Brave New World
Publication Type:Web Article
Year of Publication:2004
Laura Reasoner Jones thinks about immigration as she realizes her Vietnamese hairdresser, who taught herself English, is now learning Spanish phrases to meet the needs of a changing clientele.
Jones, L.R. (2004). Brave new world. Teacher Leaders Network diaries. Retrieved from the Teacher Leaders Network 10 Apr 2008. Link: http://www.teacherleaders.org/old_site/diaries/LRJ04.html
Brave New Worlds
"O brave new world that has such people in't!"
– Shakespeare, The Tempest
I have been getting my hair cut at the same place for the past 20 years, one of those 'no-appointment chains' that operate out of strip malls next to grocery stores. I go to the one that has the crystal store next door, the store with the peel-off decal that says, "The Psychic Is In."
When my girls were young, and we had no money at all, I would take them for a cut, ask for someone who 'liked children,' and hope for the best. As Christie and Julie got older and started earning their own money and becoming fussy about their hair, they moved on to the fancier and more expensive places in the ritzier neighborhoods. But I, being the practical and cheap person that I am, and needing nothing more than a simple haircut, remained loyal to my lovely hairdresser Ba.
Ba is a slender Vietnamese woman who in 1975 left her country on a boat with her parents, carrying the few possessions they had left. They eventually settled in California, training for jobs here in the US. Ba finished school, married another Vietnamese refugee and moved east, landing in Northern Virginia. She raised her family, and put her two children through college. She learned English on the job, and has become one of the most popular haircutters in the shop, with a loyal clientele of all ages and backgrounds.
The other day I went for my every-six-weeks cut and was struck by the impact the change in our town has had on her and the other women in the shop. This shop is in the dicey end of town, the area with the day laborer issue that puts our town in the Washington Post on a regular basis. The once high-end grocery store that anchors the small mall has converted several of its aisles to ethnic food and exotic vegetables that this middle-aged Midwesterner has never seen. The variety is interesting, though, and I try to figure out how to use the new fruits when I am feeling adventurous.
The other hairdressers in the beauty shop are of multiple nationalities: Chinese, Hispanic, Korean, and more. And on Ba's work station was the paper that made me think and marvel. There on her work station was a half page of notebook paper with a young girl's handwriting on it:
Five sets of questions, first in English, then in Spanish, and then with phonetic approximations of the Spanish-
– Put your name in the computer.
– How much do you want me to cut?
– Do you want me to shampoo your hair?
– Do you want me to dry your hair?
– What color do you want?
My friend Ba, the lovely Vietnamese immigrant, now has to learn Spanish to do her job.
It hasn't always been easy for those of us who have lived here for over 25 years to see our town's culture change with our new immigrants. But what must it be like for someone like Ba, who lived through her own difficult immigration and assimilated herself and her family into the American mainstream? How does it feel to have to try to learn yet another language in order to come to work daily and communicate with her customers?
I spend a lot of my limited spare time right now working on my family history. And I will be the first to admit that it has been a long time since anyone in my family immigrated or emigrated anywhere. That doesn't make us any better; it just makes us totally out of touch with that experience. My husband's father came from Wales when he was a young man, but he went right into a Welsh Church and community and besides, he spoke English with a much sought-after accent. We are isolated and insulated from immigrant life and it is impossible to understand just how difficult this new life must be.
I wonder what Ba thinks as she uses her five phrases of Spanish mixed into her heavily-accented English. I wonder if she remembers those long ago and far away days in California as a newly-arrived young girl, speaking no English and worrying about her family and their future here in America. Does she get angry at the lack of English of these newcomers? Does she have compassion for their struggles? Does she think they should behave differently, work harder, learn faster?
I wonder what the children who are learning English in our schools now will remember, and how they will feel when they are adults. Will they remember teachers and friends as helpful or impatient? Will they have compassion for new English learners? Will they have patience and help out? Or will they expect even higher standards because they once were in the newcomers' place?
This is a challenge that none of us foresaw. But as I looked at the little cheat sheet on Ba's work station, I had to admire her for trying. It is a brave new world and she is doing her best to work in it.