|Fairy Tales of Manhattan: Broken English (The Little Mermaid)
by Julie Baumgold
"Take off rings now," Ning said.
Her client, Judy, put her rings on the table and her left hand in the small dish of warm soapy water. Ning picked up her right hand and ran the emery board across the tips of the bare nails and then over the nail bed to rough them up.
She took out her box of false nails, sorted by width, and matched each one to one of Judy's nails which were weak and brittle and very short. She was wearing a paper mask over her nose and mouth now. She glued the nails on both hands until Judy had ten "dragon lady" talons, as Judy thought of them. Ning clipped each one down and began to file.
Sometimes Judy, who had a standing appointment, talked to her– often complaints about her nails or her life, and Ning would find herself lost on the river of words. Today she was quiet for most of the whole ninety minutes. Ning wanted her clients to talk, she wanted them to name and explain things.
She sat mute, bent over their hands and sometimes horrible chicken feet, white and black, doing her job. She did the extra services—silk wrapping, nail art, waxing and, when they put their head into the leather ring on the massage chair, she would massage their necks and backs for ten minutes.
Often when her clients were quiet, Ning thought of her daughter and son and what she might have for lunch, sometimes back to the decisions that had placed her here in this room full of women at Mermaid Nails on 47th Street. Her co-workers were her sisters now, never replacing those she left behind in her village in China.
She sat at the table where Jessie had sat. Jessie, born Ruirong, had studied at La Guardia Community College and moved on to a high prestige job explaining Chinese business etiquette to Americans. She was an inspiration to the women in the room as was Li who owned the salon. Li was from Shanghai, a rich boss but nice and sometimes unhappy in her private face.
The new girls would come to Li who asked them "Do you want me to pick a name for you?" Everything is new. A new name, a new life. She would not ask too many questions.
"How beautiful!" said Judy holding out her hand stiffly with the long pink oval shaped nails "You are the best, Ning." She placed her hands under the ultra violet light where a fan blew them dry. Ning unwrapped a hard candy for her.
"I will see you when I am back from Florida in two months."
Li, the owner, helped Judy on with her coat, noting the Emporio Armani label.
|Li's father, a peasant from the North, had been an officer in Mao's army. Her mother, from a rich family, had her large house taken away in the Cultural Revolution and they were treated as criminals with banners denouncing them hanging in their street. As a child Li was sent to a commune in the country where she ate only rice, slept on mats on the earth, grew vegetables and married young. Her husband beat her but it was hard to divorce him until he broke her nose and she found a female judge. She operated a tractor building houses, got her accounting degree at night school and eventually opened a small factory in Wuxi with twenty workers making electrical meters. In 1990 she left her business and her daughter to come to San Francisco. She did not even know how to say "Excuse me" or "Thank you" in English.
She lied to the owner of a Chinese restaurant, who mistook her for a student, saying she spoke a little English and he gave her a job as a bus girl working from 10 in the morning until ten thirty at night seven days for $250 a week. She cleaned the floors and cleared the plates and cut vegetables for the dumplings and eggrolls. The restaurant was carpeted but she ran so much that she broke her sneakers in a month, this lady from Shanghai who had achieved her own business. She studied English for two hours before work and until three in the morning in a room where she had to turn sideways to open the door.
Li found corners or ran into the bathroom in the restaurant to cry but she saved her money and came to New York and looked for a job washing hair. She said she had done it before. The water ran all over the floor. In Chinatown she found an ad in the paper, another Shanghai woman offering to teach manicures for $300 and she learned how to file and apply color. She went from place to place, sometimes for $25 a day, later for $50 plus tips working for a strict Korean man. There she had to sit straight, back to the wall, straight face, not speaking to the other girls, not walking around or going outside. Her English improved by speaking to the customers and, by unpacking cartons of products, she learned the names of the suppliers. Three girls, one of them was Jessie, offered to go with her if she opened her own place. She knew she was could do it because she was good at business, had learned about people and believed she had a good heart.
She was the mermaid swimming up to the far light of the new world, knowing she had done it all herself. She had dressed her daughter Hannah better than the other students, given her everything she could and, when she was eighteen, brought her from Shanghai and made her take up nursing.
The people who worked for Li and her customers seem to like her and she was lucky to have gotten a nice apartment in Queens, a little white dog and a mink coat. She had streaks of blond in her dark hair. But Li feels that she has not had a good life. She has not had the love.
|One afternoon Li, as a favor, left the salon to hear Jessie speak about Chinese business etiquette. Jessie, had improved her looks and was well dressed with an expensive looking bag and shoes.
Li already knew everything Jessie was saying because she had lived it. Now her business was American in this different world where she had placed her angry daughter, maybe too late.
Jessie was saying that the Chinese judge a person by how he dresses, that one must greet the senior person in the group first. The subordinate must be introduced by a third person and must learn to wait, sometimes weeks or months, to be introduced to the desired person. The top person speaks first and is never corrected. In China friendship implies obligation. Business continues over dinner where many deals get done. You cannot refuse to ganbei and must drink the whole glass of wine. The oldest sits in the chair facing south, the youngest opposite, each with people of their age around them, women sit next to their men now. If two are in the same position, the older one is on the right. The Chinese person, afraid of losing face, will not tell you when he does not understand and will hedge if he knows you will not like the answer. Frankness and direct questions are rude. "I will think about it" and "I will try" means "no." The Chinese work in a group. They are on time and finish before the deadline. Touching is uncommon.
Li thought of her women touching, touching all day long–all the hands and feet Jessie once had picked up and scraped and rubbed and polished. Jessie, sitting, masked against the chemicals in the air, holding alien hands.
Losing interest, for none of this mattered to her now, Li looked around the small room.
If a woman has a lot of eye contact and facial expression, Jessie was saying, she is defined as a degraded person and no man will want to marry her. The Chinese business person does not use a lot of expression or gesture and stands close when talking. At a Chinese home one must not touch anything without permission. The guest must try each dish and leave something on the plate.
She did not know if Jessie should be telling all these true things. In China, Jessie, expelled from Shanghai Normal University because she was active in the student Revolution of 1989, had finally been allowed to graduate, but she was tainted. She had had to work for a Japanese cosmetics company as a spokesperson touring to put their products in the big Chinese department stores before she came here.
Jessie's English had improved but still was not that good. If she closed her eyes, Li would know from all the dropped articles, that Jessie was Shanghai Chinese. The students here were not impressive and badly dressed.
After the speech, an American man approached Li. He was younger than she and looked like the actor Johnny Depp in the gossip magazines she kept for her customers. Li quickly saw appreciation in his foreign eyes. It was the look of her little jumping dog whenever she returned to the apartment in Queens.
This Caucasian man had dark hair flopping down on his forehead and very pale skin. Li liked his hands and his good quality leather jacket. She thought of him for Hannah, her daughter, though Hannah's only thought was of going home to China, leaving nursing, and taking business courses.
This man invited Li to have a cocktail in the lounge next door and she accepted. He told her he worked as a steward for American Airlines. He wanted to know more about how to behave with Chinese business people because he had some plans. He told her he was a Jewish man. Some of Li's customers were Jewish. She knew that Hannah did not like the Jewish people but she never knew why. Hannah would not like this man.
Li found herself explaining her business to this man and how she knew Jessie from the time Jessie worked for her and how she hoped to open another nail place uptown for she had plans too. Li sipped her sweet cocktail and swished her legs around under the table and pulled her mink coat onto her shoulders and then shrugged it off in the dark bar where he kept looking at her.
From what he was saying he was about her age though they both looked younger. He had never married. He asked her to dinner that night, he was flying out the next morning.
|When Judy came back from her condo in Vero Beach, Mermaid Nails was just the same but Li the owner had gone.
Ning told her that Li now lived in Vermont with her new husband and had opened a small convenience store.
Li missed her two rooms full of women, the soft murmuring voices of the girls with their customers, the laughter, the smells of lotions and polishes, the swirling waters of her electrified foot baths, the bent heads of her workers and their chatter in Mandarin which is what she spoke and Cantonese for those from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Then too, there had been her Spanish girls and the Malaysians all of them wearing her black polo shirts saying "Mermaid Nails" in her own hard- earned seabed. She had made a colored chart for them so the girls knew which days they had to come in early or stay late taking turns keeping the supplies, keeping everything very clean.
Li missed the customers —the hospital workers and bartenders and business women and the housewives taking a broken nail as a tragedy. She missed all her girls with their new American names that she had brought in.
There was warmth and moisture always in the air, the special moisture of women's places like the courts of the Emperors of China and Japan and maybe the harems of the East long ago with their baths and floating lotus pools. Her new mother in law, who she had finally met in Florida, had told her that the Jewish women had their own baths too.
Li had sold all this to live up in the north with the man who was kind to her most times when he was home. He was often away on flights and layovers, for now he worked on private planes and leased jets.
Up here it was so cold, the woods sharp black and crackling with ice shards, the steering wheel of the too big car frozen to the touch even through her gloves. None of the faces were Asian people. She felt more foreign than those first days of banishment to the farm in China, or San Francisco with the boss scolding her in Cantonese and the other girls laughing at her ignorance, she, the boss who had run her own factory in Wuxi with equipment she brought from Shanghai.
Her daughter Hannah, hating her husband from the first, had returned to Shanghai without any fuss from Li, who knew this had to be. Hannah had reunited with her father, the husband who had beaten her.
For the first time, however, Li knew love. Her daughter was an ache from far away, a storm and a pain not to heal. There would always be the distance. With her husband she understood why she had crossed the oceans and the continents. It was so that he could cross the small classroom to her in her mink coat with her hair that was Chinese with long strands of almost blond.
For more on Julie, visit juliebaumgold.com