I had a fantastic encounter today! My manicurist whom I have known as Jimmy for a whole year became known to me today as Yung Wei from Vietnam. I had not seen him for some weeks and that is because I was too busy to get pampered in a spa. However, since the holidays are round the corner I decided to get spruced up in preparation for the festivities.
Jimmy greeted me in his usual ‘Wassup Barb!’ as I sat in his wonderful massage chair. I pressed the on button on the arm rest so that the chair could start working its magic on my back. I responded to him and asked him how his trip to Vietnam was. Well if I had known that I was about to be transported to and given a deluxe tour of Vietnam, I would have come better prepared. As Jimmy worked on creating a set of bright pink nails with white tips on my fingers, I listened to the enchanting tale…
“My trip was great. It takes more than 22 hrs to get to Vietnam from here. I was happy to see my mum. She has been sick for some time now. Something in my heart told me it’s time to go. It’s been 15 years since I left. She was so happy she shouted “Yung Wei! You have finally come!”
I watched Jimmy transform into Yung Wei, as he described that first encounter with his mother after so many years. It was not so much the words he used but the manner in which his whole being was able to bring that experience to life for me. His face was rapt as he buffed and filed my nails with the precision of a pre programmed machine. His eyes filled up with tears which made them glisten like shiny black coals.
“I could not believe how old my mother has grown. There are wrinkles on her face and around her eyes. She has lost so much weight from the illness and her cheekbones jut out under her skin. She looks like a small girl, you know? I hugged her, but there was nothing to hug; just bones in a bag of skin. She was crying but no tears were falling. She is all dried up inside because of the illness, she cannot even make tears. I could feel she was so happy to see me but I could see that she felt bad that after all these years, I should find her in this sorry state.”
I felt my own tears well up in my eyes. I put my head back and blinked several times so they would not fall. What on earth did I have to cry about? Here I was getting my nails done and getting ready to party and this poor man has just returned from an emotionally harrowing trip home. I was silent as he placed the white tips and glued them onto my nail.
“I know my mother would have wanted to cook for me. When I was a small boy she cooked my favorite food every other day. It is called Hu tieu kho. Do you know it?”
I shook my head.
“It is made up of noodles with different vegetables; mushrooms, bean sprouts, green onions, and carrots. You can add chicken too if you like. But when I was a small boy, we were too poor to afford meat. You can make it spicy by adding hot red peppers, you know. My village is in northern Vietnam, near the Ban Gioc Falls. Do you know it?”
I shook my head again
“It’s the best place in the world. My mother is a great singer, you know. She is sings the Hat Van. This is music for the spirits. She is from the mountains. Mountain people are spirit people. They are very close to nature and they follow what the spirits tell them. I forgot all these things when I came to America. I forgot my ancestors. Vietnamese government stopped all forms of worship in my country. Did you know that? ”
I shook my head yet again. I had many questions for Jimmy. I was curious as to why he left Vietnam and what the country was like given the fact that it had been colonized by the French in the 19th century. I wanted to find out how Vietnamese people felt about the war particularly because he was from the north, which had been on one side against the south, which was backed by the United States. However, I could see that Yung Wei needed to unburden, to tell his story his way. I did not interrupt.
As listened intently and imagined a hot spicy chicken and vegetable dish eaten under the warm sun listening to the sound of a waterfall. I imagined Vietnamese men and women in nearby rice paddies, planting and weeding their crops, all the while singing haunting melodies to their ancestors. The scene before me was idyllic and calm, and I imagined a little bare chested boy running up a lush green mountain slope and jumping into the frothy waters at the bottom of the water fall. I imagined the Victoria Falls, my best place in the world, and was overwhelmed by sadness. I knew why I was crying. Selfishly, Yung Wei’s story had become my own. The yearning and intense homesickness that he was exuding became my own nostalgia for a home that once was. My home country had changed over the years and so had I. I wondered whether realistically I could continue to call it home. I wondered whether both home country and I could accommodate the changes that time and life had wrought on us and whether we could somehow find a modus Vivendi, a compromise, much like in a marriage where both people learn to live with and accept the quirks and foibles inherent in the other. He had one sick family member back in Vietnam while I had many close family members who were ill.
Yung Wei’s voice broke into my thoughts.
“My mother has never seen my children, or my wife. It’s too expensive for all of us to go.”
Yung Wei has three children. His youngest is the same age as my twin daughters, who are 4 years old. He has a lovely picture of them in Halloween costumes on his work table. He glances over to his wife, who is working diligently on another customer’s hands at a table across the room and he smiles: “We will soon catch up with you. There is number 4 on the way.”
I smile through my tears, which despite my best efforts have started to fall in rivulets down my cheeks, smudging my eyeliner and leaving trails that resemble dry riverbeds in my foundation. These are tears of joy, because despite the cloud of cold melancholy enveloping Yung Wei and me, his news of a new life in the making infuses the grayness with a soft, warm yellow light.
“America is the country of forgetting and remembering, he says with a sad distant smile.
“You can be so happy that you forget the hard times, the old country, the hunger and the poverty. But America can make you think about that country you left behind, the people you miss, the smells and the sounds. Do you know that?”
I nod my head. “Yes Yung Wei, I know that. America is the place of forgetting and remembering”
He has done a perfect job with my nails and as I get up to leave, he comes round the table, gives me a big awkward hug, laughs heartily and says, “Yeah Barb, of course you know that! You’re from Nigeria, right? You and me are the same right? Old country to New country!”
I laugh with Yung Wei. “Old country to New country, Yung Wei and it is Zimbabwe I come from!”
“Oh! Jimbabwe? Ok! Still, same thing! Jimbabwe- Vietnam, still Old country!”
At this both of us are guffawing and bumping each other like old friends sharing a private joke, as we make our way to the cashier.
“Happy thanks giving Yung Wei! Have a great time with your family.”
He looks into my eyes and says “Happy Thanks giving Barb! Thanks for listening. Oh, by the way, next time, use my New country name, Jimmy. Otherwise my customers will get confused. Old country name makes me remember too much!”
I blow a kiss towards Jimmy’s wife and their ‘bun in the oven’ and take my leave. As I walk to my car with the icy cold wind shredding my face, I think to myself: “This Thanks giving, I will take time to remember and time to forget and as I do this, I will have gratitude in my heart and a glass of Merlot in my hand. HAPPY THANKS GIVING to those in the Old country and those in the New, and to all those who straddle both Old and New!