Thursday, September 27, 2012

Wearing Masks

My brain makes connections that make perfect sense to me, but might appear to take a complicated journey to an outsider. My Muse, she gets around...

I was born in New York, the proverbial melting pot. Shortly after that, I moved and grew up in Puerto Rico.

When I tell people this, more often than not, they assume that I came of age in a culturally homogenous world fraught with the anachronism of nothing but Puerto Ricans to stymie my global education.

This is both ludicrous and inaccurate. My own household was a veritable multicultural circus (and that’s just referencing my own DNA).

My first crush was half Dutch, one of my first playmates was half Spaniard, and my favorite family friend and home cook was Cuban.

Multiculturalism in a relatively anachronistic world does present interesting problems from time to time, of course.

Back in the 70s, after American troops abandoned Vietnam, our neighbor’s son came home with a Vietnamese bride. She was adorable, sweet and shy, the size of a plush toy, and with skin smooth like a porcelain doll. Her Spanish was tenuous at best, her English strained, but I befriended her nonetheless and we spent plenty an hour engaged in creating macramé and using a lot of sign language.

A while after she had moved in and we’d become friends, a new girl transferred to our school. She was tall and solidly built, with brown skin and a large, full face. Where my neighbor was beautiful and delicate, my schoolmate was built in a more utilitarian fashion.

I made it my business to bring these two together.

The reasons were simple. They were both Vietnamese. Coincidentally they were both named Nguyen Thi Van (I admit that I did not know then that this was the equivalent of Maria Gonzalez or Jane Smith).

They were relatively alone, thousands of miles from a home they’d probably never be able to return to, in a strange place surrounded by strange people speaking a strange language.

They were both my friends and I thought that together they’d miss home less and they’d be able to speak easily to each other in their native tongue.

Brilliant! Right? Wrong, oh so wrong…

What I did was put two women, one from the South and one from North Vietnam, face to face. Instead of the joy of recognizing a face from their homeland, they saw a suspicious nemesis, a possible enemy.

It was horrendous. The stuff of nightmares… and I helped!

It took me an eternity of awkward and petrified silence to realize what was happening and then I had to talk really fast to convince them both that the war was over and they weren’t there any more and they needed to bury the hatchet and embrace their new life and oh please oh please somebody say something.

It took the conceptual pulling of teeth, but I got them talking and my schoolmate would occasionally come by and visit in the mid-afternoon. They’d sit in the open balcony, with tea and soft drinks and they’d talk.

I no longer remember the few Vietnamese words she taught me so many years ago. I do remember some of the macramé knots though…

I witnessed them both assimilate into the culture but I also saw some of the masks they were forced to wear to be able to co-exist. That’s the theme of Not Gwen, one of the vignettes in Because She Was A Woman—an e-book version is available for sale at Smashwords and the Kindle Store, and a paperback version is on sale at CreateSpace.

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