Yesterday I went for a manicure and pedicure. I don’t go often, but my toenails were looking gnarly so it was long overdue. I’ll admit, I feel a bit guilty sitting up in the spa chair like some kind of princess while someone bends over my feet. I always try to be respectful. I don’t ignore them. I experiment whether they want to talk or not. The last time I went, I heard the life story of a young woman (my technician) who was an undocumented child in Vietnam, and passed from house to house and never felt wanted.
This time, I had a young woman named Ruby. She was pretty and she welcomed conversation. I asked her about the old men that work there, cleaning the foot spas after every customer. I told her I felt guilty that they should be retired but are doing that work. She said they make $100 a day and some of them like working. She began to tell me about how each of the technicians have to put in $6 a day to make up the money paid to the men. She also has to pay for her supplies used. And for every customer she finishes, she has to give 40% of the pay to the spa owner. Taxes are cut out and finally, she gets the remainder. She started throwing out numbers and doing the math so fast I just nodded, unable to keep up.
Her English was great and she opened up to me about her education. She grew up in Vietnam and graduated high school with honors, then went on to get a college degree. She got a job in a Korean business and was doing well. Then a friend of hers introduced her to a man who was in Vietnam looking for a wife.
We’ll call him George.
George has an interesting story as well. He was born in Korea and his mother was a concubine who died giving birth to him. His father died in a tragic accident a few years later. George went to live with different family members, moving house to house and paying his way with proceeds from his paper route. (Who knew Korea has paper routes?) One day George met an American family while he was out about town. They began to talk to him and felt like they were called to help him. Eventually, this family, who already had biological children, adopted him and brought him to America at age 14. They lived in Walhalla, South Carolina.
George grasped the English language quickly and did well in American school. He went on to graduate from Clemson University and landed a job working with the IRS. He married a Caucasian woman and they had three daughters, then divorced a few decades later.
But George wanted a son. So hence his trip to Vietnam to find an appropriate woman.
Ruby said that she had dinner with George and she was very nervous but he seemed like a kind man. She agreed to marry him and he brought her to Georgia. It was a complicated relationship at first because he was 25 years her senior, and only spoke Korean and English.
Ruby only spoke Vietnamese.
She spent her first few years going to school to learn English and watching movie after movie with subtitles, practicing. She was able to grasp speaking and reading quite well, but her comprehension with understanding people talking was slower. She knew she had to do better to get a job in her chosen career.
As the time went by she and George struggled to communicate with English, and Ruby missed her family and her home country. She also missed her career and the independence it gave her.
As she was about to take her third year of ESL, she became pregnant and George was overjoyed. However, he insisted she stay home to protect their unborn child. To her relief, the gave birth to a son and George was over the moon. He wanted his son to have his mother at every moment, so she stayed home with him and put aside her need to learn and to work. They traveled often and the first years were good, though she admitted that she doesn’t really like to travel.
Then Ruby’s father had a heart attack and she was sent back to Vietnam to care for him. Her son stayed in the states with his dad, George. Her father passed away after some weeks and Ruby returned to the states. The time away from George and her son made her realize that she needed something other than being a wife and mother. She decided then that she must work so that she could gain back some independence.
With her English comprehension struggling, she fell into the same job as many of the young women in her community. She became a nail technician.
Ruby said it was easy money and offered her the gift of being independent and having friends to talk to. By this time George was retired and he looked after their son while she worked. Her marriage began to suffer because George didn’t, and still doesn’t, approve of her need to be independent. Also with George’s responsibilities to the (now grown) children of his first marriage, it complicated things even more.
There was much turmoil and Ruby said she moved out. Then back in. Then out again. They continue to have problems but she claims that he is a wonderful father and a good man. Their issues, she says, stems from the large age difference they have and the different mindset that causes.
One day Ruby’s parents came from Vietnam to visit and arrived at the spa she worked at. They expected to see her as a manager but when they came in, Ruby was hovered over some less-than-pleasant feet and when her parents saw what she was doing, they ran outside and cried. Their cherished, intelligent and college-educated daughter had fallen. At least in their eyes.
It was so heart-breaking to hear Ruby tell her story. But she said other than disappointing her parents, she was happy. She asked me what I do and I told her I write novels. She broke out in a huge smile and said “that’s why you are so curious!”
Ruby also told me that she loves to read and has her own library card. She said her son also likes to read. He’s 10 now and quite handsome. (I saw pics) He’s a top student and can speak English and Korean, and is studying French. He plays the piano and the violin, and he and his father travel all over the world.
Our session ended and Ruby thanked me for letting her tell her story. I asked her if I could write about her and she blushed and agreed, then thanked me. She wrote down my name and insisted she was going to look me up at the library. I paid and of course, left her a big tip. (in cash as they prefer) Usually I dread the pedicure process. With my auto-immune it’s painful and with my busy mind, it’s hard to sit still. But this time, because of Ruby, I thoroughly enjoyed my hour there.
If you’ve stayed with me this long, thank you. And next time you stop in for a pedicure, please remember that just like Ruby, the young woman bent over your feet could be just as educated as you, and without a doubt has her own story.