I got my haircut in Chinatown yesterday, as usual. I sat down in one of three barber chairs facing a mirror. I made several surreptitious glances in the mirror in front of me, at an old woman sitting next to me with her eyes closed.
She was not getting a haircut. She didn’t exactly look Chinese. I thought she looked vaguely like a North American Native American, but more Asian.
Her hair was parted down the middle and pulled back tightly into a bun held back with a piece of leather with a stick through it (I’m sure there’s a name for this thing, but I’ve forgotten what it is).
My haircut done, I stood up and looked down on the old lady. “Oh,’ I suddenly realized, “she’s wearing a long skirt with mismatched horizontal stripes of various colors on it. She must be Tibetan.” Actually I said the “Oh” out loud, as I was so surprised.
Her eyes opened and she looked up at me. I looked down and offered, “Tashi delek,” with a head bow.
Her eyes opened wide, as did the eyes of the young woman on the other side of her, getting a blow-dry. They both said the proper response at the same time, “Ta-SHI delek,” in surprise.
Then we chatted for a few minutes. The younger woman spoke English but the older lady did not. Had I been to Tibet? I hadn’t, but I explained that my first wife was Chinese and she introduced me to some Tibetans. One of them had taught me to say ‘tashi delek’, just so I could be friendly if I should meet Tibetans on the streets from time to time.
Did I live in Chinatown? No, I live way uptown. I come here because the haircuts are good and cheap.
Do you live in Chinatown? No, we live in Brooklyn but come here because the haircuts are good and cheap.
Do you make the annual march from the United Nations to the Chinese mission? And when is that?
Every August. I march but my mom can’t anymore.
The Chinese are taking over everywhere in Tibet. It’s harder to live there. More people are leaving.
I thanked them for the conversation, and they thanked me for being polite in Tibetan.
It’s about 20 years since Tsering taught me how to say that greeting. In that time I have shopped at a camping store that recently went out of business. Every worker there except the owner was Tibetan or Sherpa. I greeted them and they greeted me, every time I came in.
And roughly 15 years ago I got into a taxi. I looked on the driver ID. His name was Tenzing. Through the partition I said, “Tashi delek.”
He responded, “Tashi – WHAT??!”