Today while having my nails done by one of the many Korean women working at my neighborhood salon, I realized that in the year that I have been patronizing the place, I’ve rarely engaged any of them in much conversation. I have assumed that it would be challenging due to a language barrier but the more I visit them, the more it becomes apparent that most of them are more fluent in English than I had realized. I had based my assumption on the fact that they converse with one another in their first language but until this day it had slipped my notice how easily they transitioned to English to speak to their customers.
These ladies have been a source of comfort from the first time I went in when I was a fresh arrival to Pennsylvania from Missouri in the harsh weather of last year’s February. I tend to fail to call for an appointment, opting instead to walk in. More often than not, I am led to the chair of a very sweet natured woman named Kelly. All of the ladies practice almost the same techniques and sequences of artfully making my hands presentable for serving passengers from silver trays. One at a time the hands are prepared and nails built and polished and then as they dry under the light, my lady comes around the table to stand behind me and treats me to an abbreviated chair massage. I could fall asleep right now just thinking of the strength in their petite little hands as they squeeze the tension from my shoulders and upper arms.
I have just returned from a short visit home to Missouri. It took only one day of travel, maybe five hours total flight time making it a relatively simple trip and yet I bawled as though I had moved to the other side of the world. My Korean nail ladies actually did leave their families in another hemisphere and across the border from an insane dictator who continues to separate loved ones, subjects millions to famine and threatens missile launches. What they must be feeling when they see these issues on the news! In my homesickness I watch for weather systems that pass through the Ozarks; these ladies are watching for war for it frequently appears imminent. I study the multiple colors pixelating on a looping radar image for a tornado that doesn’t spawn. They go to bed hoping to not wake up to word of a nuclear weapon having found its way to Seoul.
This brought to mind all the courageous people that I have encountered in my work who have left me awestruck. As a flight attendant for a prestigious fleet of private jets, I am frequently in close quarters with the world’s economic movers and shakers, professional athletes, and celebrities—even former presidents. These people are constantly bombarded with public accolades to which the rest of us are simply voyeurs in a tabloid culture. However, once a figure such as this comes aboard my plane and we get past our introductions and the safety briefing, a good deal of the formality weakens. A short way into an especially long flight, after it has become apparent that we will be sharing a toilet for the next twelve hours, we usually ease into a tepid familiarity.
It is then that I see that the celebrity (actor, athlete, and business leader) is often desensitized to the compliments and wonder that their adoring fans feel toward them. Some collapse in the relief that comes from knowing that they can shed the Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington facade once they hear that boarding door close. Others see their travel time as a gift whose greatest value lies in the opportunity to peruse iPads, laptops, and reams of paperwork that hold their next projects. It is certain that many grow numb at the sight of their faces on the magazine covers week after week. Of course, there are a number of them who have gone down the expected path of having lost all touch with reality and are the very definition of the demanding diva. There truly is a select few who couldn’t squeeze a tear of humility if their lives depended on it. But none of these individuals are in the collection of encounters that I find most memorable. What I cannot erase from my mind though are the countless individuals that will never be famous yet the stories of their lives are burned into my thoughts.
I met Nockie when he picked me up in his Anchorage based taxicab. He was from Warsaw, Poland and moved to Alaska twenty years ago but his wife and family remain in their homeland and are not interested in immigrating. He tries to go home once or twice a year and sees the whole thing in very simple terms.
He said, “It works. I don’t want to live there again and she doesn’t want to come here.” But they consider themselves still very married to one another.
In LA I seem to meet a lot of Russian or Ukrainian cab drivers. In New York, I would say that the majority that I have met have been from India and Pakistan. I had a wonderful conversation in Dallas between Love Field and DFW with a gentleman who had a gorgeous silver Lincoln town car, although it smelled too strongly of his cologne. He had such an aura of pristine professionalism about him that had I been charged with arranging transport for members of a royal family, I would have been comfortable calling upon him. His name was Jean and he was from Mozambique but had grown up in Ethiopia where his father was named an ambassador.
I often recall the town car driver that picked me up at the Philadelphia terminal and took me to the tiny private airport at Morristown, NJ. He struck up a conversation and I eventually asked him where he was from. He looked at me with a broad smile through the rear view mirror and said, “I want you to guess!”
Priding myself on having a bit of a knack to pin a person’s culture down, I took a few seconds to consider his build, which was slight but healthy. His skin tone was dark but had more olive undertones than brown so I ruled out India or Pakistan. His features seemed a bit stronger than the Turkish I had met and he was a little darker than Greek. His eyes were black and almond shaped, so they did not seem to place him of Southeast Asian heritage. His hairline was recessed, but not receding and his hair was coarse and slightly wavy but cut in flattering layers that most American men would have used product on to tame the frizzies and give it that “wet” look. He had a slightly prominent nose and chiseled jaw line. I narrowed the possibilities down to East Africa and guessed, “Ethiopia?”
John’s eyes grew big and he looked up at me again and said, “You are good! I am a black Jew from Ethiopia!”
Well, that just opened the floodgates of interest. At home on my bedside table was Graham Hancock’s book on Biblical archaeology, “The Sign and the Seal”, in which he examines the popular theory that the Ark of the Covenant is in a church in Ethiopia and under sacred guard by a sect of African Jews called the Fallashas. John said that he is actually of another ethnic sect but he was familiar with the book and that, “Oh, yes! The Ark is in fact there. It is in the Holy of Holies and only the highest priest is allowed into its presence.”
We chatted throughout the entire drive and I will always regret not having the presence of mind to ask for his card so that we could keep in touch. This was the kind of chance meeting I would have loved to continue one evening over a traditional dinner of his childhood cuisine. John from Ethiopia.
During a stay in the Washington, DC area, chauffer named Tahir transferred me to a different hotel when the one I had been staying in was overbooked for the night. He was very well dressed in what appeared to me a tailored suit of expensive fabric and his car matched that style. The rosary hanging from the rear view mirror and the Arabic emblem attached to it told me that he was Muslim. I surmised from his looks that he was either Indian or Pakistani. Political strife between the neighboring nations can lead to offense when they are confused with one another but with the history of the two having been one country and the marriages that occurred during that time, it is often difficult to distinguish just by outward appearances.
Tahir and I started talking and he said he was from India.
“Oh, my favorite place in the world!” And we were off.
He asked if I had been there so I gave him a brief about the three months in 1996 during which I worked Haj flights for Air India out of New Delhi. I told him that I had been so smitten with the experience that it led to a few fortunate return trips as well as having studied the history and culture in depth since returning. I caught him stealing more glances at me in the mirror, sizing me up, figuring me out, this lily white American woman who claims to have such affection for his people and faith. I wanted him to drive away from me knowing that not all Westerners think all Muslims are sleeping terrorists.
He must have decided that both of us viewed the other as harmless for he felt comfortable enough to ask if it would be okay if he stopped and picked up his cousin who was taking over his driving route for the rest of the night. A request like that may have shot up a red flag to someone else who didn’t share the openness toward Indians that I do but I thought nothing of it. He was known by the concierge of the high end hotel I had just stayed in, and being somewhat familiar with the work habits of my international drivers, this did not strike me as anything out of the norm. Limousines, town car drivers and taxi cabs are populous in Washington traffic; one strike of misbehavior by a driver and he’ll never carry anyone again from those lucrative locations.
He pulled into a townhouse community and we picked up his cousin. He looked a little surprised to see a passenger in the back seat and Tahir quickly explained that I had agreed to the diversion and Abrim turned around and we began to chat.
I said, “So, you’re from India?”
“No, I’m from Pakistan.”
Then he and Tahir exchanged facial expressions that shouted, “You idiot! I had told her we were from India?” and, “You idiot! Why didn’t you tell me that you had told her we were from India?”
Ooops. It quickly dawned on me that they were both Pakistani nationals, possibly not related at all, and that poor Tahir had purposely wanted me to think they were from India for the US obviously has a much better relationship with it than Pakistan. The time of this incident was shortly after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden which in turn gave rise to the accusations that Pakistan had been sheltering him and his cell.
I felt terribly sorry for them both and wanted to immediately put them at ease and change the trajectory of the conversation.
“Oh, okay, so Tahir is from India and you’re from Pakistan. It’s nice that you were able to come here to the US and work together.”
They looked at each other again and it appeared that there was an unspoken understanding among the three of us. It made no difference to me whether they were from India or Pakistan; I was comfortable with them either way.
We talked about their country; the food, the heat and monsoons they had endured, and the beauty of the mountainous Kashmir. The region is a source of a volatile border dispute between India and Pakistan which is unfortunate. I have not had the opportunity to travel there because of the political strife but it is the state that the Mogul emperors chose to build their summer homes. The climate of the altitude is a pleasant respite of lower humidity and cooler temperatures. Aesthetically its views rival those in the Alps of Switzerland and Austria with the dark snow tipped peaks jutting into the sky the clearest hue of azure one could ever find. Bright green valleys littered with flowers in every color imaginable yield the feeling of having stepped into an illustrated children’s book. The enormous bougainvillea bushes aflame in glorious pink and purple blossoms cascade ancient stone walls and along the rolling hills; it is no small wonder that Kashmir was the original Shangri-la.
I imagined that at some point one or both of them had endured a terse event of at least profiling and racism or something even more sinister that made them feel forced to lie about their nationalities. What a shame that they live in one of the most multinational areas of our country and they still have such a fear of what will happen if someone finds out where they are from. My heart teetered between compassion for them and the insults that they must so often face and then anger at the closed minded prejudice that compels me to be on constant ambassador duty, coming behind and cleaning up the wounds left by ignorant arrogance. I may sound naïve, and to another person their behavior would reek of suspicion, but to me they were nothing less than courteous and professional and seemed to enjoy the drive once engaged in conversation that showed a genuine interest in their well being.
I was dropped off at the entrance to my new hotel and bid Tahir and Abrim goodnight. A couple of days later I was able to call Tahir for another ride, this one to the airport to go home. There was the possibility that he would send another driver for the job but I was pleased to see him come through the door and offer to load my bags. It would only be about a half hour’s drive but it was a half hour that I had to once again engage in conversation that inspired me and hopefully reassured him. This time I asked him about one of my favorite activities in his culture: smoking hookah pipes. He looked into the mirror at me and his eyes were wide.
“You smoke shisha?”
I have never been a cigarette smoker and frankly, even the slightest hint of the smoke turns my stomach sour and initiates a headache. Shisha tobacco is delightful though. It is regular black tobacco but it is diluted with molasses and can be found in the flavor of just about any fruit and gives off a warm, sweet aroma that reminds me of the days in which my father was a pipe smoker.
I brought two pipes home from Saudi Arabia, one of which I almost never got back from my stepfather as he came to enjoy the occasional light up out on the porch in the evenings. Hookah pipes are basically water bongs not unlike those sold in head shops in the US. There is a large glass base that is filled with water and through the top of that is inserted the brass pipe that seals the mouth of the base with a rubber gasket. High up on the brass fixture sits a small round clay dish with tiny holes punctured through it and it is in this dish that the shisha is placed and mashed down. Tin foil is then spread across the shisha and small pieces of charcoal are set on the foil and lit. The hoses are attached to outlets from the brass fix near the mouth of the vase and to smoke the pipe you suck on the mouthpiece of the hose, drawing the heat from the charcoal pieces down through the tobacco, through the holes in the clay dish. The shisha is properly heated and ready to be enjoyed when you see smoke in the vase and the water is bubbling with each inhalation. I found that getting a pipe started can be quite challenging and often requires a regular smoker to draw that heat all the way from the top of the pipe down through the glass and into the hoses.
I told Tahir that most of my friends who smoke cigarettes claim that the shisha tobacco has no effect on them but to me as a non-smoker, it may as well be marijuana. One day while I was living in Saudi, a small group of our pilots and flight attendants decided to treat ourselves to an evening out and we chose to go to the Jeddah Sheraton for dinner. It was a lovely evening at a table outdoors next to the swimming pool. We dined on fine Arab cuisine, a welcome change from the roasted chicken and biryani rice plates we regularly feasted on from a stand around the corner from our villas that we had come to refer to as “road kill”.
After dinner we indulged in the pipes. A sweet young server was our “shisha boy” and he outfitted our pipes with the tobacco and charcoal and got those all started for us with a few strong draws into his lungs. They were passed around and everyone sampled the different flavors. Two hits and I needed a couch.
Tahir laughed at me.
“No, really,” I said. “We had our own pipes at the villas by this time and had smoked them occasionally with the mash we got at the pipe store and I would feel a little relaxed but mainly just enjoyed the flavor. I don’t know what the Sheraton shisha had in it but they were not shopping at the same place I did. Nothing looked any different; colors didn’t look any brighter. I just felt stoned off my butt and sat and stared into space. Man, that was a fun time.”
The conversation probably left me a besmirched woman in Tahir’s opinion. His brow never really relaxed from the arch that marks an expression of mile surprise after that and he continued to look as though he really wasn’t sure what to think of me. It probably was rooted in his being used to seeing American women doing whatever we want to do in our culture but to imagine me participating in an activity so Arab, so much closer to his own culture—and boldly doing so—seemed to leave him a tad puzzled.
Today I rode with Mo from my Woodland Hills hotel to the Los Angeles Airport. He had the dark skin and features that I recognized from India and since I was still working on this piece I immediately engaged him in conversation for the hour’s drive.
Mo was not from India though. He was from Sri Lanka. He had been in LA for about five years now and started working at a gas station but found his niche as a chauffer for one of the regular customers he met there. I asked him how he came to the States; how did he pick up and leave everything he knew in Sri Lanka and how did he know he would like it here.
“In Sri Lanka life is not good. The war is over, the violence is over but it is very difficult to make living. In one month in Sri Lanka a man make something like, ah, two hundred dollar. It is very bad. The president, he stop the war but he take all money. He give jobs to his family, all his family have jobs and he pay them with tax but regular people, they no have food some.”
As Sri Lanka is so close in proximity to India, I have watched over the years as the Tamil Tigers wreaked havoc on the people. They tore the country apart with guerilla warfare no different from the terror in any other war torn country. It is peaceful now for the most part. The primary issues that remain a hardship are that the governor who put down the Tamil Tiger rebels is absconding with all the international aid pouring in. Mo said that goods are taxed in an abhorrent manner; the sales tax on an automobile is two to three hundred percent of the value of the vehicle itself.
“So, Mo, it is expensive to live in LA. Even with the better income here, it is still worth it to have left home?”
“Oh, yes. You see, I may make two thousand US dollar here in one month. I pay about nine hundred rent and have a roommate. That leaves me still with one thousand to send home to help. I am supposed to get green card in one month, two maybe. Then some family can come and I can visit home and come back. It is better in Sri Lanka but still much rebuilding to do and the government, they get say one million in aid and they put two hundred thousand to the people and keep the rest.”
As is clearly the case with most of the foreign aid the US is spilling out all over the world. We’re certainly not seeing any improvements in the lives of Koreans or Egyptians.
Mo said he works seven days a week and his hours vary between time still filling shifts at the gas station and driving clients. He will drive when he has a job and then if he has a few hours between transports, he goes to work at the station. I pressed him for more details about how he came to the US and put his life together.
“I worked for the royal family in Doha, Qatar. They gave me a place to live, cell phone, personal auto, paid for everything. All my salary was mine to keep. But I was on call twenty four hours a day. I had no life. I stayed for two years and then that was it. I met a man who asked if I wanted to go to US and I did so it cost me about ten thousand dollars to move here but I did. I did not have that money at the time so I paid him what I had and have worked to pay the rest off. He helped get paperwork together and get me here.”
“Mo, do you ever feel that you have been taken advantage of? Was it worth that much money to come here and pay someone to do these things to get you here? Do you feel safe?”
He thinks. “Mmmm, yes, it is worth it. It is good.”
“How did you get your job? How did you know where to go and who to talk to?”
“I found a restaurant that serves Sri Lankan food and all the workers are Sri Lankan. They help tell me how to get work.”
That made sense; in a new land, seek out your community and follow their lead. Just like our military families that are based overseas, the common nationalities network and find each other so no one feels so far away from home.
“Was it hard for you to learn your way around and how to drive here?”
“No, not really. I drove in Sri Lanka and Qatar. Here is good, you have so many lanes. You can talk on phone, drink coffee while driving. In Sri Lanka you have narrow roads, one lane going the direction and very crowded with cars, bicycles, lorries, motorcycles so you are like this concentrating all time,” and he demonstrated the white knuckle death grip on the steering wheel and straight ahead stare. I laughed and let him know that I had become quite familiar with that type of driving during my travels in India.
We arrived at LAX but were distracted by our conversation and missed my terminal so we had to go all the way around the airport property again. I was curious to know what faith Mo believes but didn’t want to ask outright so I instead asked what the population in Sri Lanka follows. He said it is mostly Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. That didn’t narrow it down for me much. He had not taken the bait when I mentioned India so I doubted he was Hindu. He confirmed this when I showed him my little Ganesh statue I was traveling with.
“What religion do you like?” he asked me.
“I was raised Christian but I love studying all the major religions. While living in Saudi I tried to learn as much as I could about Islam, India interested me in Hinduism, and I’m somewhat familiar with a bit of the Jewish faith.”
“You know what I do not like about the Hindu? I cannot get the animal gods. I no pray to monkey and animals,” he said. “And the lady with the eight arms-it is crazy!”
“Yes, I understand. I like the philosophy of Hinduism, or maybe it is the Vedic teachings that I identify with. I love the stories that the deities convey but, yeah, I have a hard time really getting them as Divine. I would like to learn more about Buddhism. I went to Sarnath in India where he preached his first sermon.”
‘Buddhism is peace. Everything about it is just nice.”
I gather that Mo is more than likely Buddhist.
John the black Ethiopian Jew in Philadelphia, Tahir and Abrim the Pakistani Muslims in Washington, and Mo the Sri Lankan Buddhist in Los Angeles. They all grew up in oppressive hardship as boys and left homes that have since erupted in horrifying episodes of war and violations of the most basic of human rights. The gaps between them and their families is greater than many of us could ever imagine. To think of leaving everything familiar, everything I have been socialized to feel as right, comfortable and complete is incomprehensible. I love my vacations that allow me to do just that but I am often just as pleased to return to my mundane routine after they end. These people that I have met will not be doing that in a matter of two or three weeks. They literally left behind the only lives they had known because the optimism of a better permanence was indisputable, no matter how great the sacrifice.
They undertook the endeavor fully aware that they may never again see many of their loved ones and may never revisit their childhood haunts. The future will be filled with a reinvention of themselves and a complete redesign of their identities. Boxed mixes of macaroni and cheese may become as monotonous to them as sitting in a field sucking the juice out of raw sugar cane once was. This is what I find the most awe inspiring about my immigrant friends: the strength to allow the familiar to become out of reach and the new to become genuinely familiar.