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Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Philosopher-Therapist at the Nail Salon or Why Are You So White?



I was at the nail salon, that place where women go to indulge their beauty fantasies: a few bucks and your nails look pretty for a week, two weeks if you get the gel. Your life and finances may be going to hell in a hand basket. Your weight and mental health out of control. Even your hair may look like seaweed. At least one thing in your life, your nails, is under control if you go to the nail salon.

We were on Maui. The gel on my nails was at three weeks and starting to peel and taking the top several layers of my nails with it. So I went to a nail salon. This was not one of the spas in the fancy resorts but a nail salon in a strip mall, next to Long’s Drugstore, or the Hawaiian CVS. Still, removing the gel from my nails was going to cost $25.99 to remove and replace it with just a clear coat. But then a loaf of bread is about $10 on Maui, so the price list was not a big surprise.

The lovely young woman who was doing my nails was Vietnamese. She spoke very correct English and was quite talkative. She asked where I was from. When I told her Kentucky she asked what was the capital city. She asked how many places had I traveled. She also told me of the many places she wanted to see. Then, looking me square in the eye she said she wasn’t sure she wanted to see Kentucky.  “That’s one of those states with all the guns everywhere, isn’t it?” she asked. As she said how frightened she was of all the guns in parts of this country, I agreed there were a lot of guns. At the same time I tried to reassure her that her chances of being shot were not all that large. I felt like a hypocrite. Every day there are articles about more random shootings, accidental gun deaths, and other gun violence.

We changed the conversation and talked about languages. She asked me what languages I spoke. I was embarrassed to admit I speak only English. I told her I’d studied Latin in high school, taken German in college and also had studied Spanish for ten weeks because many members of our future daughter-in-law’s family speak Spanish. But I told her the truth--which is that I only speak English. She had an earnestness that somehow made me want to tell her the unvarnished, simple truth.

She then said, “Go back. What Latin language did you study in high school? Was it Italian or Spanish?”  I replied. “No, neither of those. I studied actual Latin.” And she asked, “Who speaks Latin?”  To which I had to admit, “”Only dead Romans. Even Catholic priests don’t generally speak Latin any more.”

Then she tried to teach me how to say her name. It’s one syllable, starts with an “N” and maybe an “h”, and ends with some sound on the roof of your mouth. I tried repeatedly to say her name. I thought I was making progress. Finally, Nhu smiled and said I’d done a good job but would never be able to pronounce it -- people who speak only English never can.

It was about that time Nhu was massaging my arm with lemongrass lotion that smelled divine. She stopped and looked at me, asking, “Why are you so white?”

Now I had not gone to a nail salon frequented primarily by African Americans. It’s true, as in most nail salons, the technicians primarily were of Asian descent. At this salon the staff apparently was from Vietnam. But I can’t say any of the staff were particular dark complected. Most of the customers were Caucasian. But also, most were in some state of tan or red from the sun.

I, on the other hand, am of the really white persuasion. I laughed and thought for a moment about how to respond. Again with that urge she evoked to just tell the simple truth I admitted,”I don’t tan.”

But some time has gone by since this nail salon visit. Since then, I’ve been trying to come up with a fitting response if someone should ever again ask me, “Why are you so white?”

The truth is really boring. I’m of German heritage. I was born a pale blonde. Originally I had some red highlights in my hair but those have long since faded to silver, making my hair an even paler shade.

I spent my teen years trying to turn my skin a darker shade, only to discover every summer that my skin would burn, blister, peel (sometimes repeatedly from the same sunburn) and then return to the same whiteness--or even more so. Freckles occasionally dotted the whiteness. By the time I was in my 20’s, being in the sun unprotected for even a few minutes resulted in sun hives.

Even the skin care products designed to artificially tan a person’s skin just cause mine to break out in hives. So to steal a George Carlin line, “I don’t try to tan. I just hope to stay even with flesh tone.”

But I have been trying to come up with a better response to the Nhu’s of the world who should ask that question. Here are the contenders so far.

The trendy horror movie version: “My mother was an albino. My father a vampire.”

The musical / philosophical version: “The cosmic baker took me out of the oven a little too soon.” (With credit to Jimmy Buffett and the “Fruitcakes” album.

The snide but clean version: “I shower with bleach every morning.”

You may have other contenders. If so, please share.

Epilogue:
When my delightful manicure was finished I asked the young woman named Nhu, since I could not properly pronounce her name, whom I should ask for if wanted to make an appointment with her for a manicure again. She promptly smiled and responded “Chloe”. I did visit Chloe / Nhu again and we had another delightful conversation while she again provoked me to consider a variety of issues and give truthful responses as she helped me to bring order to at least one aspect of my life.  Oh, and she also manicured my nails. A bargain at $25.99 plus large tip.