About five Asian women and two guys work at the nail salon next to Dairy Queen, and almost always, the two guys do my sister’s and my nails. We are not girly-girls, so we don’t go often, but when we do, the nail stylists recognize us. I think it’s because we look like twins; if only one of us goes, we inevitably are asked the whereabouts of the other. This time, the one called Paul buffs my chewed-up leftovers for hands and exclaims over my cuticles. At one point, he takes a phone call. “Can I help you?” He hmm-hmms, and his eyes flash. Punching the END button with a pinkie, he buffs faster and says to me, “…why not come in? She say, ‘Need an appointment’ ten minute for closing time. Like I am here to serve her.” I think I understand, mostly by the tone of voice. My sister has a better grasp of things; she spent a semester in Harbin where they have ice festivals and another at Ocean University where she got food poisoning from street-vendor seafood, and she speaks Chinese fluently. I watch her watch the Asian guy called Tim, bent over her long-fingered hands, as he chirps tonally to his fellow nail stylists. They somehow carry on full conversations without looking up–a miracle to me, as I am so deaf, lip-reading isn’t optional. But when we leave, my sister tells me she has no clue what they are saying: “It’s another dialect. Sometimes, there’ll be a tone I almost recognize, but I… don’t speak that particular… branch of it.” As I struggle buckling myself in the driver’s seat with newly-painted nails, I recall the time I bumped into those two Asian guys at Walmart. I realized with embarrassment that I was expecting to see them buying nail salon things. They do have other lives. But they met my expectations: cotton balls and nail polish remover. While the cashier swiped their credit card, they glanced at my nails and told me to come in, smiling.
I flip to the website, prompted by some inner recognition of vast life privilege and perhaps what the more charismatic might call “Holy Spirit prompting,” and there she is. The little girl looks just like my almost-twin sister did when she was four. Big brown eyes, dumpling legs, and a round naturally pouty face. She reminds me too of the tiny girl at the camp shop, who just wanted ice cream, from this summer. We were low on staff that day, and I was scooping ice cream by the bowl-, cone-, and milkshake-ful for hundreds of hungry children. The line slithered dragon-like across the store and out onto the porch, and my general love for kiddie campers was running low. But then she stumbled up to the ice cream cabinet, looking maybe four and uncertain about how to go about getting ice cream. Didn’t matter what kind. She kept handing me a crumpled wad of money and looking at me with those brown eyes and saying, “I want ice cream.” Of course there was the “What kind, honey?” and the “Bowl, Cone, or Milkshake?” question to ask, but I wanted to scoop her up and sit her in my lap and let her look at the world and soften its harsh edges with those eyes. That’s why I guess I chose the little girl in El Salvador with round brown eyes, chubby toddler legs, and an innocent, not-unhappy pout. She spoke to me with those eyes, and I just have to do something. The world will be better for being looked at so softly, so expectantly.
The girl comes in for tutoring, just wanting grammar help. She looks Chinese or Taiwanese and wears a fluffy pink sweater with pearls attached. Strange contacts make her brown eyes humongous and extra-manga-looking. For once, out of all the students who come in and “just want grammar help,” that’s all she needs. I joyously help straighten out a few awkward sentences in a how-to paper: How to Make Dumplings. We have only a few difficulties. First: determining a measurement for the minced meat and vegetables to be placed inside the dumpling wrapper (“Is it a golfball-sized amount? How about gumball-sized? That’ll be about a tablespoonful…”). Second: explaining why the dumpling goes ONto the plate, not INto. Third: capturing the image of crinkling or wrinkling or crimping the edges of the dumpling wrapper. We decide on “crinkling.” Then I realize, in the next sentence, she already wrote something that sufficed (“folds”). We laugh. I can’t tell if she’s laughing with embarrassment at my ineptitude. After all, I am the tutor, the supposed “professional,” and an old multicultural-counseling textbook of mine said that clients of Asian descent might laugh or smile when embarrassed. I mentally shrug it off. We are both laughing, and it was fun using the Thesaurus in an artful, not obnoxious, way. When we finish, my stomach is growling.