While it was happening, I don’t
think I realized just how relevant this incident was.
See, I left my wallet in Mr. Wong’s hair salon.
I stopped in for a quick wash and blow-dry. Because when you live in Seattle and your husband lands work in Honolulu, you
go with him, regardless, and then you find a way to deal with 80-percent humidity.
And my way of dealing with it was Mr. Wong, whose name I am terribly fond of.
“You got lot of frizzy. Come, come,” is the first thing Mr. Wong said while pulling my arm in a way no one pulls anyone’s arm back in Seattle without someone calling 911.
I hadn’t been prepared for such a hard pull, but somehow it didn’t startle me, either.
Because when in Honolulu, the melting pot of all melting pots, it is strangely incomprehensible when you’re in the middle of such a pull to not read it as anything but enthusiasm — the nearly childish way new immigrants display eagerness, who haven’t been told it’s uncustomary to talk ravenously about money, who are just so happy to make some that they don’t even try to mask their delight.
“I make hair good for you. Yah, yah, then you pay me money, OK?”
“OK,” I said.
And all at once, I felt the relief of having someone to talk to after being on my own, while my husband, a marine surveyor, worked 12 hours a day.
And so I told this complete stranger the first thing that came to my mind: how many hours I had lain on my back as a child, staring at a picture of Cher, touching my finger ever so lightly to the black straightness of her hair.
“Who dat?” Mr. Wong asked.
Then he pulled me again and pushed me down into a black, vinyl chair.
“Here, here, you sit.”
Then he dipped my head back under the faucet.
Communication in the local dialect of the Hawaiian Islands is trickier than you’d think. While pidgin may sound like something close to English, trust me, it’s not all that easy to speak or to understand. It’s a chop-chop, rapid fire of English mixed with Chinese, Japanese, Filipino — any combination, until a transaction (in this case, my frizz) is carried out.
The wash and blow-dry Mr. Wong gave me, minus the hairspray overload, was terrific.
“Yah, much good! Hair many, many better.”
“OK,” I said again.
Later in bed, I was organizing my handbag — you know, finding a way to multi-task even in slumber — when suddenly it dawned on me that my wallet was missing. Fearing I wouldn’t be able to find it, I dressed and proceeded to retrace my tracks, starting at Mr. Wong’s.
“No, no, I not have Wong’s number,” was all the woman next door, at the all-night Korean barbecue, would say.
I looked to her husband with pleading eyes.
“No worry, Wong no steal your money,” he said. My spirit perked up. “He steal your Visa.” And the two of them laughed.
The African-American security guard said, “”You know, lady, Wong is a Chinese name.”
The local boys, — meaning Hawaiian-born, biceps like mounds of brown earth, who work at the market two doors down — said I’d never see my wallet again because, as one of them pointed out, “the immigrants steal you blind.”
That night I lay awake, more upset about the smear campaign I’d heard than about losing my wallet.
God, the prejudice.
The next morning, I pounded on the window at Mr. Wong’s, very crazy Haole lady. I had let the racial slurs affect me, infuse me from the outside in with a feeling of sheer distrust.
Another stylist came running. “Mr. Wong have wallet for you.”
My wallet was handed to me wrapped in rice paper, tied with a ribbon made from Ti leaves.
I didn’t need to scan the inside of my wallet: I knew everything was there.
Sometimes, I look back over this story and think the whole of the world’s problems have been exposed for me here.
MARY LOU SANELLI’s latest book is “Among Friends.” Visit her website: www.marylousanelli.com.