Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Crow 31 Days: Please Choose a Color and a Little Compassion, Too

For the month of May I am telling stories: stories about my personal experiences with Asian Art and Culture in our City of Dallas, Texas. Today I am writing about the place I go when I'm short on time and I have an event coming up. You've probably been there: the nail salon in the strip center by your house. It's a common occurrence: it's hard to drive a mile in our city without seeing a sign. For as many times as I've been, I never stopped to think about how one community: the Vietnamese immigrants, built an empire on nails.

I visited a new salon recently. A young man from Saigon gave me one of the best pedicures I've had in Dallas. Alex. He introduced me to his girlfriend soon to be wife, Amy. She started working on beautifying my nails. We talked about many things: life, being in love, what they were doing that night for their date. How she hoped he would ask her to marry him.

The Vietnamese-American nail salon monopoly started with Hitchcock made-famous actress Tippi Hedron. She was familiar with the Vietnamese refugee camp Hope Village, and keen to find jobs for the hundreds of refugees living at the camp in Northern California. She flew in her personal manicurist who taught the first twenty women the art of manicure. This fascinating article captures the miraculous journey of an idea to an industry--and forty years later, the nail salons in our country exist thanks to the compassionate mind of one person wanting to give someone else a life different.

However, there is a cultural and socio-economic divide in many of these franchised salons: young women (and men) working for what I imagine is a pittance hunched over for hours on end: exposed to chemicals, fiberglass filings and fumes. (Not to mention: nails.)

I've seen busy clients come and go, often not saying more than "Deluxe", "not too short" and "the water isn't hot enough". I try to counter these compassion-lacking exchanges by asking the nail technician their name and talking beyond the color choice or nail length. I ask about their experience in Dallas and the journey they've known. I find they are curious to practice their English, and interested to learn about my work at an Asian Art Museum.

These industrious service-driven pedicurists and manicurists are among the nicest, hardest working people I have met.  All it took was a conversation to reveal that in most nail salons I have experienced, there is a world of compassion and culture to explore.

The old traditional salons are being replaced by more stylish decor, but if you look closely you may find culture in unexpected places.

Jade is commonly found in bracelet or necklace form. I've asked where my stylist got his or her jade and what it's cultural significance and meaning are to them. Generally this kindles a conversation around us with other stylists--jade from mothers, jade on the birth of a baby, the story of how the jade protected them from harm.

In an older nail salon The Buddhist Altar won't be far from the register. Spend a few moments appreciating the work and care that has gone into creating this sacred space. Sure, it may be dusty and it may be plastic, but it brings serious meaning to this enterprising family and your acknowledgment of this space will be considered an honor.

The Lucky Bamboo thrives somewhere nearby too--and will likely be near the Altar. Ask about it --where they found it, where you might find some. You will likely find a Laughing Buddha or a Smiling Cat: your interest in these symbols of culture and religion will create a new bridge of communication. Feng Shui (Vietnam was a colony of China for over 1,000 years) is a common practice of cultural significance to the Vietnamese and you'll likely find little bowls of water or salt, a mirror or crystal in unexpected places. To reciprocate, I've shared some symbols and icons of my own culture and religion: talking creates a new space of connection and joy: and these are the gifts we all share as humans, aren't they?

Several weeks later I called back to the salon where I met Alex and Amy. The gentleman who answered the phone was puzzled, said, "Oh Alex! The owner! He sold it to me and is opening up his next store!" Humble Alex told me so much about his life. Humble Alex never told me he was the proud owner.

Where much is not understood, much is to be learned. Beautiful nails are one thing, but making a beautiful friend is the "add on" I go home with every time.

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