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Van is a spitfire. She is a dedicated conservative and she loves this country. She left Vietnam with her family right after the war. She is an entrepreneur, having started several businesses, and now in her senior years runs a nail business (does fingers and toes, as my husband would say) from her home, and does my nails. I’ve known her for more than ten years, so we know each other pretty well. The other day she stunned me with a story of bravery and determination. And it wasn’t about leaving Vietnam.
Van has mostly senior customers from all walks of lives, an assortment of religions or no-religions, and many cultures, ethnicities, and races. I’m going to share her story as she told it to me the other day, in her inimitable style:
So I’m talking to my customer about many things, and I asked her why she calls herself an African-American. Why? She is an American! She isn’t from Africa and she doesn’t have family from Africa, so why doesn’t she just call herself an American? I don’t call myself a Vietnamese-American!
[Uh-oh; I start to cringe, just a little.]
So she tells me that her ancestors were from Africa, and she calls herself an African-American to remind herself that they were kidnapped in Africa and made slaves after they were brought to this country, and she never wants to forget that.
So I say to her, but you were not a slave and you’ve told me that none of your family were slaves. Not only that–many of the people kidnapped in Africa were captured by other black Africans!
[Bigger uh-oh—my eyes start to widen and my jaw drops.]
No, no, my customer says, that’s not possible, that couldn’t have happened. We know about the slave ships and the whites who took them captive.
* * *
At this point in the story, Van has finished working on my nails. I’m nearly speechless. I asked Van if she and her customer were still talking to each other, and she laughed and said, oh yes, we talk like this all the time. She’s still a customer and we’re friends.
* * *
So what made this conversation possible? For myself, I don’t talk about these kinds of topics with any of my liberal friends, because I feel certain the conversation wouldn’t end well; I can’t deal with their lack of education regarding the facts, their unwillingness to consider other data, and their lack of reflection on their positions.
I think that Van gauges the customers very carefully when she initiates this kind of conversation. First, they are always friendly with each other, if not friends. As a result, there is a level of fondness, trust, respect, and appreciation for each other. Second, she is joyous in her sharing as a proud American, not angry, which allows the customer to stay engaged, rather than become upset. Third, she might sense the intimacy that comes from touching another person’s fingers and toes! All in all, Van becomes a teacher and mentor in those moments.
Even with these explanations for her success, I still don’t know how she does it.
I will make one observation: she has taught me a few things about engaging the “enemy.”