When 19-year-old newlywed Thuy Zipp arrived in Hawaii from war-torn Vietnam in 1969, she could sense right away that her new home was the sort of friendly, welcoming place she could learn to love.
But before she could truly make a connection — "It felt like I was deaf and dumb because I could see the signs but I didn’t know what they meant, and I could hear people talking but I didn’t know what they were saying," she says — she knew she’d have to learn English in a hurry.
Zipp put her trust in what was then a radical new development in American education.
"I learned English by watching ‘Sesame Street,’" she says proudly. "That’s how I learned to talk to other people."
The elementary instruction provided by professors Ernie, Bert, Kermit and Big Bird was all the naturally loquacious Zipp needed to make herself at home.
After the birth of her and husband Karl’s second daughter, Zipp took a job as a carhop at the old KC Drive-Inn on Ala Wai Boulevard. Chatting freely with customers of all stripes, Zipp found she liked Hawaii as much (if not more) than her native Saigon.
"People here are so much nicer," she says, laughing. "It was like putting on a new shirt. Everyone treated me so nicely."
Zipp spent seven years at KC before moving on to Like Like Drive Inn, where she has remained for the past 31 years.
When her three daughters were still in school, Zipp took on as much overtime as she could handle, regularly working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. In retrospect she suspects that the long hours and irregular sleep might have contributed to the stroke she suffered four years ago. The attack left her partially paralyzed for almost nine months.
Now that her girls are all well established in their own careers, she’s dialed back to a semiretirement schedule that finds her working from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. three nights a week. She spends her free time walking, swimming, practicing tai chi and shopping for her two grandchildren. Still, Zipp says, she gets a unique sense of satisfaction from her job at the restaurant.
After 30 years on the graveyard shift, Zipp has become well accustomed to the various night-blooming species that gather at her counter, from overexcited teenagers out after curfew to sleepless old men brooding over oversize plates of fried rice to the after-2 a.m. wave of off-duty bartenders, barmaids and drunks.
"Sometimes we get people who are staying over at the Pagoda," she says. "Nothing else is open, so they come in for coffee and to talk story."
And to be sure, as adept as Zipp is at making sure no coffee mug ever runs dry, she is even better at making customers feel like old friends.
"I like everybody — as long as they don’t swear at me," she says, still laughing. "I’ll talk to anybody, it doesn’t matter who they are. As soon as they sit at my counter, I want to talk to them."
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.