Threading in Hoi An by Monica Graff

Travel Essay: I was trying to get through Hoi An’s open-air market, through the rows of eight-foot-long tables brimming with all manner of foodstuff: shrimp, snapper, clams, squid. Chickens too—some plucked and ready for the pot; others still alive and bungee-corded to the backs of mopeds. An elderly man hosed down the concrete floor, washing away blood but not the putrid smell that clung to the moist air. As I tiptoed through the bloody puddles, shoppers elbowed past me to negotiate dinner ingredients. It was late afternoon, the hottest part of the day, and I stopped to remove my sunhat and wipe rivulets of sweat from my brow. Just then a little hand holding a long white string entered my line of vision.

“You want to try?” The question felt like a demand, and I looked over to see who had so casually invaded my personal space. A small woman with perfectly arched eyebrows and hot pink lip gloss dangled a tail of floss in front of my face and asked again. “You want to try?”

I stepped out into the street, hat in hand, as my husband walked on, oblivious to the bidding behind him. As scooters honked and nosed their way through the crowd of pedestrians, she shadowed me. “Your eyebrows too thick. Let me help.” She came at my left eye with the string, and I blocked her advance with my forearm. Now I understood what service she was offering.

At my salon in downtown Chicago, I’d noticed “threading” on the menu of spa options, but I’d never seen it performed. Nor had I ever considered embarking upon a procedure that to my mind could provide only questionable results. I mean, how could a piece of thread remove a tiny strand of hair? And how was that method more effective or desirablehan tweezers?

“Good results. Expert,” she said.

I trot-walked toward my husband, now a small dot in the distance. Halfway to him I thought I had ditched her, but like an unsinkable Cheerio, she popped up from behind, this time on my right side.

“Oh, pimple!” she said. “Right here!” She pointed to the bottom of her right jaw and then at mine. “Let me get that for you. Free! Free!”

Was this traveling beautician really offering to somehow remove my pimple with her thread? Or was she just going to pop it with her bare hands, right here amongst the festering fish heads and used bicycle parts?

Maybe blemishes in Vietnam don’t evoke the same humiliation that they did when I was growing up in Texas. When I got my first pimple, it was no dainty thing. It was nearly the size of an eraser head. And hot red. The bump took days to develop into a whitehead, and so I began to refer to it as an “undergrounder.” It was like a volcano that at some unknowable time would explode through its central vent. But I didn’t have that kind of patience. I couldn’t leave it alone.

When my friend’s perfectly put together mother drove us neighborhood kids to school the next morning, she took one look at me and asked what had happened to my face.

“Did someone hurt you, dear?” she asked. The look in her eyes betrayed the real question, which was, “What in the world did you doto yourself, girl?”

I remember touching my cheek and feeling the angry, scabby mound. I felt ugly, dirty, and embarrassed. Nothing like the models in Seventeenor TigerBeat, whose only “blemishes” were angel-kiss freckles. The pimple, now an actual open wound, was evidence of what I knew to be true: I had done something wrong. I had attempted to get rid of the pimple with a pair of tweezers on the advice of my brother.

Thirty years later, at that market in Vietnam, my inner schoolgirl wanted to believe Thread Woman could magically grant my wish for flawless skin. Not to mention perfectly arched eyebrows like hers. If nothing else, the whole ancient epilation ritual would have made for an interesting story to share back home. But my older, wiser self, the one who understands how meaningless it is for me to hunt down someone else’s ideal of feminine beauty with strings, tweezers, or any other barbaric tool, looked Thread Woman in the eye and said, “Thanks, I’m good.”

BIO: Monica Graff spent two decades editing scholarly monographs for university presses before she decided to put down her red pen and pick up a black one. These days she explores the world with her husband–which she blogs about at postmarksbygraff.com–and writes essays. She lives in the wilderness of Montana and the urban jungle of New York City.