We start off 2017 — and Year #2 of OUT OF THE MARGINS (!) — with emerging writer Rachel Dinh’s essay-portrait of a mother and daughter, negotiating and navigating intergenerational gaps of understanding that will feel familiar to those of us who have spent our growing years witness to cultures-in-transition. With realism, compassion, and a gentle humor, Rachel captures the liminal space of being an Asian/American female in carefully etched vignettes — from life lessons received from a chair in her mother’s beauty parlor, to the irony of being named after a TV sitcom star’s famous haircut, to the rebellion of tattoos and hidden rice cookers. Find more on Rachel Dinh here.
I am eleven when I first ask Ma why she chose the name.
“Shouldn’t it be Kim’s No. 1 Hair Salon?” I ask as she peels the clear layer away from the white block stickers. Every two years on the eve of Tết, she retrieves the metal stepladder from the supply closet and reapplies fresh lettering.
“Everyone wants to be Number One. Two is better than one! Don’t you know? Now, hold the ladder still.” She climbs down one step at a time and takes a step back with her hands on her hips.
“A little crooked, huh. Better next time.”
The summer I turn twelve, I nearly kill someone in Las Vegas. We’re staying at the Mandalay Bay because Ma has a customer whose cousin scored us a discount suite. My younger brother Vincent is slow cooking with Ma in the Jacuzzi, while I venture into the tidal pool. I go in slowly at first, letting the motor-generated waves draw me in. They’re pulling me farther and farther until my feet can’t reach the cement floor. I go under, gulping water and flailing my arms to grab a hold of something. They latch on to the head of the black boy next to me. I push his head down in the water, trying to lift myself above the waves. He struggles under me, gurgling what are probably screams of surprise and distress. When the lifeguard on duty finally rips my hands off of him and drags me out of the pool, I look over his shoulder, searching for the boy I didn’t mean to drown. Even though my lungs are on fire, all I can think about is the sensation of the boy’s hair against my palms. I’d never felt hair like it. His curls were tight and rough, formed close together. Nothing like my own limp hair.
Later, after we’ve left Vegas and I am sitting in the waiting area of Kim’s No. 2, I am still fixated on his hair. I look around the waiting area. There is a napping old man and a girl a little older than me searching through the stacks of magazines I am charged with keeping organized on the coffee table.
“Why don’t you have any black customers?” I ask Ma.
She doesn’t look up from the head of the patron in front of her.
“They go to their own people and we go to ours.”
I’m not sure I understand what she means or if this is a sufficient answer, but I nod and return to my tabloids.
In church, Ma does her taxes. She handles the receipts and sums low in the pew close by her side so no one else can see, turning them over when we have to stand for the readings. I try her method with my copy of The Woman Warrior but she smacks my hand. “Pay attention,” she hisses. The chanted prayers swell in perfect unison, sprinkled throughout with the occasional foreign phrase. There is no Vietnamese word for Pontius Pilate. Old women fan themselves as the waning Los Angeles sun beats through the stained glass windows. I envy the sleeping toddler curled up on the pew in front of me who uses the stack of paperback hymnbooks as a pillow.
Later, after mass, I suffer through each of my mother’s weekly meet-and-greets in the church parking lot. “This is your daughter?” They all seem to ask. Who else would I be? Ma nudges me to bow low to the appropriate elders. I remember the time she bowed during my first parent teacher conference and cringe. When we get in the car, I lean my head against the cool glass of the passenger seat window.
“Ma, why do you make us go to church every Sunday? I don’t think God takes attendance.”
She shoots me a threatening look.
“Can I at least go to the English mass? Jennifer’s parents let her go to the English mass.”
“English priest is no good. He just tells stories to entertain.”
Vincent leans forward from the backseat and sticks his head between us.
“Hey, Ma. When you were younger, were you prettier than Rachel?”
He takes pleasure in asking Ma provocative questions to hear her unpredictable responses.
“Yes,” She winks at him through the rearview mirror. “And skinnier too.”
“What’s ‘bazinga’?” she asks as Vincent and I spoon soup into our mouths between laughter. We look at each other.
“You wouldn’t get it,” I say, getting up from the couch to put my bowl in the sink. She follows me to the kitchen and stirs the pot on the stove. She lifts the ladle to her lips. After smacking them a bit, she adds a dash of fish sauce and sugar, not bothering with measurements.
“You should learn how to cook before you go away to college. What kind of girl doesn’t know how to cook? When I was your age, I was always helping Bà Ngoại in the kitchen. What a shame,” She says.
“I have to study,” I lie, drying my hands on the kitchen towel.
“You’re like a white girl. They don’t know how to cook,” She says, turning back to the steaming pot. “You hear that, Vincent?”
He doesn’t bother answering. Vincent and his Jewish girlfriend Gilly have been dating since the eighth grade.
“You guys need to call Bà Ngoại. She just got out of the hospital.”
“You know I can’t. She doesn’t understand English.”
“Well, can you write it down for me?”
“You speak Russian and Indian, but you can’t speak your own mother tongue? What’s wrong with you?”
“Hindi,” I mutter. “And be thankful I don’t have an accent. You can’t be a politician with broken English.”
“Bắc Phương’s son is a lawyer and he speaks Vietnamese.”
“Yeah, well good for him.”
My last semester of high school, Ma tells me the full story of how she bought Kim’s No. 2 cheap after the last owner, a friend of hers from cosmetology school, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.
“That cheating jerk husband of hers caused it. He kept her up all night. She stopped eating and sleeping because of him. No wonder! So sad, so sad,” She explains, shaking her head as she sweeps the hair bits on the floor into a small hill. I don’t bother telling her that isn’t how one gets pancreatic cancer. In the universe according to Kim Nguyen, a storefront facing a body of water means bad business and a beauty mark under the eye brings a lifetime of sadness.
When I show her my future roommate’s profile picture, she points to the little brown dot on her cheek.
“Why didn’t her mother take her to get it removed?”
“Ma, she’s not Vietnamese. She’s Korean. They don’t believe in crazy stuff like you,” I say, taking my phone back from her. “Plus, I think it’s super pretty…Natalie Portman has one.”
I do a quick Google search and show her as I settle myself into the hairdressing chair. It’s the same chair she used before she took over this location, when her salon was a part time operation she ran out of our old house’s garage. She used to use the foot pump so the top of my head could reach her chest, but now I am tall enough that she doesn’t have to.
“I want my hair like hers,” I say. “Can you make it like that?”
“Asian hair can’t do that,” She says, dampening my hair with a spray bottle. “When was the last time you washed your hair? So greasy! I told you not to condition your roots. That’s how your hair falls out. Just the ends. Like making a pony tail.” She gathers my hair to demonstrate. “Have you talked to your roommate? Is she bringing the rice cooker?”
“Ma, no one brings a rice cooker to college. That’s so fobby. I’m not gonna make the whole hall smell like rice.”
“Okay, but don’t cry when you want rice and you don’t have any. I’ll just say I told you so.”
She slathers on the light brown color I’ve worn since the first grade and cuts it the usual way, in layers framing my face. It’s the haircut she named me after – The Rachel. I wonder if she’s ever watched the show.
That summer, we return to Vegas and the Mandalay Bay. I know it is foolish, but I cannot help myself from scanning the crowd for the boy with the rough hair. I am lying down on a lounge chair with an arm over my eyes when I feel Ma’s hand jerk the side of my shirt up.
“What is this?” She demands. I tug my shirt down but it’s too late. She has already spotted the two columns of Chinese characters trailing down the side of my ribcage. The surrounding skin is still red from my recent trip to the parlor on Venice Boardwalk.
She repeats her question. She is so angry she refuses to accommodate me in English.
“It’s the Apostle’s Creed,” I say, trying to keep my voice level.
“Tattoos are for low-class girls,” She says. Or maybe a closer translation is trash.
“First, of all, you’re perpetuating the oppression of female bodies. Second of all, I did it for myself. It’s a form of self-expression.”
She grabs my arm and digs her acrylic nails into my flesh. She looks like she wants to hit me. I yank my arm back and take a few steps back.
“I can’t! What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s a Catholic prayer! You should be proud.”
“Một ngàn năm cai trị của Trung Quốc. Một trăm quyền cai trị của Pháp.
One thousand years ruled by the Chinese. One hundred ruled by the French,” She repeats the axiom in English. “You have their words carved into your skin. Proud? Why would I be proud?”
She stares at me hard before turning to walk away, as if I am no longer of interest to her. As I stand there alone, I realize how hard I am breathing and look around at the puzzled pool loungers. I make my way over to the tidal pool, mostly because I don’t know what else to do. I plunge into the water and let myself sink to the bottom, tracing my fingers over the black ink on my side.
I believe in God, the Father almighty. Creator of heaven and earth…
I can only make it through the first verse before I have to propel myself upward, gasping for air.
As a sign of rebellion against my mother, I stop dying my hair. It isn’t until I move 3,000 miles away from Kim’s No. 2 Hair Salon that I let my natural black roots creep past the half-inch mark. I don’t tell Ma about this on our weekly two-minute phone calls, when she asks me if I am eating and studying enough. I also don’t tell her about the frat brothers who come up to me at parties and poke the bit of my tattoo that is visible above my jeans, asking, “Ni Hao Ma?” Or the fact that one month into my freshman year, I ordered a rice cooker on Amazon. She must have seen the charge, but did me the kindness of remaining silent.
Instead, when my mother finally visits me in New Jersey, she takes one look at me and pulls me by the shoulders.
“What have you done with your hair?” She asks, shaking her head. “Your beautiful color. Everyone sees the picture of you at the shop and says, ‘I want color like that.’ And look what you’ve done.”
She sits me down on in my kitchen and rips pages from my roommate Trish’s Crate and Barrel catalog, scattering the pages in a circle on the floor.
“They seized my razors and shears at the airport. Come,” Ma says. She instructs me to turn around and lowers my head into the sink. After adjusting the temperature to a moderate warm, she soaks my hair through, working her hands through my roots and split ends. She pauses to retrieve a pair of cooking scissors from one of our kitchen drawers, and guides my head from the kitchen sink to the circle of ripped pages. I can hear the scissors’ wet nicks as Ma maneuvers around me. Chunks of hair fall to the floor and my head begins to feel lighter. She cups her hands over my ears to steady it, checking for evenness. When she is done, she takes a step back. “There, better now.”
Rachel Dinh was born and raised in Los Angeles before pursuing a degree in Literary Criticism at the University of Pennsylvania. She previously worked as a tech reporter in Israel and continues to write on culture and innovation, but her favorite subjects specifically handle the complexities of Asian-American womanhood. Having recently graduated, this is Dinh’s artistic debut. She is currently in Vietnam, working on her upcoming auto-biographical novel.
This post is part of diaCRITICS’ Vietnamese American Literary Series, OUT OF THE MARGINS, launched in 2015-16. The series curates literary work from poets, writers and artists of Vietnamese-American and Vietnamese diasporic experience. Our mission is to create an inclusive, diverse, provocative, ongoing space for voices and visions from this community, thus bringing them out of the margins. Dao Strom is the series editor and curator.
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