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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hope for the Future

Tonight I had a really remarkable hour-plus conversation with a relatively new friend of mine, whom I'll call C.

C. and I talked about everything from the current presidential candidates and who we would vote for, to growing crystals in a laboratory setting, to what our favorite number is and why.

C. is seven years old. Seven going on 40.

I know C. because she goes to her mother's nail salon after school. C's mother is Vietnamese, a sweet, quiet woman who gives excellent manicures and massages. For many months, I only knew this woman's name. I had no idea she had a husband or a child. She hardly speaks and when she does, it is a challenge for her and clearly she is not comfortable speaking English. (Sadly, my attempts at speaking Vietnamese only provoke laughter.)

A month or so ago, C. was in the salon when I came in after work. She was doing her homework, being very studious and very shy. After a few visits and some sporadic chatting (The Boy was the first to draw her out of her shell), C. has finally gotten over her initial shyness and today was the day that the dam broke. She started out by helping me and Ms. Wellspring select our nail polish colors, and 1.5 hours later, we had covered a variety of topics that started with what our favorite colors were and ended with a discussion of the difference between horses and ponies.

While C's mother tried to keep her daughter from "bothering" me, I had to explain that this conversation was nothing but pure pleasure for me. What strikes me immediately about this little girl is her incredible intellect. She is very well-spoken and is an excellent conversationalist. Her diction is perfect; her thoughts well-reasoned.

C. and I talked about Abraham Lincoln and his assasination by John Wilkes Booth, Martin Luther King, and all of the museums C. has visited in the past two months. C. told me about how black people used to have separate drinking fountains from white people, and wanted to know if I had heard about that. I told her I did, and then she remarked that white people didn't used to be very nice to black people. I agreed with her and told her that white people didn't used to be nice to a whole lot of people.

C. told me that if she was old enough to vote, she would vote for Barack Obama because he talks about hope and she thinks that is important. To have hope. Her friend would vote for Hilary because she is a woman. I said I just want the person who can do the best job, but what's great about this country is that everyone can have their own opinion about things and it's good to be able to talk about it.

***

My heartstrings tug gently at meeting immigrants like C and her mother. C's mother reminds me, in her quiet, hardworking way, of my paternal grandmother. My father's mother came to the U.S. as a woman barely out of her teens, escaping the bloody revolutions that consumed Russia before the birth of the Soviet Union, before communism crushed the souls of the people who did not or could not leave. My grandmother came to this country traveling in steerage, made the requisite passage through Ellis Island, and then on to New York where she met and married a young tailor who was raised in an orphanage.

My grandmother always spoke with a very strong Russian accent, which embarrassed her, and she never learned to read and write. (I remember trying to teach her to read and we both struggled valiantly. She was my impetus to become an adult literacy tutor years later, and partly why I feel that literacy is crucial to the success of our country.)

But my grandmother raised two sons, one of whom joined the Navy and the other (my dad), who went to a good university and got his degree in history. The contrast between her poor and humble upbringing and our "normal" suburban life was never lost on me. My grandmother's tales of narrowly escaping Cossack raids, eating potatoes in the bowels of the ship that brought her to America, and her remembrance of her first taste of ice cream has always made my heart embrace the spirit of the immigrants that still see this country through wide eyes full of wonder. She used to call America the Land of Milk and Honey, and she meant it every time she said it.

Everything about America was golden to her, and seeing America through her eyes made me so proud. I love the America that embraces all people, welcomes them and gives them opportunities that no other place can. That America may be a myth, but my grandma believed in it and I did too--once.

My grandma has been gone a long time now, and America hasn't felt golden to me for a long time now either, something that makes me terribly sad at times, because I feel so very helpless about the direction our country has been heading. But tonght, little C., with her curiosity, her intellect and her vitality, gives me hope for the future.

I see a little bit of America's tarnish rubbed off and some of the goldenness shine through because of her. It's still there. She gives me more hope than even Barack Obama.

15 comments:

dutchbaby March 6, 2008 at 8:31 AM  

Dear Tangobaby,

Thank you for the beautiful tribute to America, to all our immigrants, and to hope. My hope is that my children will have a glimmer of your sensitivity and observation talents and that they too will learn from their immigrant relatives.

Peace,
dutchbaby

tangobaby March 6, 2008 at 9:00 AM  

Thank you, dutchbaby, for your sweet reply. I have no doubt that your children will be the generation that reinvents what it is to be a good American AND a good citizen of the world.

And thank you for making me cry today at work. Now I have to fix my eyeliner. ;-)

xo

Elizabeth March 6, 2008 at 9:53 AM  

Thanks for this TB,
I feel the same way, that the golden America, the dream that is built on the constitution, is being forgotten by the people who have benefited the most. The newcomers remind us that there is a freedom here unknown in most of the world. My manicurist is from Viet Nam, and she recalled to me when her friends fathers were imprisoned after the war with no known reason, cruelly treated, and then they died. This was her childhood. She works so hard, along with her son and sometimes her elderly relatives. No complaints, always sweet. I am not sure that people realize what we have here.

FogBay March 6, 2008 at 11:26 AM  

Nice post, very uplifting to see the world through a child's eyes again. I moved to the U.S. at age six and while America is a great place to live we need to remember the world has a lot of great places to live.

BTW, nice emotional rebound from your previous post.

studio wellspring March 6, 2008 at 11:43 AM  

we have much to hope for and be grateful for ~ thank you for reminding us so well.
C truly is a remarkable girl ~ i still can't believe she's only in 2nd grade. i am so happy we got her outta of her shell some more last night. i think she really enjoyed it too. i already look forward to our next conversations!

paris parfait March 6, 2008 at 1:59 PM  

What a beautiful post! And what a smart little girl. Yes, children like her should give us all hope. When I lived in San Fran, I knew some families like the ones you've mentioned - the children were brilliant, absolutely determined to make the most of their opportunities. Then I had friends who spoke Arabic and English at home; their girls had a Spanish babysitter and they sent their children to a Chinese school, so they'd be "ready for anything" in the world. Your conversation with C and your tale of your own grandmother's experiences remind us of what America is all about - a nation rich with immigrants and their wonderful contributions. Thanks for this wonderful post!

katie March 6, 2008 at 4:27 PM  

What an amazing little gal! I guess I need to brush up on my studies :)

Alex March 6, 2008 at 5:57 PM  

Great post baby...I need some optimism right now...

I wrote this note to Elizabeth a bit ago...but please don't let its duplicity diminish how serious I am when I say this...

I wish I could be there...and know you...

You, Elizabeth, Ms. wellspring, Johanna, Eva y Malena, et mon Nuit...I feel this strong connection with all of you...strong, articulate, interesting, funny, intelligent women...I don't have women like you in my "real" life...and it saddens me...

tangobaby March 6, 2008 at 9:30 PM  

Dear ones,

Where to start? Such wonderful comments.

At the beginning, I suppose.

***

Hello Elizabeth,

What you wrote makes me think of the saying "You don't realize what you have until it's gone." I hope that will never become a reality here. Our country is a grand experiment, and I don't want to think that we are winding down so quickly. But you're right, seeing what we could be--that dream--is more easily accomplished by outsiders sometimes.

Hi Annie,

Thank you for visiting my blog, now that we've become book friends, too. When I started writing the post, I didn't know that what I really wanted to talk about was my grandmother. I wish she was here now because now that I'm older, there is so much I want to know that I didn't think to ask her then.

I understand how you feel, to have a faint glimmer of a person and want to know their history because it is part of your own.

Hi FogBay,

Thank you for the comment and welcome to my blog. You know I think your blog is wonderful.

I agree with you: there are many wonderful, incredible places in the world to live, or at least to visit. Americans do not have the corner market on quality of life, to be sure. I think we would be a better nation in general if our people got outside of their own borders and traveled. Traveled not as Americans, but as fellows who share this planet with 6 billion other people.

I wonder how much you remember from before you came here at such a young age, and do you go back to your place of birth to visit?

And thank you for noticing that I had recovered from my tantrum of the previous day. ;-)

See you around town!

Hi Ms. Wellspring,

The Boy went to the salon today and she is 7-1/2! She is not even 8 years old yet! Incredible, isn't she? It was fun being there with you. And having matching nails.

Bonjour Paris Parfait,

Thank you so much for visiting my blog. I have to tell you that I've been a fan of yours for a while, and I'm so happy we've connected on something that is important to both of us. What you've described, and what I wrote about--I'm wondering if that is a California phenomenon, and more specifically, a Northern California phenomemon. Some parts of our country are still so isolated from other cultures and different lives.

And why am I not surprised that you lived in our fair city? I know they call SF the Paris of the West, but it certainly pales in comparison to the Paris of Paris. I look to you for my fixes regularly.

A vos amours.

Hi Katie,

I am sure you would be just fine with my little friend. You could teach her about vintage fashion and wonderful movies. And thank you for checking in...I was wondering what you were up to!

Dear Alex. Dear dear Alex.

I'm sorry you're feeling alone now, or not surrounded by the companions you wish to have. I hope that you don't distinguish your bloguera friends too much from your "real" life, as I consider you to be a friend as real to me as any other one.

I like to think of you, and my other far-flung friends, from a historical vantage. In eras past, friends were separated and travel was difficult. There were no phones, no email, no faxes, no cars, no airplanes. So people corresponded and learned the art of letters and they never spoke and saw each other rarely.

I know that you will see and hug and dance with all of us someday. But in the meantime, don't put that distance in front of our communication. Reach out, write, say hello and you will always find a friend at the other end of the computer. A real one.

PS.: Only because years of French has to account for something useful, you want to call La Nuit as ma Nuit if you are talking about her in the possessive as you are (my Nuit). Nuit is a feminine noun (hence the La) so saying Mon (which is masculine) with a feminine noun will blow your cover if you are trying to seduce, or just say hello.

;-)

Sunshine Abby March 9, 2008 at 11:24 AM  

If I ever decided to have kids.
I think that C would be the kind I would like to have

tangobaby March 10, 2008 at 7:37 PM  

Dear Sunshine Abby,

Thank you for visiting my blog.

I hope when you're older that you do have a kid like this someday. I bet you will. I read part of your blog and you're a really great writer and a very smart girl.

La Tanguerita March 29, 2008 at 11:24 AM  

May I ask you, if you by any chance speak Russian?

tangobaby March 29, 2008 at 4:18 PM  

Hi La Tanguerita,

I tried very hard to learn Russian because my past (and only) husband was from Moscow. Russian is so incredibly hard to learn--for me, at least--that I only retained about 3 or 4 key phrases. The alphabet mystified me because letters that looked one way were pronounced another and then there were all of these extra letters and I just could never get it.

My grandmother spoke Yiddish, too, but I remember us speaking only in English.

robin-bird October 9, 2008 at 11:12 PM  

what a great introduction to little c! and i had to laugh (it is getting quite late here and i am getting slaphappy) when i began reading sunshine abby's comment
"If I ever decided to have kids.
I think that........ would be the kind I would like to have

i thought she was going to say "you"
:) i wouldn't have been a bit surprised if she had.

tangobaby October 10, 2008 at 11:30 AM  

Hi robin bird,

I'm so glad you came here to meet my friend little C. I cherish her, and her intelligence and curiosity and zest for life.