by Natthinee Khot-asa Jones and Hardy Jones
Mrs. Vernadean was a co-worker at Sam’s Club in Lawton, Oklahoma. She was on her way to my house for lunch and to trim my hair. Lunch: my idea, trimming my hair: her idea. Normally I only cut my hair when I visit my native Thailand, but as someone new to Oklahoma, I wanted to make an effort to be her friend.
Mrs. Vernadean was Mexican American with black curly hair and tan skin like me. At work we often ate lunch together, and one day she told me about her life.
“I grew up in Nevada. In the house my mother didn’t speak Spanish to me. She wanted me to speak only English.”
“If I was you, I would learn how to speak Spanish. I grew up speaking Khmer in the house, learned Thai in elementary school, Laotian from friends, and started studying English in elementary school.”
“I don’t care to speak Spanish.”
“But your husband Gino, he’s Colombian and speaks Spanish.”
“Yes, but I don’t have to be like him.”
A month later: I ate lunch in the break room and Mrs. Vernadean plopped down across from me.
“I hate when customers speak to me in Spanish.”
“You are Mexican American,” I said.
“No. I’m American. And I only speak English.”
“But your parents are Mexican.”
“But people should recognize me as American.”
“I wish I could speak Spanish because a few customers assume I am Latina.”
“But you were not born in America. You don’t know what I went through.”
“Born in America or born in other country doesn’t change the way you look. Your parents never looked the same as white Americans. You should be proud of yourself and of the people you come from.”
“You’re giving me a headache.” Mrs. Vernadean moved to another table.
I looked at her and told myself: I’m proud to be part Thai and Khmer, and to now be called Asian-American. I love who I am and am proud to be mixed with different ethnicities: the gift I received from my ancestors.
Mrs. Vernadean’s comment, “You don’t know what I went through,” interested me. When I returned home that day, I asked my husband, an American and an English professor, about it. He explained how Latinos faced discrimination due to their language and their Catholicsm. My husband taught me a new word: assimilation.
But discrimination in Thailand never stopped me from speaking Khmer. My province borders Cambodia, so almost everyone where I am from speaks Khmer. Other parts of Thailand look at us as different. Many of us go to Bangkok for work, and when the city people want to insult us, they say, “Take your water buffalo and return to Cambodia.” I was often told that as a teenager and young adult working in factories, but hearing the insult did not make me want to deny my Khmer heritage.
I still wanted to be Vernadean’s friend, and I shared my home cooked Thai food with her. Over the next few weeks she was nice and one day asked:
“Do you ever trim your hair? The ends do not look healthy. I can trim it. I used to trim my children’s hair.”
“Are you sure you want to?” I asked.
“Yes. What is your day off?”
Friday morning I woke early and cooked a big meal for us. My husband couldn’t have lunch with me and Mrs. Vernadean because he had a meeting at the university. Not long after he left the house, Mrs. Vernadean arrived. I greeted her with praying hands—wai, our greeting in Thai culture. Mrs. Vernadean froze. Why was she scared of praying hands?
After we ate, Mrs. Vernadean looked around the dining area and living room; her eyes stopped above our fireplace on two portraits. “Are those your parents?”
“Sort of. They are the parents of Thailand, our King and Queen. The photo in the middle is the Emerald Buddha, the most revered object in the kingdom.”
Mrs. Vernadean stared silently for a few more seconds.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“Your country is not Christian?”
“We have some Christians, but the majority of the country is Buddhist.”
She put her fingers to her throat and her forehead creased. I have been in America since 2002 and Oklahoma since 2008, but I sometimes forget that many Americans do not know much about my country.
I thought of saying more to her, but instead led the way to my bedroom, where I showed her the small altar I had for the Buddha and the spirits’ of my father and father-in-law.
“We put their photos near the Buddha so when we pray at night, we can pray to our fathers’ spirits too.”
“Your husband isn’t Christian?”
“When we got engaged, I asked him if he would make me become Christian, but he said he fell in love with me as a Buddhist, and he wanted me to remain Buddhist.”
Mrs. Vernadean abruptly turned and stomped to the living room.
“Do you want to see the other bedroom that we turned into a library? All of my family photos are in that room.”
She nodded Yes, and followed me.
Hanging on one wall was a silkscreen of the Kings of the Chakri Dynasty, and below them on a night stand was a gold-plated Buddha statue seated peacefully on the golden Sala. Family photos hung on the far wall. Mrs. Vernadean asked, “Who is this?”
“My oldest brother. He became a monk for a few years before my father passed away. This is one of the most important things a Thai man can do to earn spiritual merit for his parents before marrying and having his own family.”
Mrs. Vernadean stormed to the living room. She sat on the corner of the love seat and I sat next to her. She opened her purse and handed me The Watchtower.
“You don’t know who is the real God. You need to read this.”
I looked at The Watchtower and the cover art of a blond haired bearded man. Even her god was white? Like me, my Buddha was Asian. Did her parents join this church to assimilate, or did Mrs. Vernadean join it on her own, to show she was American?
“The real God?”
“Yes, this is the real God on the cover. You need to read this and follow the real God. If you do, you will get to go to heaven.”
“Thank you for sharing The Watchtower with me. I will read it later. Do you still want to trim my hair?”
“I must go.”
Did she refuse to trim my hair because I was Buddhist? Or was trimming my hair only a ruse to enter my house? To be a good missionary, she should have trimmed my hair. At least she would have kept her word. In junior high school, missionaries came to a neighboring village; young white people, who looked happy and spoke loudly about Jesus and His Father. Their stories did not impress the students, but the dollar they offered did. The students took the proffered dollars, promised to pray to Jesus, but at night, as they always did, they prayed to Buddha and their ancestors’ spirits.
“Thank you for visiting,” I said at the door.
I hugged her tightly, and felt her body’s rigidity. I held her to comfort her, but she pulled away.
“Have a great day, Mrs. Vernadean.” I waied to her, and she hurried to her car, not looking back.
Praying hands scared the Christian lady.
Initially I was angry at Mrs. Vernadean. But the more I thought about her life, I pitied her: parents refused to teach her their native language and she worshipped a white, blond Jesus. Dying for others to recognize her as American, she eradicated her Mexican heritage.
Praying Hands first appeared in Eastlit in October 2016. It is reprinted here with permission of the authors.