The Vietnamese pleasantry


A few days ago, we were entertained with a lavish meal, of all things, in a  wedding banquet hall. Being the first customers that evening, we ate in this huge wide open space.

One by one, the dishes arrived. To me, that’s a lot of cholesterol in one shot. But I couldn’t get enough of hospitality and genuine friendship despite the poorly executed ambience (they could have partitioned the hall to get better ambience).

Human connection more than often transpires space and time. Two friends can pick up where they left off  last time, be that a decade or 40 years in between. The old “bookmark” was a good place to start. From there, it’s time to mine empathy from those of the same frame of reference (in Netherland, the writer touched on an emotional soft spot often experienced by immigrants in America). It’s still unclear whether brave decisions, like that of Steve McQueen in Le Papillon ( to escape 7 times) was better than that of Dustin Hoffman‘s (to stay and plant tomatoes).

During and after the war, millions of Vietnamese scattered to the four winds, to neighboring countries or far-away ones (I met a family who open a restaurant in Cote d’Ivoire). I have seen how they shop, live and communicate (and sometimes, send back money). A notable experience was three-time evacuees from E New Orleans (North-South, East-West, and lately, Katrina returnees to rebuild more quickly than first-timers).

Given the historical context of getting “smoked out” of their villages, the Vietnamese overseas are quite brave in their own terms. The cultural gap couldn’t be wider (as compared to the wave of  European who first arrived to the US .) Yet, they thrive and survive the down turn, sometimes, by doubling or tripling up. Not as physically strong as the Mexican day laborers, the Vietnamese average workers ended up in assembly lines (Silicon Valley in the 80’s, then scattered all over including RI) holding on to jobs that have yet been shipped to lower-wage countries. Once out of the box, Vietnamese women have stepped up to be leaders of the families.

En par with American counterparts, they juggle cultural expectations, career choice (majority of whom as manicurists) and family obligation (in-laws living under the same roof). I have observed first-hand how my mom, a woman of mere 5 feet, tackle those various demands. In her lifetime, she faced two evacuations, spoke two languages and still managed to amass a huge savings from three decades of school teaching. It’s ashamed that those piles of money had to be tossed at seas during our trip to America.

Still, the grace and courtesy follow these women to strange shores. There, once again, they hold the steady hands of paying customers, assuring them that life can always get better, all along, bluffing and buffing. To them, no matter how it was inside, it is mandatory to show only their outward pleasantry.

(Yoko recounted this in her NYT op-ed,  that her late husband JL, protected her still to this day, every time she put on the shaded designer glasses to face the world, “don’t let them know they got you”).

Who would  know, behind those nail polishes are stories of left-behind treasures and broken dreams, and the smiles served as bribes to a better life. I owe this to one of those amazing women. Always pleasant with an enigmatic smile large enough to cover all the years of sorrow and struggle. The Vietnamese pleasantry.

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