I honest to god don’t know what I was thinking when I flew out to Oahu to see Lan Vo in late September, two years ago. Seemed like I was just another Asian-American nut chasing gold (because gold and jewelry is what you should be carrying with you in any revolution — better to barter with than paper money) and like my mother, I was just looking for a shortcut in life. Because we were small women, minorities in the carbon footprint of Sagan’s pale blue dot, and to a lot of people that meant we didn’t matter — but the women in my life had the fortitude to look for any means necessary to show that we did matter.
That we do matter.
Even if it meant paying some witch, who could very well be a scam artist, large sums of money, to help us be seen.
Honolulu. A picture perfect postcard of the clearest waters you ever saw— — marred by anxious waving flags calling the Chinese tourists back to their busses to head to Waikiki for their luau dinner.
My dear, sweet friend, Brendon, who was half-Japanese and half-white, had hated growing up in Oahu. All he ever wanted was to escape the 44×30 mile wide island prison, where he was bullied for being gay. It was the kind of toxic masculinity where he couldn’t tell if they wanted to fuck him or kill him.
Brendon eventually escaped around 2012 and found himself in the little emerald city of Seattle on the west coast. It was as far west as one could go in America that wasn’t Cape Flattery. He and I met a few years later, after my own journey back up the west coast — after I had grown sick of the smoky desert of Los Angeles, the four quadrants of Portland, and the rolling hills of San Francisco. Brendon and I had met through our mutual friend, Alex, and we instantly thought the other was batshit crazy but an absolute riot to be around. The friendship began over surface level things like Animal Crossing, anime, bitching about the Seattle dating scene, how both of us had been estranged from our own blood families.
I had asked Brendon to come with me on this trip to Honolulu to see the infamous psychic, Lan Vo. He politely declined by saying, “I’m never going back to that armpit shit-stained island.” That concluded the conversation. I instead corralled Julie, Dana and Alex to make the journey with me under the guise of a “yas queen, girls’ trip.” Complete with mai tais and instagrammable yoga poses.
In reality I was crying myself to sleep every night. Afraid that no matter how hard I fought it, life was rendering me catatonic. Depression had begun to take root, around the same age as it did for my mother, and it was a hole I couldn’t climb out of. I couldn’t help but see the world from the bottom of the ocean, unable to break through the surface. The breakup with Ric didn’t help, of course. (It did however, permanently deter me from British men.)
I wanted Brendon to go with me to Honolulu because I didn’t want to be the lone crazy Asian tourist that flew in to see the crazy Asian psychic lady. I wanted Brendon to show me his hometown, the real Honolulu. I didn’t realize that while I was at the bottom of my ocean, he had been also drowning in his own ocean that was so unreachable that he couldn’t even see the surface. I wouldn’t know about it until five months later, after I saw Lan Vo, and after I began to pick up the pieces from my depression that had lasted a Seattle winter.
In the early hours of January 27th, 2018, I received the news that Brendon had taken his own life.
I, of course, have a horrible penchant for laughing awkwardly in times of shock. When I received the news from a friend, my immediate thought was, could I have saved Brendon somehow? I have grieved for months, years, decades, light-years, and many reboots of Star Trek later and I still don’t know the answer to that. All I know is that he had finally escaped this armpit shit-stained world. Maybe we’ll meet again, when I make my own journey north again, this time towards a different little emerald city.
I have been haunted by the tsunami of grief, I am haunted by Brendon’s face in bathroom mirrors, and I have been haunted by the possibility of what Brendon would have asked Lan Vo if he ever had the chance. And if that one question that haunted him, would have saved him.
“You pick color. Yes?”
The woman spoke to me in broken English, as she haphazardly waved towards the hundreds of nail polish bottles pinned crookedly on the wall, lined up, execution style. Each bottle representing the failed dream of every immigrant woman that had arrived in Honolulu, I thought at the nail salon I had visited in the middle of my trip.
I knew the nail salonist was Vietnamese. I could tell from how thick her hair was. It was like black rope and her eyes were like my mother’s, and her mother’s, and her mother’s mother before hers. Mostly, I saw what my future daughter’s eyes could look like one day — if I am ever fortunate to experience motherhood, that is.
I didn’t want to let her catch on that I was Vietnamese-American. That hyphen allocated me the privilege that allowed me to sit across the table from her. I’d rather let her believe I was Korean, Japanese, or, the worst in her mind, Chinese.
“I have a design in mind,” I said as I pulled out my iPhone and showed her a saved screenshot of the design — black nails, half-moon style, minimalistic but practical. Of course, the ring finger was a different color, gold glitter. She quickly glanced at it and nodded, the same apathetic nod she gave to all the broken-hearted travelers before her.
“Half moon. Yes.”
She snapped her fingers at her middle-aged coworker next to her, who was already preoccupied with removing the gel from the crusty yellowed nails of an overly tan, elderly, Russian woman, who was busy rapidly speaking Russian into her cellphone. She barked “black, half-moon” in Vietnamese at her, in a militaristic way. Without skipping a beat, the other woman gave a slight nod, with the side cluck of disapproval — something my mother had given me my entire life, even as I reluctantly inched towards turning 30.
“Black is the color of witches,” she said in Vietnamese to the other woman, as they both uproariously cackled, neither of them bothering to assume that I was Viet and that I could understand them. My eyes looked too American and soft for them. And perhaps I was a witch too.
The woman finished up the Russian lady’s nails and gestured towards the empty chair next to her.
I sat down and routinely stuck out my hands, careful not to look her in the eyes, as I always did when I walked into any west coast nail salon that had a 99.999% estimate of being run by Vietnamese immigrant women. I didn’t want them to know. Maybe it was the guilt. Or the fact that my spoken Vietnamese wasn’t that great and I was embarrassed to be called out on it.
As she started preparing my nails, attacking my cuticles first, she began her curated rolodex of conversation she gave to tourists to help her improve her English. I told her I was from Seattle and on a birthday weekend with some girlfriends.
She looked up and gave a genuine, cheerful look. Something about how genuine that smile was, made me feel that pang of guilt again as I watched someone who had the same eyes as my mother work a shitty job cleaning the nails of a privileged woman before her. That damned Asian guilt was akin to Catholic guilt. I didn’t know which was worse for the soul… or your wrinkles.
“Happy birthday! How old are you?”
“Thank you. I turned 28.”
“Wow! So young still! So beautiful! You stay in Waikiki? Party party?”
I gave a slight pause and waited for her to remove her eyes from mine again.
“I, ah, well, no, not here for Waikiki. I actually flew here to see Lan Vo.”
I paused. There. I braced for impact. “Do…you know her?”
Of course she fucking knew Lan Vo.
She stopped filing my nails and looked up and gasped, and gave the same lean inwards that all Asian women eager for more gossip did.
“You flew all the way here to see Auntie Lan?!” she exclaimed in half disgust and genuine curiosity. “How much is she charging these days?”
“$120,” I said sheepishly.
“For an hour?”
“I was only in there for 20 minutes.”
Her eyes could not have gotten wider. She rapidly started talking in Vietnamese to the rest of the salon. They had done Rain Man equivalent levels of mathematics that only a group of Asian women could do when trying to judge another Asian woman’s collective fortune.
“I see Auntie Lan is still doing well. 40 years later. Shit…making that kind of money.”
A chorus of bitter grumbles filled the air.
There we go. A compliment wrapped in a catty comment. My childhood growing up in Little Saigon, Orange County in a nutshell.
“So…” she said, unashamed, as her curiosity got the better of her. “What did you ask her?”
I genuinely laughed for the first time since I entered the salon. “Maybe I’ll tell you one day.”
She gave a slight smile. “You beautiful. You went to school. You are fine.”
I gave a half shrug in agreement. I didn’t want to argue with the woman before me. My privilege was flooding the salon and I knew my depression had no real place there. I didn’t want to tell her that I had had a moment of true irrationality, that I myself booked a last minute trip to Oahu to see this woman. Never mind that I chided my own mother for wasting money on psychics, scammers, frauds and soothsayers. — I was still my mother’s daughter at the end of the day, no matter how many states I lived apart or how many degrees I got.
My mother is the loneliest woman in the world. That loneliness is in me. My sister has that loneliness. I’m afraid to have a daughter one day because I’d be too afraid to watch her grow up with that loneliness in her.
Lan Vo — or colloquially known as Auntie Lan, on the little island of Oahu, was already a well-known celebrity on the island — who was gossiped about throughout the years at old school places like Duc’s Bistro in Honolulu’s Chinatown, where she made an appearance ten-ish years ago and scared the crap out of Duc, the owner, by touching her chest and saying that he had a scar hidden there, behind his comically large Ralph Lauren polo shirt. Duc panicked because there was a scar there, he had gotten open heart surgery years ago. Only his wife knew there was a scar there — and even then, that was too much.
Auntie Lan supposedly never came back to Duc’s Bistro after that night. (Nor was she ever invited back.)
I, of course, heard about this story from Duc’s son, Ian, who now runs the restaurant. We went to university together, way back in the day. Gossip was part of the currency in Honolulu, and the gossip passed from Duc to his son, Ian, who passed on the story to me, Alex, Dana and Julie when we went to Duc’s to catch up, just like old times, over lychee martinis. This wasn’t the first story that I had heard of Auntie Lan, the sweet little old Vietnamese lady that went around scaring the crap out of everyone on that little island.
And of course, Asian gossip is what turned Auntie Lan into Lan Vo, the celebrity psychic who reached the tallest skyscrapers in Hong Kong, where her presence permeated the offices of tightly wound executives and expats around the world, who would fly in to see her — for god knows what reason. What question would keep them up at all hours of the night? What question did they possibly have that would warrant making a journey around the world, to see a local psychic that lived off the Pali highway?
All searching for something because life could never seem to satisfy them.
I don’t know much about the businessmen that came to see Lan, but I knew what, secretly, all of the mothers who came to see Lan wanted to know. They wanted to know if their own lives had any meaning aside from raising their ungrateful children, remaining in loveless marriages, and escaping revolutions. Instead, they dutifully asked which universities their children would get into, which stocks to invest in, and which of their children would turn out more successful than their nieces and nephews.
Anyway, it had been six months of nursing a heartbreak when I came around to see Lan. I could still hear the exact moment my heart broke into a billion microscopic atoms of gin-and-tonic soaked pieces, when Ric broke up with me. I was looking for a way to break the ocean’s surface without a logical solution, just like my mother always does. While I was busy looking to make back-alley shortcuts with the universe, I had disregarded everyone else in my life. Including Brendon. He had scoffed at the idea of seeing Auntie Lan, but he loved me in an all encompassing, nonjudgmental way and supported my bat-shit crazy, even when he was locked in his own mind.
The day before I entered the nail salon, Dana and I walked into the gaudy white-marbled stoned mansion off the Pali highway, and then I waited patiently for 7 hours, watching the locals come and go. When the receptionist called me in, I trepidatiously entered the room and saw the sweetest little woman sitting across from me — with eyes just like my mother’s, and her mother’s, and her mother’s mother, and with the same thick black rope of hair.
I sat before Auntie Lan, unaware that nothing she said in that moment could have prepared me for what was to come in five months. The day I visited Lan Vo was five months before Brendon passed away; before Ric came back into my life wanting to marry me and I couldn’t think of the answer I wanted to give him; before I walked the streets of Notting Hill in London for the first time and tried my damndest to ignore my grief halfway around the world; before I cried so hard all my fake lash extensions fell off and I was too cheap to get them redone; before I decided to call my mother for the first time in months; before I attended Brendon’s funeral at Bonney Watson funeral home in Capitol Hill; before I decided to move back to the smokey desert of Los Angeles; before I drunkenly paid a psychic at a bar in Greenwich Village at 1 am to validate Lan Vo’s predictions. (She didn’t).
From one witch to another, I sat across from her and asked the question that has haunted me my entire life. The question that made me travel almost 3,000 miles to Brendon’s hometown, to elbow my way through the tourists, to float on my back on the clearest waters you really ever did see and wonder if what Lan Vo told me would ever come to fruition. I asked about the type of woman that I’ll become, if I’ll ever find love and if one day… if I’ll have a daughter — and if I would love that daughter the same way my mom loved me.
But no matter how far I’d traveled for answers and validation, nothing she told me could have predicted the amount of grief and loss that was on the horizon.
Which I guess brings me to this moment, back at the nail salon. The salonist picked up the Essie bottle of black matte polish and held it up to the light for me to inspect.
“You pick black? Yes?”
I looked at her, a small framed woman with hair like mine, thick black rope, with eyes like my mother’s and her mother’s and her mother’s mother.
Original artwork for “You Pick Color” by Max Lam.
Carolyn Huynh is a typical tech worker during the day and storyteller at night. Her work focuses on Asian-American identity, memoir short story writing, and she is currently working on a YA book. She calls Seattle home (for now). Her Twitter can be found here.