By Mary Lou Sanelli

This is a story about contrasts.

It’s also a story about courage and determination. Both belong to a woman from Vietnam named Phuong.

At the end of the story, I just shake my head.

I was given a gift certificate for a mani/pedi at a luxury spa. So yesterday, I hopped on a bus to take full advantage of my friend’s generosity.

The last time I had my nails done was when my mother was dying. I was also writing a book that maybe I should have put away, but honestly, writing saved me. When the woman who buffed my nails asked, “How you?” I started to cry. She swept me into the back room, sat me down, and dug her thumbs into my shoulders. “Dollar a minute,” she said. I asked for an hour, half an hour per shoulder. She set the timer.

In the candle-lit room, Phuong smiles at everyone in a genuine way. When I say, “You have a great smile,” she says, “I love it here, that’s why.”

This seemed strange, to “love” cutting cuticles. I reach into my pocket to be sure my tip is there. I am a big fan of genuine positivity.

I love it here, too, but I have noticed the town is changing so fast that copy-cat behavior is everywhere. But genuine, not so much.

“What brought you here?” I asked Phuong.

She said she replied to a request for marriage “on the internet.”

It’s always been like this, I thought, the mail-order-bride. World War I, II, and so on and so on. And because she is all of 20, I said, “Please don’t tell me he’s 80 years old.”

She looked at me and smiled. Then I worried she’d pull back. But she was happy to tell me about how men would sneak into her village to kidnap girls and force them into marriage.

“Oh God!” I said. “My two cousins were stolen from our playground. We learn Chinese and English so we can get home if we are kidnapped.”

“That’s so … horrible.” “More horrible when they take only the kidneys,” she said.

I think Phuong really does love her work, that people like her don’t share such stories with clients to entertain them, but because they need to talk about what they’ve gone through to stay alive. And it’s amazing to me that considering what she just told me, she manages to give the impression that she is totally appreciative of the opportunities she’s been given. Here is where the story is all about courage.

And here is the contrast: The woman sitting next to me never looked up from her phone to acknowledge Phuong, or the story she’d just had the privilege to hear, other than to ask if the lights could be turned up a little. And when told the candlelight (fake candles, but still) set the mood, here came another word I find disingenuous, “whatever.”

She told me the rest of her corporate team-builders were in the sauna. By the time I got to the dressing room, it looked like the aftermath of a frat party. What a mess!

This is where I shake my head. My Aunt Connie was a cleaning lady when she first came to this country. The stories she could tell.

I picked up all the wet towels and threw them in the basket.

Mary Lou Sanelli is an author whose latest book is A Woman Writing. When not working as a literary speaker on the Mainland, she lives in Honolulu. For more of her work, visit

“A SHARED SPACE” is an ongoing reader-submitted column. To share your story, email