I have been thinking since yesterday morning about how far this country has to go before we can put behind us the prejudices that are just under the surface in the connections we make as we go about our business.
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Manicurist (whom I will call Mai)
Powder Keg/Bigot/The Ugly American of the title
Young Asian Woman (her race plays a roll)
Me (and seven other women who are old enough to recognize a human powder keg looking for an excuse to blow)
SETTING: Nail Salon
In my area, it is known by everyone who patronizes nail salons that they are staffed by immigrants from Vietnam. These women generally have limited English vocabulary but they have enough skill to take care of the customers needs. They are all unfailingly pleasant as they do the gross job of taking care of the feet of a stranger.
A woman, the Powder Keg, comes into the salon and takes the chair next to mine. As she is seated, Mai explains that she will have to wait about ten minutes. Power Keg acknowledges the wait with bad grace and immediately launches into a speech in which she demands the services of someone who speaks English because she wants to ensure that the English speaker will follow her directions. Mai, pleasantly, agrees that PK’s demands will be met. Immediately, PK’s fingers begin to tap in exaggerated aggravation. She starts explaining what she wants done : her hands soaked in a lotion because they were “just destroyed”. She has acrylic nails (fake ones that go over the real ones) but she wants a manicure. Mai comes back with a bowl of warm water and acetone, the stuff used to remove fake nails and polish. The eruption begins.
PK demands to know why she must deal with Mai because, clearly, she doesn’t really speak English. Mai tries to explain that it is necessary to remove the fake nails for the manicure. PK blows her top and is instantly morphs into the Bigot.
“How stupid are you that you don’t understand what I want?” “Why do they employ idiots like you?” “How long have you been in this country?” “I know you’re an illegal immigrant.” “This is America and our national language is English” [Bigot has this wrong; we don’t have a national language]. “I’m an American and I have every right to demand that the people who serve me speak English.”
Young Asian Woman has had enough. She yells to Bigot to stop talking to Mai like that, Mai deserves respect. Now Bigot trains her sights on Young Asian Woman who, with the first words she spoke, revealed that she was born and raised in Boston and has the accent to prove it. Bigot yells at YAW that she is going to call security and have her fired. [Two significant signs that Bigot has lost all control over her brain. Mall Security doesn’t fire employees of any establishment and, proof that Bigot is a stupid bigot, she fails to realize that the YAW isn’t an employee but a customer. Bigot thinks that if a woman is Asian she has to be an employee willing to kiss Bigot’s … toes.].
Bigot then turns on all the employees, threatening them with deportation. The Senior Citizens are all looking at the floor because they don’t dare catch the eyes of any of the employees who are all a moment away from falling on the floor laughing. Bigot forgot the point of her rant, that the women don’t speak English. They haven’t understood one word of her insults but they have been watching her performance as if she is a bad actor in a silent movie. Bigot is picking up on their lack of intimidation and respect for who she is [a woman used to getting her own way because family and friends don’t want to have to deal with these performances]. All the large malls in New England are owned and managed by the same company. Bigot takes out her big guns. She has a friend who is a friend of the family who owns the mall. She is going to call her friend who will call her friends who will shut down the mall and everybody is going to lose their jobs and have to go back to Vietnam. In that none of the other businesses in the mall, from Macy’s to Nordstroms to every other store, employees only Vietnamese it is either an empty threat or Vietnam is going to get plane loads of retail workers. YAW is told she will be the first to be deported and, to get the ball rolling, Bigot is going to call the town police to arrest YAW for causing a problem in the store.
Finally, Bigot announces that she is leaving the salon because she is not going to allow anyone “to treat her like this”. As she departs, one of the Senior Citizens who hasn’t been sitting next to this crazy person tells her good riddance and everyone applauds. Then everyone laughs, goes back to business, and silently hopes that Bigot will return with security or the police so that they show can go on. Whatever else, our time in the salon hasn’t been boring. We regular patrons of the salon know that the man giving a manicure at the back of the shop is the manager and he speaks English. He’s been pretending to be invisible for the three or four minutes the whole thing played out.
For a little while, the encounter was funny and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Boston acquired a reputation for racism in the seventies that was undeserved. Judge Arthur Garrity decided that the schools in Boston, which had always had a policy that any child could attend any school in the city, were segregated (de facto rather than de jure). In other words, Boston did not have a policy that kept schools racially segregated but they were segregated because kids wanted to go to school in their neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were often built around Catholic churches which often represented the country of origin of the people who raised the money to build the churches. Garrity created a problem where none had existed and destroyed the Boston public schools. They have not yet recovered.
Growing up in conservative Boston, the capital of a liberal state, I never heard anything as overt and appalling as I heard from the Bigot.