the saigon turtle


Sunday we set out to do our Christmas shopping, but before we hit the merchants I took advantage of Keaton’s nap and headed up to get my haircut. A while back I switched hair cuttery from the Singaporean-run place I used to frequent to a place closer to home. As I’ve been going there for a while now, I’ve developed likings and dislikings for certain members of the staff there. For instance, through the luck of the draw, I had learned that one of them in particular, an older Vietnamese gentleman, was super-slow and not very friendly. (Now, I swear, I really don’t have anything against Southeast-Asian cutters-of-hairs… this just happens to be a coincident.) Needless to say, when my turn came up today and he was motioning me to sit down in his chair, I was disappointed.

Now, let me give you a little side-info about me and haircuts (haircuts and I?). For me, the “goodness” of a haircut, or haircutter, is measured in speed. I am willing to get a slightly less-than-perfect haircut if it only takes me 5min from door to chair and back to door again. It’s not that I hate haircuts, I just see them as a huge waste of time. I’ve often thought I should learn how to give myself the ridiculously simple haircut I request each time I go in, and save the time and $16 every other week. So, you can see how, speed being my chief concern, getting saddled with the Saigon Turtle was a crushing blow. Despite this though, I reacted as a gentleman and sat down for what I guessed would be a ~20min “#2 on the sides, #8 on top” trim.

“Ready for the holidays?” He asked, his accent thick and unusually difficult for me to understand.
“Yeah, I am, how about you?” I replied cordially.
“Yeah. I’m going to ‘City X.'”
“Oh, that’ll be nice,” I say. “Myself, my wife and daughter are all headed to Oregon.”

Here he spoke two or three complete sentences in broken english over the buzz of the clipper, and I nodded and smiled having not understood a single word. As we continued to exchange niceties, his words gradually became easier to understand, as is often the case when talking with those who have accents. Soon I could understand him as easily as anyone else. Moreover, I began to enjoy talking to him. And, he wasn’t cutting my hair slow, either. He was smiling and laughing and making pleasant conversation, and I was enjoying myself. And then, he said the following, which is the whole reason I’m writing this:

“You know, I just moved here three years ago. From Vietnam.”
“Oh?” I ask rhetorically.
“Yes,” he affirms, “All my life my dream had been to come to America; this is the best country in the whole world.”
I smile at him in the mirror, and let him continue.
“In Vietnam, I was a lawyer.”
“A lawyer?” I ask, thinking I may have misheard him.
“Yes, a lawyer.” He pauses, as if remembering.
“People have asked me, ‘Why don’t you go to school here, become a lawyer here?’ I tell them, by the time I graduate, I would be 70. I’m 61 now.”

I’m looking at this man, cutting my hair for his share of $13 and my $3 tip, and imagining him in a suit and tie carrying a briefcase into some Vietnamese courtroom.

“You know,” he continues, “You can do anything here. In America, if you like to work hard, you can make money – anyone can make money.”
I smile, waiting for him to finish.
“Before I was a lawyer, I fought in the Vietnamese war. I fought against the South. Three years, I was a lieutenant. I was captured in 1967 and spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp.”

Holy shit. Here is a 61 year-old former Viet Cong lieutenant, a POW-camp survivor, and former lawyer – and he’s cutting my hair. What’s more, he seemed so happy to be doing it. As I left, I wished him a good Thanksgiving in City X with his sister (who is a doctor), and he wished me and my family well in Oregon.

The whole exchange had an impact on me. I don’t think of America like that often enough, the kind of America you that the immigrants in movies and on TV talk about. For some people, that is the only America they know – and for the rest of us who’ve known no different, it can be easy to be blind to it. So, Lieutenant, I apologize for unfairly characterizing you as “that slow old guy who takes too long to earn my $3,” you deserved better. Thanks for telling me your story.

Goodnight.


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