me how she had a friend in Vietnam who was an English teacher. Knowing she would one day move to the U.S., she began sitting in on her friend’s classes so she could learn the language.
And now, she’s teaching English to her daughter via their daily Facetime conversations. In fact, it wasn’t long into my manicure that I began having a conversation in English with that little girl a half a world away.
I am not a political person. However, suffice it to say that parents have always sacrificed for their children, even if it means long separations, heartache, and uncertainty. What’s happening today in our country is nothing new.
But unless we learn the lessons from the past, we are destined to relive them over and over again until we get it right.
On this Fourth of July, let us celebrate our diversity, our heritage, our people. We are a nation of immigrants brought together in this wonderful nation to embrace our differences and share them with one another. And for that, my friends, we should give thanks every day.
That is all.