the korean nail salon poem

i have always wanted to work
in a korean nail salon
painting nails and airbrushing tips
while chattering softly
in an unknowable language
doing pedicures and filing feet
and mentioning to each other
that that white person’s foot
was like a loaf of wonderbread.

when i was thirteen
i went to get my nails done
and i listened to the women
speak to each other in a complicated tongue
and laugh
and i thought they were laughing at me.
poor little twinkie,
she doesn’t even know we’re talking about her!

this may have just been paranoia
but my inability to grasp my own language
makes me feel pretty paranoid.

how many times have you
stepped into an elevator
and thought someone was talking about you
in a musical tongue, in a gutteral tongue
and then the doors slide open
and you go about your day
but you still keep those sideways glances
in the back of your mind?

i listened to those women speak
and strained to hear inflections,
tried to discerne tone and rhythm
a soft clucking of the tongue
and words followed by a titter.

in all my twenty two years
i have never sensed
the way i did when i heard those women laugh
mouths hidden behind surgical masks
i never never felt that kind of commonality

i am at times ashamed of my whiteness
of my pathetically limited knowledge of korean food language culture
how i know hamburgers better than i know the types of kimchi
how that woman started speaking to me in korean
and i couldn’t answer her
because i didn’t know what the hell she was saying
how self-teaching language programs
only serve to confuse me more
how i can’t wrap my mouth around the words

as the nail salon closes,
i’m on a bench across the street
watching them rinse out the pedicure tubs,
spinning the tops of the nail polish bottles closed.
they leave together.
one of them sees me
and waves.
i wave back.
it needs no translation.


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