The two ladies at the nail salon are giggling again. This place is truly a hole in the wall. In fact, it is the kind of place that might even have holes in its walls–although I have never seen any. The salon is a few yards from my house. I go there for pedicures when the urge strikes me, which is to say rarely. But I always smile and wave as I pass, and they always seem tickled to see me.
The topic came up a few months back about a guy they know from the neighborhood. He is Vietnamese, like they are. They have told me in their limited English that he is “crazy,” by which I understand they mean developmentally disabled. They always add that he is ugly. That he looks exactly like “the biggest kind of monkey,” by which I have come to understand they mean the gorilla.
Here are some other things I have learned about him. His name is Tuk. He receives SSI, because he is “crazy.” He is 42, the son of an American GI stationed in Ho Chi Min City during the Vietnam War. His father was African American. Tuk is thoroughly Vietnamese, although you would not know that by looking at him. Anni says he just looks like a poor middle aged black man; the commonest of sights in our neighborhood.
Tuk’s mother abandoned him as soon as he was born. He was raised in “the temple.” Vietnam, Anni and Mai always tell me, is extremely racist. “Mixed” children had little trouble in Vietnam, even though their fathers were gone. But no one wanted the mixed children whose unknown fathers were black. Tuk has never known a family member, ever. What happened was, when the American government began allowing the children of GIs to come to the U.S., he was quickly snapped up by a Vietnamese family who wanted to come here. As soon as they all arrived, they bid him “goodbye forever.”
It is true that Anni and Mai laugh their asses off every time they talk about Tuk’s appearance. But they like him, and always help him. Mai gives him $five dollars for food whenever he stops in. If she has no money, she gives him her lunch. His rent is $550 per month. His SSI check is $700. So he has a place to sleep but has to choose between bus fare and food. Clothing, he only gets if someone at the temple gives it to him.
I showed them on Mai’s i-phone the website detailing where he can get a free lunch in the neighborhood from a St. Vincent de Paul program, four days per week. I said if he could get to the Alameda County Food Bank, they would give him groceries and determine whether he’s eligible for food stamps, now optimistically termed “Cal Fresh.” When I showed Anni and Mai these things, they were super excited to tell him about the resources he might access to have more food.
Today when I came in, they told me he loves the lunches from St. Vincent de Paul and that the Food bank gave him a lot of food, but said he is not eligible for food stamps. Mai said she wishes he could get a job helping out at a Vietnamese business, because he loves to work and is such a good person. But they added that Vietnamese people are so racist that they would never hire him, and would say that he would drive all the Vietnamese customers away.
Tuk wows the African-American ladies who come in to the shop when they hear him speaking Vietnamese, they tell me. Then they repeat that he is soooo ugly, and double over with laughter. Anni adds that people have always “used” Tuk, and that he has had nothing but terrible luck his whole life. Mai manages to get out between giggling fits, “I always tell him he is ugly,” and he always answers, smiling, “Wrong, Mai. I am handsome.”
Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.