Fall 1991, 8.2


The Physiognomy of Oriental Women

People lump Oriental women together. They'll refer to them as "Chinese," nowadays as "Japanese." But if you've been over there it's not hard to tell the differences. Chinese women: their faces are rounder than Japanese, features are flatter. Korean women's faces are mannish, flat and square, noses barely extending past the surface, eyes squinted almost shut. Vietnamese women have oval faces; even their eyes are dark ovals, and more open. A guy at the VA, in this group I belonged to, described their eyes as sad, but I don't really buy that. For that matter I don't buy a lot of what was said in the group at the VA, which is part of the reason I stopped going. That and I don't need it like some of the guys, who can't seem to stop thinking about being over there. Sure, now and then I think about it, but it doesn't haunt me. Now and then something reminds me. But when it's over, I can put it aside. That's why I'm doing better than some guys.

As for differences in women's faces, I think it's more a result of Vietnam's being down there on the edge of nowhere, set off from the rest of Asia, so to speak; and probably some mixed blood from when the French were there.

Believe me, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, but sometimes you can't help noticing. The other day, for example, Sunday morning, I was behind this woman in line at the 7 Eleven. Definitely Vietnamese. She was in her thirties. She was wearing American clothes, of course. Dressed for Sunday Mass—high heels and stockings, narrow white linen skirt. A long-sleeved black silk blouse with a flat collar.

Over there I didn't have much contact with the people: either in the hamlets, or civilians in general. That wasn't so with all the guys. Some guys have stories would make your skin crawl, but I was lucky: no horror stories; nothing grotesque. One of my buddies even married over there. Not me. That's part of why being over there was a breeze for me. I didn't get all emotionally involved in it, like a lot of guys. I did what I had to do. I survived, and I came home. And that's all there was to it.

Anyway, people over there are from another world. Especially people out in the hamlets. We came upon them from time to time. They stared at us from their huts as we went about our business. Or we passed them along the road, going in the opposite direction, away from the fighting. Once a naked kid, a baby actually, toddled toward our column, sucking on his hand, staring at us. A woman the age of this woman in line ran out and grabbed him up. But I haven't thought about it much since. It's not something you can afford to worry about.

The line in the 7 Eleven was mostly people coming from church, some picking up papers, some getting milk or doughnuts. A few us waking up and stopping in for coffee or cigarettes. The woman was ahead of me, but was looking all around the store. When it was her turn, she didn't have anything to check out. Instead, she asked the clerk if he had any lemons.

At first the clerk didn't even understand her. She pronounced it laymons. When she finally got across to him what she wanted, he almost laughed. Not disrespectfully, just surprised anyone asked for lemons in a 7 Eleven.

"You'll have to go to one of the groceries," he told her. She looked puzzled.

"Xtra Mart . . . up the street." He gestured toward the mall. She left the store slowly, the clerk and I both watching.

"It's funny," he said. "She lives around here with her old man, comes in every week or so. Usually for a loaf of bread or something. But she doesn't hardly speak English. Like she just got off the boat. Most of them her age talk as good as you and me."

When I pulled out of the parking lot at 7 Eleven I saw her again. She was waiting at the bus stop in front of the gas station.

I decided to go down to Xtra Mart in the mall and get her a couple of lemons. I wanted to stop and get gas anyway. The mall is only two blocks down the road. I went through the speed checkout, paid the 79 cents for the two lemons, headed back down toward the gas station.

She was still standing there, waiting. I pulled into the gas station, alongside one of the pumps. I took the small grocery bag out of the front seat, walked toward her, a few meters away at the bus stop. When she saw I was going to speak to her, she looked almost frightened. I held up the bag with one hand and gestured toward the 7 Eleven.

"I heard you ask for lemons. I was in the grocery and got a couple." I held out the bag to her, but she made no move to take it. Finally, I took the two lemons out of the bag and held them up to her. "Here," I said. "I got these at the mall."

When she saw the lemons, she unclenched her hand, started to unroll a five-dollar bill.

"It's okay," I said. "It wasn't that much. Don't even bother."

She looked puzzled. I felt silly there on the sidewalk, holding the lemons, so I pressed them into her hands. "It's okay," I said, backing away. She just looked at me. "Good-bye," I said. "Di di mau." I couldn't remember how to say "good-bye" in Vietnamese.

She barely smiled. Above the traffic noise, two sharp tones of a car horn sounded, and a late model Buick pulled up to the bus stop. The driver was my age. He reached across and pushed the passenger door open. He was wearing a monogrammed golf shirt.

On the seat beside him was a gold hat. I recognized the country club's logo. He threw the hat into the back seat, said something to her, waited for her to get in. It wasn't hard to tell who was the boss in that family: when he talked, she jumped.

By now I was back at the gas pump filling my car. He pointed at me, said something sharp to her—it sounded like Vietnamese.

As she got in, one of the lemons fell out of her hands and rolled into the street. She started to get back out to pick it up, but he grabbed her by the arm and jerked her back into the seat, then reached across her again and slammed the passenger door.

As they started off down the street the second lemon shot out the passenger window. I bounced across the sidewalk and into some evergreen shrubs, where it sat like an Easter egg. I finished pumping my gas, went to pay.

"Jesus!" said the cashier. "What was that all about?"

I didn't answer. To keep my hand from shaking, I pressed the twenty-dollar bill against the counter, slid it through the opening in the tollbooth window.

"Do you know her?" he asked.

"No," I said. "Never saw her before in my life."

He looked down the street. "It's not right," he said, "American guys . . . marrying these Japanese girls." He shoved my change at me, slid a piece of plywood back over the opening in the window.

See what I mean? It's a perfect example of what I'm talking about: people make statements, think they're experts on Oriental women, and the fact is they can't tell one from another. But I don't let it bother me. I take it in stride. Something like that happens, you can't afford to let it bother you. Believe me, I don't.