Foreign Tongues and Native Toenails



100th St. & Central Park West, NY, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Pretty much every woman in New York City gets her nails done and why not? There are at least six or seven per two-block radius, give or take. It’s a cheap and standard luxury here, courtesy of lots of supply, lots of demand. For those who tote their bright all-smiles and pleasant politeness, it’s the respite, “Ahhh-I’ve-been-looking-forward-to-this-all-week”. For others and their gum crackling, expensive handbag and highlights impatience, it’s “Hurry-up, already: I-still-have-to-get-a-Brazilian-and-get-to-Barney’s-before-it-closes”. Whatever the motivation, a visit to the nail shop is one of this city’s unifying rituals: we all come together with abuse on our soles and variations of temperance and sit side-by-side in expectant repair. Here, a woman finds relief from the world and becomes ready once again, to meet it: well-manicured and without callosity.

You walk into one (anyone will do) and they all are pretty much the same: seven to ten mostly Asian women sitting assembly-line-style; bent over sudsy feet and chipped fingernails, toiling together in unison: not unlike ants in an ant farm. Many of them have varying degrees of red-, burgundy- and orange-highlighted hair and you hear that slipper-on-bare-floor walk-scuffle. Calves are slapped in varying shades of pallor and depth, form and transparency; knuckles are popped into place while their owners’ eyes gaze into unthoughtful space, fixated upon misspelled advertisements on cramped walls. Upon entry, the chorus greets you: “Pick-uh-culla! Pick-uh-culla!” as the hum of efficiency drones within this well-oiled machine. Gossip and chatter ensues among the manicurists, often in Korean or Chinese, with a sidelong glance here and there at a strange or difficult customer, or at the odd-woman-out Chinese among Korean staff, or vice-versa.

But, then there is me and I am neither strange nor difficult. “Spa pedicure today?”

How much?

“Fitty Dolla.”

I politely shake my head no. “Okay, next time, you do.” The nail shop chatter builds momentum as I sit on my footbath throne; I get a couple of sidelong glances and the “Lalalala-oh” or “Num-ni-ya-ya”. As I flip through the pages of US Weekly, I wonder with amused paranoia, “Is it the Chanel Black Satin nail polish? A little Goth, but hey: it’s everywhere!” Yeah, so what? I am cheap: I never get the spa pedicure. The $20 manicure/pedicure combo suits me just fine. The bottoms of my feet are filthy, but that’s what wearing flip-flops in a damp subway station will do for you. Alas, none of these things are chatter-worthy.

The fact is that I am Korean, but really, a fake one. Being adopted at the wee age of four months, with a Midwestern German-Catholic mom, I speak no Korean, except for “Hello”, “How are you”, “Thank you” and “fart”: the little I retained in a pamphlet (“fart” was learned from a twelve year old) on a chance journey to Seoul.

Twelve years later, the pamphlet learning is a bit rusty and I can count to ten in German: I am neither immersed (nor embraced) in either Nature’s or Nurture’s worlds. I must say, I do feel some relief if the manicurists are Chinese, as then I am not expected to converse in my “native” tongue and we all leave well enough alone. But even that has a caveat: the adoption agency speculated my birthfather may have been Chinese, but, that’s a different story and all too vague to even talk about.

Most of the time, I just happen to pick those darn Korean nail shops and when I perform the uncouth non-reaction to their friendly inquiries and banter (all in Korean, of course), I get the whole quizzical pity routine. In resigned embarrassment, I slump further in my seat and disappear into the latest Lindsay-Paris-Britney disaster.

Sometimes I am not let off so easily and become the victim of some friendly interrogation: “Lalalalalala-oh?” (Huh?) “Lalalalalala-oh!” (I don’t understand.) “You Korean, yes?” (Yes.) Again, “Lalalalala-oh?” (I’m sorry…) I am a nice shade of pink now; a few curious eyes look up from the tabloid pages: Is she rude? Is she stupid? “Ahhh, you no uh-speak-eh Kah-lee-en.” Then she has an epiphany and triumphantly exclaims even louder: “You born here!” This offers her and all of the others a suitable excuse for my Eastern cultural ineptitude: I’m an ignorant, americanized brat of privilege. (Actually, I was born in Seoul. I came here at four months of age.) At this point, my answers become so low and quiet, they are almost inaudible. Hers however, boom in annunciation and contrast to my discomfort: A not-so-funny comedy of errors. “Where your parent at – they in Korea?” (Uh, yeah…I think so…) She misses the subtlety of the last part: “When you go visit them?” My feeble attempts to be polite enough to answer her inquiries, while retaining a sense of anonymity are failing miserably…(I went to Seoul about thirteen years ago.)

“You see your parent thirteen year ago!” Scowls and gasps ripple down the line. I hear low decibel gossip rumbling. Sweat beads are on my nose, now. My relaxation is melting in the foot tub along with my heel calluses.

Here comes the climax and the end, as I hiss through gritted teeth: “I. Am. Adopted.”

By now, the entire salon knows about me and my angst about being a “banana” – a Chinese friend summed the phrase up to me one night over cocktails: I’m “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” My pedicurist pityingly pats my leg and just smiles a curious little smile. I am irritated and slightly angry now and cannot enjoy the calf massage. Why don’t they ask the hard-ass black woman with the size eleven feet next to me if she speaks African, and then chastise her if she does not? Why doesn’t the blonde girl with the iPod and yoga mat get the third degree about when she last saw her parents? For them and everyone else (including Koreans who speak Korean and Chinese who speak Chinese) a pedicure is simply, a pedicure. There is minimal conversation, minimal interest. For me, perhaps it’s their opportunity for a first-hand view into an more-American-than-Asian American’s life: accent-free and void of cultural resonance and richness; having the audacity (and inward guilt) of having “your own people” massage your tired and dirty, roughened feet. I can’t help but notice the running trend within Asian culture of willingly abandoning one’s own: blonde Pamela Anderson-esque girls in Tokyo, Ghetto-fabulous Filipino rapper girls with “booty.” These are two extreme, but existing examples of Asians not really into being Asians and fascinating parodies of popular culture. I am the polarity of this: longing for that ability to communicate and identify with the obvious of who I am.

The latex exam gloves snap off, literally: I guess these days, you can never be too careful. She helps me down from my footbath throne and carries my shoes and handbag to the manicure table. No more questions now, we are in our own comfortable worlds of real-Asian/fake-Asian, manicurist/customer.

Now I come armed and prepared for these encounters. I really work the coy and enigmatic “I speak a little bit” now, when I am asked, “If I speak-eh any Kah-lee-en?” THEN I quickly slump into my seat and dive into the magazine, giving un-averted attention to nonsense, while hiding my sheepish little smile…it works brilliantly for me. The chatter and laughter usually stops. (Yeah, yeah…good idea: let them think I am antisocial, as opposed to ignorant.) The leg pat comes only when it is supposed to, when the lotion gets slathered on my legs at the end of the pedicure. There is no illicit gossip and commentary: “What if she…UNDERSTANDS us?”

This parachute has holes in it, as the Asian-affinity-thing often extracts intimate and public details about if I am married (yes) who is my hubby and what does he do (he’s a sometimes-irritating-mostly-nice guy and a lawyer), what is his race (white), how are our economics (fine, but could always be better in NYC), do we have any children (twin two-year-olds), why am I so thin (good luck). And of course, those issues of my background and its voids always are a factor in the equation. Nonetheless, in the end, the strategy is sound enough.

The plain truth is that you don’t have to maneuver the mechanics of language, to understand universal logic. The rude woman yelling into her cell phone, smudging her nails carelessly only to have them repainted twice, while holding up the five-person wait when there are not enough chairs and outdated magazines to go around doesn’t require an interpreter. It’s understood in all of our minds:

“Move along, crazy bitch…”

And so do we all.

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