"Where we are from matters, but who we become matters more. There is common ground and accommodation if we seek to find it. We will never agree on everything, but we can agree on some things: Peace and Love."
I treat myself to a pedicure every once in a while. It is a time for me to unwind and catch up with the saga of the Kardashians and the latest red carpet winners featured in People magazine. I have no idea who most of them are, but I get to peek inside their world while I am being pampered. My pedicurist is a tiny Vietnamese girl with a name change. Once Linh (gentle spirit), she is now called Lynne.
Lynne is used to pleasing and so she smiles constantly. She has trouble speaking in English, but that doesn’t stop her need to chatter. I prefer to sit quietly and read but Lynne who is very much in charge of this procedure prefers to talk.
“Water OK? Not too hot? You want magazine?”
“I’m fine,” I answer. “Thank you for asking.” The routine never changes. I often wonder how very bored these young girls must be and whether they find sitting below their clients subservient and demeaning. Cleaning feet and painting toenails is nasty business. On the other hand the ‘girls’ usually talk amongst themselves. Then I speculate whether the conversation is revolving around feet or if they are totally detached from the experience and are discussing the day-to-day goings on in their own lives.
This day was different, Lynne looked up at me and asked; “Where you from? I thought it was a bit curious, but I answered; “I live here in Florida in the winter and in New Hampshire the rest of the year. Do you know where that is?”
“Not there,” she continued. “ I know New Hampshire. But where you FROM?”
I was puzzled and then it occurred to me. She was asking about my ancestry.
For some reason, I am often mistaken for a number of ethnicities, but most often as Italian or Hispanic. I am neither. And so, rather than get into the great grandparents emigrated from Poland and Russia story, I asked her if she thought that I might be Hispanic. Lynne lit up; her smile went from ear to ear. “ Yes, I thought so!” she exclaimed.” I knew it! She was so pleased, that I decided to leave it alone.
“Where are YOU from?” I asked her. Her answer was simple…”Saigon”. “And your family?” I asked. “Oh, they all live here now, she answered.” I asked her about the availability of local Asian markets and from that we moved on to Vietnamese recipes. I learned that her cuisine relied on fresh vegetables, subtle seasonings, fish, noodles and rice. All were easily found in Florida. Now we had a link. I enjoy talking about food and Lynne was happy to share her favorite recipes.
Where we are from matters. We are curious about each other. I guess it goes back to our origins. When we are out of our comfort zone, we tend to seek connections. We greet people with familiar names on T-shirts, emblems on caps, and license plates. Strangers who we might not choose as neighbors become temporary friends. Like an affair of short duration, these new friends move on as quickly as they arrived.
On one occasion my husband was wearing a T-shirt, which sported a map of New Hampshire. We were on a ferry going from Culebra PR to the main land, when another traveler noticed the shirt and came over to start a connective conversation. In short order, we found out that we were practically neighbors. A few weeks later our new friends went on a trip to Hawaii for a month and asked us if we would be interested in taking care of their island home. It meant extending our stay…but it was an opportunity of a lifetime. In this case, the T-shirt was our introduction to a long friendship.
None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. Malcolm Gladwell’s THE OUTLIERS is a compelling book about the way opportunity; values, heritage and chance mold our lives. He demonstrates how much of our behavior is in part due to where our ancestors settled when they immigrated to America. If your relatives were farmers they would seek areas similar to the lands they left in order to ‘do’ what they knew best. If clans were the way of life they knew, clannish behavior would follow. "Die like a man, like your brother did." (http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/outliers_excerpt2.html)
Where we are from matters to the government. Every ten years there is an official census taken in the US. The word "census" originated in ancient Rome from the Latin word censere ("to estimate"). The census played a crucial role in the administration of the Roman Empire, as it was used to determine taxes. (Wikepedia) Today it is primarily a vehicle to count the population while keeping track of both race and national origin. It seems that no matter how long our ancestors have lived here, we are still hyphenated-Americans.
My nephew was born in Korea. He has been a US citizen since he was three. He is a college graduate, speaks without any noticeable accent and works as manager for a very large firm in DC. I was with him one day when an older lady approached us, and asked him, “Where are you from?”
He smiled politely and replied, “Virginia.”
“No, she said.” Not there, where are you FROM?”