Are You Fully Free?

The fiery sun hangs low in the sky while warm and humid air rolls in, a soup mix of nostalgia and longing I can almost taste. The smokey smell of barbecue lingers in the air and the sound of silence is replaced with celebratory fireworks. It’s that time of year again when those of us in the U.S. celebrate the birth of our freedom; but this year, a seemingly ordinary experience has me reflecting on this day in a way I haven’t in years past.

I recently went to get a manicure and was assigned to a very sweet woman I had seen once before. She’s a petite older woman, very soft-spoken and friendly and there’s something about the way she timidly smiles that allows me to see the youth still living in her eyes. We have an instant unspoken connection, the kind that transcends logic; and, despite the fact she sees hundreds of clients - she remembers me.

During my first visit with her, our connection led us down the path of talking about our personal lives. She was quietly inquisitive and her non-threatening demeanor allowed me to feel safe in sharing things with her I normally would not. At the time, I was in the midst of a divorce and moving to a new home - two events of a magnitude that make manicures seem downright silly.

As I shared some of my life with her, I could feel sadness in her heart almost as though I had broken it. She immediately expressed concern and even visibly cringed several times as we talked. She seemed genuinely fearful of what would come of my newly-divorced life and I found myself feeling as though I needed to console her, an interesting dynamic given I was the one going through it.

She spoke so softly that I had to turn my ear and lean in closely to listen as she confided in me that her marriage was arranged, she only knew her husband for 2 weeks before they married and he brought her to the U.S. from Vietnam. She recounted the pain she felt for years after leaving her country, coming to a foreign land where she had no family members, no contacts, no friends.  She told me she cried every day for four years. Every. Day. Four. Years.

She went on to tell me that her marriage is still very unhappy and the youthful hope I had seen in her eyes darkened to despair as she told me she would have nothing if she left. The relationship is so bad that even her now-grown kids want her to divorce their father. When I asked her why she stays, she told me that women in her country are “weak” compared to “strong and independent” American women. I tried those words on for size and felt oddly as though they didn’t fit me. Strong and independent are two words I would not have used during a time I felt rather beaten down by life.

Women in her country rarely leave their husband no matter how difficult it may be because there is no support whatsoever for those who do, so most are left with no options other than to stay. She shared with me her memory of a neighbor back in Vietnam who stayed with a man who abused her so badly that she kept having to go to the hospital. This man would beat her to a point she could barely move, but because she had 5 kids and no means to support herself, she couldn’t leave him. 

The gravity of all these different situations really hit me as I listened. But it wasn’t about how different our circumstances are or how sorry I felt for the woman who was beaten by her husband. Instead, as this woman painted my nails a shade of soft pink that seemed to match her voice, I could still feel her desire for strength, her need for freedom, and all the ways we are the same. The warmth of her hands on mine ignited a new place of hope within me.

Despite the fact she has now spent decades living in the “land of the free,” I could see the years of feeling like she had no choice on her face and, for the first time, I could clearly see what it looks like to be imprisoned by your own mind.

I did nothing to deserve the freedom I was gifted at birth and cannot claim to understand true oppression, but for those who are celebrating this holiday, perhaps this is a time to not only have gratitude for your independence, but to think about what it truly means to be free.