This is a story about contrasts. And Seattle can feel like a red-hot center of contrasts lately.
It’s also a story about courage and determination. Both belong to a woman from Vietnam named Phuong.
A small part of the determination belongs to me, too, as this is a stunning immigration story and I’m determined to tell it.
At the end of the story, I just shake my head.
I was given a gift certificate for a mani/pedi at a downtown spa. So yesterday, I hopped on a bus to take full advantage of my friend’s generosity.
The last time I had my nails done was when my mother was dying. I was also writing a book that maybe I should have put away, but honestly, writing saved me. When the woman who buffed my nails asked, “How you?” I started to cry. She swept me into the back room, sat me down, and dug her thumbs into my shoulders. “Dollar a minute,” she said. I asked for an hour, half an hour per shoulder. She set the timer.
This time, in a candle-lit room, Phuong smiles at everyone in a genuine way. When I say, “You have a great smile,” she says, “I love it here, that’s why.”
This seemed strange, to “love” cutting cuticles. I reach into my pocket to be sure my tip is there. I am a big fan of genuine positivity.
I love Seattle, too, but I have noticed that it’s changing so fast copy-cat behavior is everywhere. But genuine, not so much.
Take the words, “it’s all good.” Even my Barista says it now after I say “thank you.” I never understood why “you’re welcome” became unfashionable, and I was just getting used to “of course,” delighted “no problem” is finally seen as the snub it sounds like. “It’s all good” feels like the new mental narcotic, said to smooth out any snags and dull our ability to think critically. I love what my friend Craig said about perpetually-smiling people, “Some of the least-happy people you ever want to meet.”
What brought you to Seattle?” I asked Phuong.
She said she replied to a request for marriage “on the internet.”
It’s always been like this, I thought, the mail-order-bride. World War I, II, and so on and so on. And because she is all of twenty, I said, “Please don’t tell me he’s eighty years old.”
She looked at me and smiled. Then I worried she’d pull back.
But she was happy to tell me that because there are not enough women to marry in China, the men sneak over the border to kidnap girls from her village.
“Oh God!” I said.
“My two cousins were stolen from our playground. We learn Chinese and English so we can get home if we are kidnapped.”
“That’s so ... horrible.”
“More horrible when they take only the kidneys,” she said.
I think Phuong really does love her work, that people like her don’t share such stories with clients to entertain them, but because they need to talk about what they’ve gone through to stay alive. And it’s amazing to me that considering what she just told me, she manages to give the impression that she is totally appreciative of the opportunities she’s been given. Here is where my story is all about courage.
And here is the contrast: the woman sitting next to me never looked up from her phone to acknowledge Phuong, or the story she’d just had the privilege to hear, other than to ask if the lights could be turned up a little. And when told the candlelight (fake candles, but still) set the mood, here came another word I find disingenuous, “whatever.”
I wanted to say, “Would it kill you to say thank you?” Instead, I asked about the logo on her tote bag. “Oops, I mean brand.”
She told me the rest of her corporate team-builders were in the sauna. By the time I got to the dressing room, it looked as though they’d been carrying on like a frat party. What a mess!
This is where I shake my head. It’s so easy to forget someone always has to clean up the mess. My Aunt Connie was a cleaning lady when she first came to this country. The stories she could tell.
I picked up all the wet towels and threw them in the basket.
MARY LOU SANELLI’s latest book is “A Woman Writing.” For her other writings, go to www.marylousanelli.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.