I met Chris in South Korea, when both she and Alan, the man who became her husband, were in the US military. Recently, we talked online, and she told me what moving around the US, Korea and Germany had meant for her. Thanks to Chris for the photos.
You said that, in each of the different places you have lived, you left a different person than you came.
In Hawaii, when we talk about our lives and subjects like this, we say we “talk story”.
Every place I went had a certain effect on me in one way or another, tin a lot of cases urning me into a much better woman than I was when I arrived.
You were a different person?
Absolutely. I left Toledo, Ohio in 1986 and joined the Army. Prior to that, I was a twice-divorced woman who had had various jobs. I also had other problems, but I didn’t see it that way. I knew that if I didn’t leave then I’d end up staying the rest of my life.
I left a pretty sheltered environment where things didn’t change much, and I met people from very different circumstances—women who had been prostitutes, schoolteachers, moms who were just looking for a way to support their kids. I feel like I learned a lot from all of them.
What was your job in the military?
Office work. I’d wanted to do explosive ordnance disposal, but only 15% of the people in EOD could be women, and they were full. I’d thought it would be cool to blow stuff up. Maybe also a bit of a death wish: I’ll go into the military, and if I die, it will all be over, and I’ll be one of the veterans who are celebrated on Memorial Day.
My first duty station was right outside Savannah, Georgia. It was absolutely gorgeous, and I fell in love with it. But as a Northerner in the deep South, I was amazed at how open the racism was. Which is not to say I’d had no previous contact with it. In grade school I did a report on a book about Martin Luther King, and I had to hide the book in order to avoid being called names. My dad was a racist, but he stopped short of using the n-ord.
I grew up in a town outside Toledo where there were only two black people. Then at seventeen I was pregnant and sent to a home for unwed mothers. My roommate was a black woman named Tanya who came over to where I was sitting on my bed and started to whale the tar out of me, slapping me and hitting me.
I said, “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Because you need to know your place here.”
I think it was just to bring me down a notch or two. I was shocked and angry that someone felt she had to do that to me. Of course, I was away from home for the first time, living in the city with people I’d never been around before. But some understanding dawned, and as a result, I developed some respect for people regardless of their color or where they came from.
In Georgia I was friends with people who were friendly. I’ll never forget I was walking into the mall with two friends, a black guy and a white guy, when a white woman was coming out of the mall. The black guy held the door open for her, and she looked at the three of us like she‘d just smelled something bad. She almost ran through the door to get away from us. On other occasions, people would look askance at me, or the white people would have something to say. It’s not like there were any displays of affection. We were just friends.
I’d told myself that people were inherently good, but by that time—my mid or late 20s—I was changing my expectations about how people might behave when they came in contact with “the other.” The next stop was South Korea. That was a real eye-opener.
When was that, in the early 90s?
I got to Seoul in October 1989. The Olympics had just happened, and everybody kept telling me how much the country had changed, become so commercialized. I learned how lonely it could be to be a round-eyed white woman in an Asian woman’s world.
As I began to pay attention, I was astounded at how strong Korean women were, maybe because of the demands that were made of them, how strong the family was, and how they revered their older people and treated them with such respect. I’ had never seen anything like that.
Where I grew up if somebody’s parents got old, they were off to nursing homes. The idea of being locked away terrified people more than anything else. I volunteered in the nursing home and filled water jugs and helped people eat. I think I was twelve or fifteen years old and my sister had worked there as a student nurse. It was fascinating to me. People lying in bed, most of them couldn’t talk or hear. I thought of the place as like a vegetable garden. We would take the residents outside in the sun, and I watched to see if they changed.
Among the ones who were active, I remember a woman who had really long hair which she wore braided up and then wrapped around her head. One day I saw her in the hallway drying her hair at a register. I was amazed. “Do you still do all that yourself?”
“Of course. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
But you know, the people who could walk, we’d walk them around out in the yard. At dinner time we’d get the trays and feed those who couldn’t do it themselves. I remember one old lady who had bedsores and how painful that must have been.
I could understand why people didn’t want to live there. I had a great-aunt who kept her mother at home until she was gone even though she required a lot of care, but when she herself got old she was just put in a home where she couldn’t even get up and make her own breakfast. It broke her heart.
My own experience was very different. At fifteen I volunteered at a general hospital, but I didn’t even know anyone at a nursing home. Several families in our neighborhood, including ours, had expanded their houses to make room for a grandmother. So mine lived with us for quite a few years, and when my parents moved she lived in a near-by assisted living facility, where she seemed to be happy. At the end of her life, my aunt took responsibility for her. Then she was in a care facility, but by then she was well over ninety, blind and suffering from dementia.
Koreans have these stereotypes about Americans putting all their old people in nursing homes and throwing young people out to fend for themselves when they turn eighteen. I think some of this is they can’t imagine a society without Confucian values. Actually—I looked this up—only 4.5% of older adults live in nursing homes and 2 percent live in assisted living facilities. The majority of older adults live in the community, some 15% with family or friends.
But getting back to Korea…
I didn’t necessarily like everything about the Korean culture, but what I did like – once we got past all the formalities – the Korean people were very warm, and they were very generous and taught me a lot about being kind and being generous, and being more family oriented. It wasn’t just that the oldest son—or actually his wife—looked after the old parents. It could involve a remarkable sacrifice, like quitting a successful career in order to look after her mother-in-law at home.
Under their influence, family got to be more important to me as well. Part of this may have been longing for something absent and distant, but still the family meant more. In Korea I’d married a guy in the military, and my relationship with my husband meant more.
Back in the States, you went to work for a very wealthy and powerful woman.
Alan was stationed in Missouri, and I left the military to work for a woman whose family owned the Kansas City electric company and other businesses, like a newspaper, a radio station, a ranch. She sat on the state gaming commission. She was very wealthy very influential, married late in life, no children. I saw the kind of power she could wield and the people she knew. For example, when she got speeding tickets she called the governor, and he fixed them for her. I grew up a lot at that job.
We were there for three years, and then were sent back to Seoul, astounded at how much soul had changed just in the few years that we had been gone. It had become so westernized that you saw couples displaying affection out in the open, which you never saw before. yet those things about the culture that I absolutely loved, those were still there. I got to go back and see familiar places, and be back in Seoul.
We left there and went to Ohio, and things started to get a little dark. I couldn’t find a secretary job and didn’t have much of a social life. I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing, dragging myself through one boring day after another.
hen one day I heard on the news that a new barber college had just opened up. Now, as a child of four and a half, I went to my great uncle’s barbershop with my dad on Saturdays. I was allowed to sit there as long as I was quiet and sat still. I used to look at all the mugs up on the shelf and the straight razors, listen to the men talk and watch them smoke cigarettes while my uncle cut hair. When I announced that I wanted to be a barber, I was told little girls couldn’t be barbers—beauticians, but not barbers.
I called the school, but they were unable to take my GI Bill. I called another one, and they could. I discovered that not only was I good at barbering, but I really liked it, and it put me in a place where I felt I belonged.
It felt good to stand next to a man, talk to him, cut his hair, make him look good and make him feel better about himself. It felt good to have something in my hands to operate, comb through someone’s hair, use the comb to hold it up as I snipped with the sheers. Take out razor blades, take a steamed towel off and apply another layer of soap on and shave the beard. All those things came so naturally and so instinctively to me that it made me wonder if I had been a barber in another life.
I had an instructor who was a woman. It had taken her many years to get to her current position, and it took women like her to break down the barriers for the rest of us.
So I waited thirty-two years and then walked into a barber school to prepare for a job I loved for twenty years. It had such a profound change on me. I’d always heard people say, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” So I played every day.
We left Ohio and went to Michigan, where I worked for a man who said he’d never had a woman in the barbershop. I said, “I think you’ll find that I fit in just fine.” That was the story every place I went. I saw it as an opportunity to grow my skills and grow as a person. It can be tough because men can be not very nice. It didn’t matter because I had learned how to be nice and to give as good as I got. And I loved what I did.
Alan was a weather forecaster in the Air Force until he retired in 2001. Then 9/11 happened, and he had the opportunity to work for the government again. He took a job in Germany. I didn’t work for the first eighteen months. We were in a little bitty town not far from the facility where he worked, between Darmstadt and Wiesbaden.
Barbering had started to take a toll on me, and I still had damage from an old bicycle accident. That meant shoulder surgery. I got sidelined for a while. I
went into a fairly deep depression When you deal with chronic pain and an injury, it gets old real fast. Also, w When you’re used to working all day every day and then suddenly you’re sitting at home, what is it that validates you? Then I realized that my job had been my validation my whole life. I began to put a value on stuff like ironing in order to feel like I was making a contribution—five shirts ironed, thirty dollars—just to feel like I was worth something. That was a hard lesson to learn.
Then one day I got my hair cut on the military installation. The conversation led to, “What? You’re a barber? I’ve been looking for a barber for a year!” I went to work two or three days later. Then I was back again doing something I love.
I worked with people from all over– Nigeria, Scotland, England, Germany. It was such a melting pot and I learned so
much. Not just about my craft and my training, but about other cultures—how to deal with others, find out about them and find some kind of appreciation for them. I don’t have to like everything I hear.
For example, there was a woman from Nigeria who ‘e had an arranged marriage to a professor. He’d brought them to Germany. Their marriage was loveless. He didn’t want to have children, and she was desperate to have them. As we were working together, we got to know each other fairly well, and she told me what was going on, and I felt for her.
After her mother passed away, because she was the oldest daughter, she had to quit her job and go back to Nigeria to settle all the affairs.
I said, “Why are you going to have to quit?”
She said there are certain things that had to be done, entertain certain people, take care of the various properties. It would take a year. It was not an easy matter like it can be in the States.
From Germany we moved to a small college town in Virginia, where I sat around and waited a while for my license to be transferred. I was happy to again find friends from various backgrounds and cultures.
Once I happened to be walking by a barbershop that was right down the street from where we were staying. I looked in the window and I said, “I’d love to work here”. It was an old-fashioned shop out of the 1850s with old tiny chairs. After I got my license, I was checking out places, and that one had a sign saying “barber wanted.” I went to work there.
The owner of the place was quite old and demented, so I became a kind of babysitter. When his clothes were dirty, I’d tell him, “Honey when you go home tonight you get out some clean clothes okay?”
I think his kids appreciated that there was someone there keeping an eye on him. I had dealt with my mother when she got diagnosed. We mourn the loss when she was diagnosed and watched the woman we knew slip away and got to love the one who was left behind. I did the same with him as he slipped away.
The kids asked if I wanted to buy the barbershop, and I agreed. Alan and I made arrangements, bought the shop, shut it down at the end of the year and reopened on January 2 under a new name. We made changes because it had been let go, and we still own it to this day. So I became a business owner. Later, when we left Virginia, I looked back and said, “I guilt that.”
Anyway, we have a son, his wife and a granddaughter living in Honolulu. In March 2020, when I was still in Virginia, Covid hit. Alan was back working in Germany, but I wanted him home with me. He was furloughed and transferred back to Virginia. The state of Virginia shut he barbershop down during Covid, so we remodeled the entire shop. Reopening was very limited—social distancing, mask, all the fun went out of the job. I didn’t want it anymore.
I needed a shoulder replacement, partly the physical stress of the job and partly an old bicycle injury. In June the hospital started doing surgery again, and my doctor said we needed to do mine right away. On June 4, they did my shoulder replacement, which immediately fell apart. I had to wait ten days to have it redone. At that point, I had a pretty good idea that I was done working. As it happened, I had no regrets.
Alan had been doing the paperwork side of the business, so he turned that over to me, and again I was doing something new.
In August Alan was sitting at home, looking through job listings and found a job in Hawaii. So we’re happily here now.