My barber gave me pause the other day.
I was getting trimmed up for our annual family gathering on Thanksgiving (today), and I decided I was going to engage him in conversation. Mind you, I’ve been going to this barbershop for about ten years now and have had this specific barber cut my hair on a number of those occasions — yet I’d never heard him say more than just a few words per visit. I didn’t know if he was reserved, introverted, or simply a man of few words, but I wanted to connect with him.
To further flesh him out… he is foreign — of Asian descent. Slim, well-mannered, and immaculately groomed — he is the perfect embodiment of fresh-out-of-the-shower, spit-and-polish. His clothes always look unwrinkled and neat as a pin. And every time he has asked me what type of haircut I want, I always sincerely tell him that I want it to look like his own… which makes him chuckle, as my unruly mop will never ever remotely look anything like his, no matter what heroics are used to tame it.
So on this visit, I asked him if he was looking forward to Thanksgiving — fully expecting the usual few words of response, followed by a very long and awkward silence. Instead, it was as if I had opened the floodgates.
Oh yes! — Thanksgiving was important to his family, very important. He loved the fact that the holiday is so family oriented and free of commercialism. That it was so inclusive to all cultures and people. And the premise behind it… to be thankful, regardless of your faith.
His family has two meals on this very important day… the standard American turkey-based meal (which is served at midday), and an elaborate Vietnamese feast that is served all day long (“Eat as much as you want, we’ll make more!”). Prior to this admission, I had no idea of his nationality. It was obvious that his cultural foods were important to him, so I asked him what he and his family served for the holiday. Special pork barbecue, Vietnamese salad (his special recipe), and a whole host of other exotic sounding dishes that sounded utterly delicious (yum!). And then I asked him what was his favorite, of all the food they served during their Thanksgiving feast… And his response? Turkey wings! He was also partial to his own salad, because it had so many flavors that are missing from standard American cuisine.
I then asked if he had family nearby. Oh yes, all of his family lived nearby; the furthest being only 15 minutes away, which was the way they all wanted it.
And this was why Thanksgiving was so very important to he and his family. And why they were so very very thankful.
They came to our country as refugees seeking political asylum. He and his family were part of the original Vietnamese boat people, fleeing from the Communists that swept into their country at the end of the Vietnam War (you can read details about the boat people — some accounts of which are quite harrowing and include torture, starvation, and disease — here, here, and here). He described he and his family as being “treated worse than dogs” by the Communists and that they lost everything but the clothes on their backs in the ensuing regime change. I wasn’t told specifics about their plight, or how long the entire process took, but eventually his brother was the first family member to reach the USA, followed by he and his father. His mother and sisters came later, once they had established a toehold in the US.
By 1995 they had finally reassembled their family here in the suburbs of Washington, DC… all safe… and all sound.
He said that the “promise of freedom in America” was what kept them going during their long exodus, and that none of the hype that they had heard during their daunting journey had truly prepared them for the reality of what awaited them… America had exceeded all of their expectations. He noted that they truly loved their adopted homeland and made a point to embrace the new customs and holidays that were so very foreign to them.
Especially Thanksgiving. Because they were truly grateful.