“I believe in Buddha. I have a Buddha who is always smiling. Every morning when I come early, I drink coffee and ask him, ‘Buddha, make me lucky today.’ ” Tuanh (Ann) Nguyen, manager of Professionail Salon in the Solana Beach Towne Centre, appears to be very lucky.
I was feeling lucky myself the morning I nosed my old Camry into a parking spot in front of Professionail, tucked between Planet Smoothie and Thai Kitchen. I had tried to arrange interviews at three other nail salons owned and operated by Vietnamese and been disappointed each time by managers afraid to have their businesses exposed in print. Today I was fortunate that Ann and the shop’s owner, Tony Le, not only had given permission but were excited at the prospect of the story.
When I stepped through the salon’s doorway I saw why. It is elegantly appointed, and Ann exuded a graciousness that drew me to her. I thought, this is no ordinary strip-mall nail shop, and this is no ordinary woman.
I asked Ann to tell me her story.
Ann was 18 when she and her family left Vietnam. “I have lived in the U.S. since 1978. We just come by boat. The reason is the war. We just try to come over. The Communists coming. It was dangerous. That’s why we come over. My family come together: my daddy, my mom, my brother, my sister. I have five brothers and four sisters. All are now here in the United States.
“In Vietnam, my family has business. We sell everything — like the 99-cent business.” She explained that the Communists confiscated private businesses, and worse. “After that, we buy the boat. We buy the boat and we come together, family. And friends, and a lot of people come together. We go about three days from Vietnam. We were out at sea for three days.”
Eventually a ship picked them up and took them to a refugee camp. “We live in the camp in Malaysia. We live in the camp in 1976, yeah, we live in the camp about two year, and we come to United States in 1978.”
I asked her what life was like in the camp.
“Oh my God, it’s terrible. We want escape, but it’s not escape. In the camp, you have to build a house — it’s not a house, you know — by yourself, for your own family. We live out there, and we don’t have any family in the United States, you know, and we just waiting. Like, we send the letters for somebody here to come so we could move over here. That’s why we are lucky finally that someone come through.”
A Vietnamese family sponsored them anonymously. “Vietnamese made it for us to come over here. And after that, we looking for a job. To begin with, we just apply for welfare, you know. We were always waiting for the first of the month. About three months, and after that, my family, we don’t want it, because in my country usually you work. We come over to go to work. We just want to go to work and I go to work with my family.
“I have big family, you know, live together, ten people live together in one house because we don’t have money to pay the rent.
“After that, I’m the one first to go to cleaning the windows. Oh my God, it’s so cold. When we coming we don’t have nothing. It’s really cold. The jackets, we don’t have them. I and my sister found a box in the trash and found old sweaters. We were so happy — we don’t have money to buy.” This was in San Diego. “I just clean the windows and my hands get so cold. I am not used to living here, and you feel really cold. And we don’t have nothing. We just clean the windows. We don’t know how to speak English, you know, and it was really difficult for us. Really, really difficult. But we tried the best we can.
“And after that I go to school, but now it is so far. I live in Linda Vista and I go so far in Oceanside. We had to carpool because we don’t have any car. And after that I go to school because I need the license for citizenship — when you work you have to have a license for citizenship.
“After that I go to work. They pay about $4, and I was so happy. I’m really happy I’m working now. I work in Sorrento Valley. I work in a big corporation, a big company. I work down there about seven years. I get to about $8, more than $8.50. I am so happy. Really, really happy. And one of these days I get lay off and I cry a lot because I say, how can I get another job where I get pay $8.50? I cry a lot. I live in an apartment where I have to move out because when I get married, I have a baby, and I don’t have money. And my husband, it’s hard to get a job. And I worry a lot.
“In front of my apartment they have a school with news about the manicurists. It was next to me, down there in Clairemont Mesa, and I just go down there, but I don’t have money. I meet with the manager and I say, ‘I don’t have money,’ and he say, ‘It cost about $1300 for school.’ I say, ‘I don’t have credit, you know.’ I say, ‘Can I make a deal that I waiting for the money from, you know, when you get lay off they send you the money, and I can owe to you?’ I go to school to become manicurist.
“And after that was really difficult, because you don’t know how to speak English so well. You have to look in the dictionary, you know. You have to see what it means. You have to write it down. You have to take a test. And I don’t know nothing.” Students at the manicure school had to pass an English test. “After that, when I go home I study, a lot of work. I don’t know. And I always look at the dictionary, and I learn that. And I take a test and I pass the test. I so happy. [Laughing] Oh my God!
“And after that, I go to work. It’s very difficult because you just have a license. Nobody hire you. Because you just go to school; you just know the basic. And they hire you, you know, but you don’t have the experience to do it. I was in San Diego — like University, El Cajon. The lady, she used to have a supermarket, but it so slow that she sold it, her business, and she go to school about the nails. And I see her and I say, ‘I have a license. Can I work with you?’ Because she have about ten people work with her. I’m the last person. Sometime I work a day, only $30 or only $20. They give me a commission, like 60:40. I get about $18 a day. And it’s not enough for me. But I try the best I can.”
Although Ann’s husband was employed at this time, the family still struggled financially. Ann realized that she needed to learn more than the basics. A man who worked with her taught her to apply acrylic nails. “I am so happy. After that he said, ‘Do you think you’d like to open a business?’ I said, ‘I like to, but I don’t have money.’ I ask him, ‘Do you have money?’ He say, ‘Oh, I don’t have money also. What can we do?’ And we talk about that and we just borrow money, and we open a business.
“That was 1987, and we have business. I have my own business. I am so happy. I’m working for a couple year, and after that I open a small one in the indoor swap meet. I get about three or four business for my own. I know that the business is really well.”
Along the way, Ann learned of Tony Le, a Vietnamese businessman.
“I find out about Tony. I call and I talk to him. I say I would love to manager with him. He says, ‘You don’t know nothing. How can you do with me?’ And I say, ‘Well,’ and after that he hang up the phone. I still remember.”
Not one to be daunted, Ann continued on, immersed in her enterprises.
“After that, I work in Carlsbad. I have own business. It was really cute. It looked real nice.” It turned out that one of her customers was leasing a business with Tony Le at North County Fair. “My customer says, ‘Say, Ann, I know the guy; he is so good. His financial is so good. And he want to do business, but I like your decorations. I like the way you talk with the customers, I really like that.’ And I say, ‘Oh, yes. Can you tell him, can I manage, work with him as manager?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And she talk with Tony. After that, Tony called me and I talk with him and he come over business and looked at it, and he really liked it. And so I and him work together. After that he say the way I do business, he really like it. And we open in center together. I am the one who work with him on so many. He is really, really nice person. I really like to work with him a lot. That’s why I do four or five businesses in the future. We have to build more business, you know.”
Ann believes that she and Tony are partners and that she owns a franchise, but Tony said this is not a franchise. Ann is subleasing from him.
“I am so happy. It is so easy because I know how speak English now, and the reason that Tony backed up me is that he is good financial. It is so easy because they can invite Tony to open business anywhere.” She never fails to give Tony Le credit. “I learn a lot in business from Tony. He is a good man. I ask Tony, ‘How come you are so rich? How come I am not rich?’ He says, ‘Because you have to learn more.’
“Tony, he’s straight. He’s all for work. It’s not for joking. When in a meeting, you have to be really straight. I like to do business with him. It’s really easy for him because he do a lot of things. He do restaurants. He do a tailor. The future, he maybe do like a jewelry.”
I asked Ann if she planned to stick with nail salons or branch out.
“I just love nail business, but the future I could work with him whatever he wanted to do. I learn a lot from him. I really like him a lot. When I do business, small business, I ask him about it. I think one of these days I need somebody to help me to build business. I think I’d really like to do a day spa, because when I look in the magazines, I dream about them, but I don’t have money to do it.” Ann’s dream is to tour day spas in Hawaii to see how they are run and then persuade Tony to invest in one that she would manage. “I like a location in Del Mar Heights. That’s why I’m so lucky to meet him, like I’m somebody, you know. That’s why I’m so lucky to meet him.
“And, however, I like with the decorations. He don’t have no idea about it. ‘Okay. Go ahead and do it the way you like it,’ and he just let me do it. And also, any location I say to him, ‘This is good,’ he says. ‘Okay.’ See, on the paper, he can sign the contract. He really trusts me, you know. If I say it’s not good, he don’t sign the contract.”
During my visits to the salon, I observed Ann tallying receipts and keeping records. But regarding the general accounting, Ann says Tony has “his own system. He takes care of it.”
The salon advertises in the local throwaway ads, but it also relies on location and word of mouth. The location is a great one, in a newly renovated center just off Lomas Santa Fe Avenue, with big-draw neighbors Henry’s Marketplace, Sav-On Drugs, and Starbucks.
While I visited the shop, I heard nothing but glowing comments. Betty Davis of Rancho Santa Fe has been one of Ann’s personal customers for several years. “I love this place. It’s so relaxing.” Valerie Zagara, also of Rancho Santa Fe, said, “I really like it here. It’s clean. All of the staff are friendly and accommodating. It’s also very fast. I just come to relax.” Nanci Carlin, a first-time customer, sat down in a pedicure chair and exclaimed, “This is the nicest salon I have ever been in.”
A customer recommendation tipped me off to Professionail. Matilda McLaughlin, a Solana Beach resident, gets a manicure and pedicure here every two weeks. “The salon is so clean. It’s immaculate and so beautiful and tastefully done. I love to go there. And there’s no reason to request a certain person, because they are each so good at what they do.”
In California, manicurists must be at least 17 years old and have finished the tenth grade. They must complete a 400-hour training program and pass the California State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology exam to receive their license. The cost is low. For example, Palomar Institute of Cosmetology in San Marcos charges $2650, which includes all of the supplies, the textbooks, and a manicure kit. Each applicant must pay an additional $35 fee to take the state exam. The affordable investment is a factor that attracts many to the profession.
According to State of California statistics, 80 percent of the state’s manicurists are Vietnamese. When I asked Tony Le if all his employees were Vietnamese, he answered without hesitating, “Eighty percent.” The California Department of Consumer Affairs reported that as of January 5, 2003, there were 6219 licensed manicurists in San Diego County. If 80 percent are Vietnamese, then just under 5000 Vietnamese men and women work in San Diego County as manicurists.
To find qualified employees, Ann says, “I advertise in the newspaper, the Vietnamese community. When they come over they take a test to see how they do. If they do a good job, then I hire them.”
First she told me she pays her employees by commission and that they keep their tips, but then she said, “This year, you know, we have to pay by hour, an hourly wage.” When I spoke with Tony Le, he said each employee is an independent contractor, paid by commission and tips.
Chemicals abound in the nail industry. Butyl acetate and ethyl acetate in large doses can cause problems related to the central nervous system; camphor produces nose and sinus irritation; formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate are carcinogens. All of the above are found in nail polish. The main chemical in most nail products is ethyl methacrylate, which can cause skin inflammation, asthma, and allergic reactions in the eyes and nose.
I asked Ann if she or others in the shop had allergies caused by chemicals. She said the shop has a $3000 air-conditioning system. “We lucky we have the back door and the front door. We leave open all the time. Sometimes the chemicals bother the skin. It depends on the skin. I don’t have a problem with that.” When I broached the topic with Tony, he said, “It depends on the beauty products. All the beauty products have chemicals. If you use high-quality products, there is less of a chance of problems. It also depends on the individual.” Different body chemistries react in different ways.
Regarding employee benefits, Ann said, “We have the insurance. We have the worker’s compensation also.” According to Tony, an employee receives benefits only after he or she has worked for a salon for one year.
Tony reported that the biggest “headache in the nail business is the employees. There is no loyalty. If they’re good, then they jump from one salon to another.”
Turnover is high in the industry. Many of the manicurists are young and having babies or raising children. Employees may leave a job because they’ve found one closer to home. “Some of them live in East San Diego,” Ann said. “Some of them live in Mira Mesa. They have to drive so far every day.
“Some of them stay for a long time. Some of them, they want change to something different. Sometime they want to go to rent a booth. They want to make more money.
“I live in Rancho Peñasquitos,” Ann continued. “It’s 15 or 20 minutes from here because now they have Black Mountain Road. I work here six days, sometimes seven days. Sometimes I work Sunday too, because it’s kind of busy. If you have a manager here to work with you, you don’t worry. Sometimes I get tired and I have a guy here and he take care one day.”
There are “about eight” employees at Professionail, Ann says. “On the weekends, eight people. But on the regular day, about five. Most people work five days. It just depends. Sometimes they work six days. Sometimes seven days. Mostly sometime they like to work six days or seven days. But I am so happy to work with my employees. They are so nice. They are so good. Most of them have a good hand.”
Ann addresses customer service at staff meetings. She also regularly asks her employees for their insight. She tells them, “Don’t think because I’m the owner I know everything. Don’t be afraid of me. If you see something, tell me. I need to learn from you. I’m straight, but I’m still open.”
The salon has been in existence for two years. It offers basic manicures, pedicures, acrylic nails, gels, and silk wraps. With acrylic nails, a strong, long-lasting overlay of acrylic is applied to the client’s nails. With gels, Mylar is applied. Silk, linen, or fiberglass is used as wraps, glued to the nails to provide extra strength. The salon also offers extras that basic nail salons do not. For instance, a customer can have a paraffin wax treatment to moisturize the hands or feet. The shop has someone trained in massage to give the added treat of neck, shoulder, and scalp massage. Prices are competitive. The shop charges what some of the shabby shops charge for similar services, yet the customer here is treated to a serene ambiance filled with beauty.
The salon is as stunning as one would find at a Four Seasons Resort, minus the fresh flowers. Ann’s impeccable taste is on display in every detail.
“I go to Nordstrom and I like,” she says. “We learn a lot from Nordstrom” about decor, as well as about customer relations.
“At first I hire a designer. It cost about $150 an hour. And after that, then I pick all the colors and I do everything myself. I pick the marble myself. It took the contractors between two and a half and three months to get the salon ready. Contractors took long time.”
Ann chose soft creams and subtle taupes for much of the decor. An artistic paint technique on the walls replicates the creamy marble on the floor. Black accents in the floor and black furniture add to the elegance, and the beauty and warmth are enhanced with architectural curves: the rounded reception desk, the circular mirrors, the archway, the black marble bending to embrace the carpeting.
Ann is blessed with physical beauty herself. The day I first arrived her dark hair was cut and styled to showcase her lovely face. Her delicate figure was ensconced in rusty form-fitting bell-bottom pants and a black clingy top unbuttoned one button too many that created just the right combination of hues and curves.
The shop is equipped with 12 manicure stations, a handicapped-accessible bathroom, a small staff lunchroom, a supply room, and a laundry room. Licenses are clearly displayed at each manicure station in black frames labeled “Nail Tech.”
Along one wall of the salon sit the spa pedicure chairs, covered in soft ecru leather. The chairs, which cost $4000 each, look as if they belong on a spacecraft. A Vietnamese palm reader Ann brought to the salon told her that seven is an unlucky number. She asked me to please report that there are eight chairs. “Don’t say seven. It’s bad luck for me. Seven spas is not good. Six or eight is good.” There are eight chairs because an ordinary chair has been added to the lineup.
I learned from Ann and other employees that bamboo and frogs are lucky. It is for this reason that the nail-drying station shares space with a lush green bamboo planted in a chocolate-colored pot. Along the edge of the pot perch green ceramic frogs.
The palm reader also told Ann that the shop’s lovely archway was unlucky. Money would come in the front door, pass through the arch, and go right out the back door. Ann took this seriously and placed a screen and an artificial plant over one side of the arch.
In California, the manicure profession is regulated by the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. The board specifies that all employees be trained and licensed. Only certain chemicals can be used and only in specific ways. A salon must meet a strict code of cleanliness. For example, Ann is required by law to record every time a spa pedicure chair is used and cleaned. If an inspector discovers that a shop is not keeping records, it can be fined $700 for each violation. There are rules about how the towels are to be laundered and stored. How tools are to be disinfected. How some products, emery boards for example, are to be used only once and disposed of immediately. As a ten-year customer of nail salons, I can speak from experience that not many salons meet the state standards as well as this one does.
Most of the business consists of regular clients who come every two weeks. Ann trains her employees not to talk about themselves. She wants the experience to be under the customer’s control. She allows her staff to ask the customer only impersonal questions. If the customer initiates anything deeper, then the employee may respond, but only minimally. “Just let the customers be.”
Ann offers that her favorite part of her business is the people. “I like to talk to customers. I like to listen to customers. I like to make them beautiful.”
When I asked if she has difficult customers, she blurted out, “Oh, yes! But most of customers is real nice. Sometimes customers come and just want to be by themselves. Maybe read a book or a magazine. We want the customers to enjoy themselves, because we want to make the customers happy.
“Sometimes the customers are upset with something about their family or something, and they are not so happy and make it difficult to work, but we still smiling and say something happy, you know. Oh my God, sometimes it can be very difficult, but we do the best we can. We want to make every customer happy, but sometimes we just can’t do it.
“Sometimes I’m ready to go home at seven o’clock, and customer come in, say she has broken nail or something, and she go tomorrow to big vacation to Hawaii or somewhere else. She maybe wear big diamond, be married to a doctor or something. I stay late and fix for her. I want to help. I want my customers to be happy. Sometimes I am very tired, but I just want to help them. It’s just the way I am. At Christmas they come in with a broken nail. They cannot do for themselves. They need that, so I stay late. I don’t mind. Then when I do it for them they so happy. I stay only ten minutes for them and they so happy.”
Ann’s body language conveyed her sincerity. It was as if her whole body were smiling as she spoke. My heart was touched by her willingness to give, and I finally said, “You are very generous.”
“I like to give to people a lot. Maybe one of these days, if I win the lottery, I go back to my country and I build a temple. I build a school, build a hospital. I take care of family. I give them the money. I just give them everything. I love them so much.”
I asked her to tell me more about her family.
“We still have relatives in Vietnam. We send them money. When I work over here, sometime I have the tips, and I take $5 a day and I put in small box and send it to Vietnam. I have cousins over there, and my mom’s brother, because he is old, I send them money. Because they are in a small town, they can live about a month on $20. They can buy rice and vegetables. That’s why I always say I so lucky I live here. You know, if they get $50, $100, they so happy.”
Ann’s parents learned English from the church. “In Linda Vista. It’s not Buddhist. Uh, what you call it religion, uh, Christian?”
“Yeah, go like this,” and she made the sign of the cross.
“Is it a Catholic church?”
“Yeah, Catholic church. My father go to school, and my mom go to school. My mom only speak English very little. She over 70, but she tries hard. She takes care of a lot. She lives with my family because my brother, he has a business. He sell any item 99 cents in San Diego. Everyone got a job, and I am so happy. In the beginning, it was so difficult for us. And now we are so happy. I thank God and thank you in America for helping us.
“My family is Buddhist. We just go to church to go to school, to learn about English. Because my mom is Chinese. I am half Chinese. That is why I believe in Buddha.” She pointed to her smiling Buddha guarding her coffee cup on the reception desk counter. I asked her where she got him. “If I get for myself it’s not lucky. Somebody give him to me.”
I asked Ann to tell me more about her personal life.
“I have one daughter. She is 19 year old. She go to school. She go to Miramar College, and after that she wants to continue her education. Today she knows I am going to be interview. She says, ‘Mom, do you know how to speak English? Do you need me to come over?’ ”
When Ann is not working she shops or does household chores. She likes to watch the news, though it makes her sad. “Also, I like to take my daughter to go out, because I work every day, so I want to spend some time with my daughter. I tell my daughter, ‘You are lucky you were born here. You are lucky to go to school. Somebody in Vietnam, they want to go to school they have to pay a lot of money.’ I always talk with my daughter about it. I tell her, don’t work now. Go to school, because when I came over I just had to work. I want her to take the opportunity she has.”
I asked Ann if she ever takes a few days off for a vacation. “Yes, sometimes I take vacation. Go to Las Vegas and take my daughter to the shows.” But Ann has not traveled around the United States. “I’d love to do it, but I work a lot. First, I want to go back to Vietnam.” She has not been back since she left 27 years ago.
The only thing Ann could come up with that she dislikes in the United States is the English language. “I have two sisters. They know how to speak English so well, you know. I just know the basics. If I want to say something more, I have to think about that. I have to write it down. Sometime I want to tell, but I have to make sense. My language is so easy, but the English, I have to say ‘oh, uh, oh.’ ”
Ann took a long time to respond when I asked what she likes best about living in the United States. “I really so happy, and so lucky when I come over here. Thank you very much God and America that we get a job. That’s enough for us. We don’t need this or that. We so happy.”
Happiness was a theme expressed repeatedly as I interviewed the manicurists at Professionail. Matilda McLaughlin had said, “They each know how to do everything. And besides that, they are all so darling. They are precious people.”
I had decided that as long as I was at the salon, I would treat myself to a spa pedicure. I awkwardly hoisted myself into one of the “eight” chairs and was greeted by Candy Nguyen. Almost everyone in the shop shares the same last name. Nguyen is like Smith or Jones. Candy was the quintessential picture of the freshness of feminine youth. Her face shone. Her long, subtly highlighted hair was pulled into a tight ponytail on the top of her head. She looked 14 years old, at four foot eleven, but she was 28.
My feet are ticklish so I thought it best to warn her early on that one well-meaning touch could trigger an involuntary kick. Candy said that as long as I was in the spa chair she wasn’t worried. “I have a little chair I use for regular pedicures, and sometimes I’ve gotten a little bit pushed, but not kicked.
“I have only worked here for five weeks. Before, I lived in Connecticut, where I did nails for the past six years.” Prior to doing nails, “I worked in a law office with grouchy and grumpy people. I didn’t like. I wanted to meet friendly, nice people, so I decided to go to school to learn the nail business.”
Candy moved to the United States in 1987, when she was 12 years old. Only half of her family came at first. A relative sponsored her, her father, and two of her siblings. It was seven years before her mother and two more siblings arrived. “We could not visit Vietnam. We were busy working and trying to earn money.”
On adjusting to a new culture, she said, “It was easier for me because I was little. It was harder for the older people.” Candy says her father has trouble with the language. Her mother “is a little bit bored ’cause she doesn’t drive. She’s lonely, but she is not so lonely that she wants to go back” to Vietnam.
“We are a Buddhist family. Many become Catholic. Many change to dress up and wear fancy clothes, you know? Going to temple is appropriate. It is a place to pray. You think that God would be there. We are both Buddhist and Catholic, because I think it is all the same. We go to temple on Sunday and also go to church on Sunday. When I come to America, people come to my house; I think Catholic Christians, to teach us. I just always believe in both.”
Candy learned English in junior high and high school.
She spontaneously offered: “We have a lot of freedom here. You can do whatever you want, as long as it’s not illegal. In Vietnam, you cannot do anything that you want. The government won’t let you. It was hard for us to improve as a family. People are very poor. We lived in a village, and it was very hard. In the U.S. you always have people to protect you. It’s not like that in Vietnam.”
Candy lives in City Heights with her husband and two sons, aged seven and three. Her husband cleans and dyes carpets. “The carpet-dying business is a new industry; his is the first one in City Heights.” She gave me one of his advertising brochures, written in Vietnamese.
When I asked Candy how many hours she worked, she replied, “It depends. Usually I work 9:30 to 7:00 six days a week.” Candy was happy to work; her family needs the money.
She has not had much problem with the chemicals. “At first I thought I did. I had trouble with my nose, but not anymore. This place gets a lot of air when you keep the front door and the back door open. Some people have problems with their skin. You know, they get the pimples.”
Candy’s oldest customer is 86, and she has men who come in regularly for manicures and pedicures.
I asked what she does when she is not at work. “I have two sons. I like to spend time being with them. Sometimes, because I only have one day off, I do housework, the laundry, maybe take them out for fast food. Sometimes I take them to the beach or the park, something like that. I also like to watch the news. I like to know what’s going on.”
She told me the Vietnamese community was currently celebrating Chinese New Year. “Our own family does a family celebration, with food and some gambling. The gambling is just our family, some cards. We are not big-time gamblers. We also went to the festival in the Gaslamp District and in City Heights. Most people go to Anaheim, Westminster. Lots of Vietnamese live in Westminster.”
Candy clipped and trimmed and pumiced portions of my ragged old feet. She massaged my lower legs with soothing lotion and transformed my otherwise unsightly toenails into ruby gems. I thanked her, and she said, “Now you can talk to Betty.”
While I was having my pedicure, I noticed a woman who hadn’t been there in the morning. She was not large by any means, but she seemed large next to the rest of the crew.
Over came Betty Nguyen, with her head tucked at an angle into her neck. She started in with a grin and a sarcastic “What do you want to ask me?”
Betty seemed an unusual name to me.
“Well, Betty, first of all I’d like to get your name in Vietnamese for the article.”
“I won’t say my Vietnamese name. It sounds like a bad word here.”
“Why don’t you write it down for me?” She wrote and I whispered “ohhhh” as I read “Bich.”
She assured me, “In Vietnam it means something good. It means ‘jade.’ ” If she were actual jade, she said, she would be rich green.
Betty had worked at this salon for only three weeks. “We are having family troubles. My husband lost his job. I worked as a manicurist for ten years, but I had to sell my only business in September.
“I work full-time at the post office in Carmel Mountain. I work at the post office at nighttime. I work from 11:00 at night until 7:30 in the morning. I have lunch at 2:00, 2:00 in the morning for lunch!
“Actually, I work three jobs. I work here 30 hours a week. I am a cashier at a beauty supply in Pacific Beach. I work there 27 hours and 40 hours at the post office. I work 97 hours each week.
“I have very little time with my family. I have one son; he’s almost 12. There’s just the three of us. We live in Mira Mesa.”
She was having trouble talking and apologized, “I just had my teeth done in Mexico. I had to go there because it is cheaper. It is very expensive here.”
Betty has been in the United States for 12 years. She is 37 years old. She was married in Vietnam and lived in extreme poverty. “I was poor. I lived once on the streets with only what you call here 2 cents for a long time. In Vietnam 2 cents would be like $200. I lived with my husband like that when I was pregnant with my son, right before we came here.”
She came to the United States with her mother, her husband, and her son. I asked, “Just your mother? What about your father?”
“My real father is a Native American Indian.”
“An American Indian? So he was in the United States Army in Vietnam and met your mother?”
“Yes, he was in the Army. But then he left. We did not see him. My mom sent paperwork to American government about American Army guy. Said that she was married to him, and she had me as proof. She finally got documents in 1991 to go to the United States.
“In the fall we went to Baltimore, and it was so cold. My mom was so sick. The CWS — the charity Church World Service — sponsored us. They said I should get my mother somewhere warm. They brought us to San Diego. It was September 13, 1991. I remember it.
“When we came to America, we were only here for three months and my mom died. She had cancer, cervical cancer.” Betty pulled a color photo from her pocket and showed me a stunning Asian woman.
“She taught me a lot. She trained me. I still miss her.”
I asked if she was in communication with her father. “I don’t have contact with him. My mother asked me to never look for him. I am keeping the promise to my mother.”
Betty’s English was clear and distinct. I wondered how she learned to speak it. “I learn from customers, from TV, the news, signs on the street, on boxes, information on trucks. I am curious and I forced myself to learn it.”
She attended North Park Beauty College, which is no longer in business.
I asked her favorite part about doing nails. “I don’t have a favorite. Sometimes I get really bored doing it. I have been doing it for too long. But…I have to do it. Some days you see some bad customers. You think, okay, that’s it. But I go home, I cool off, I get up the next morning and it’s okay.”
What does Betty do during the few hours each day that she isn’t working? “I like to watch the news. I feel like I am going to be behind. I try to watch at night. I trained my husband so well he does the dishes. Then I go to bed. I have to wake up at 10:30 p.m. to work till 7:30 a.m. I get home at 8:00 a.m. and shower and watch TV and be ready for work by 9:00 a.m. I get very little sleep. I just do it.
“I have been back twice to Vietnam. I went to show my son his country. It is really difficult to make a living there. I want him to know how good he has it here. In Vietnam, there are only the very rich and the very poor. There is no middle. The rich have to hide that they are rich. You don’t want the government to know you are rich or the government will take away your money.
“When I have enough money I want to go back to school and write a book about my life, my mom. I really want to write a book. I have written down some of my stories and have them on a diskette, but I need help with the language.”
I shared with her how difficult it had been to find a salon whose manager would agree to interviews. At three shops, the managers had refused, saying, “I am too afraid,” or “I don’t want to be in the newspaper,” or “You are scaring me.” One woman hid in the parking lot behind the building for two hours while I interviewed some of the other staff. I asked Betty why she thought other salons were afraid. “I don’t know. They are hiding the truth. But the truth is going to show up. The truth always comes out. The truth is going to show up in the sunshine.”
Betty went into the nail business because “If you have a good hand and a good location, you can make good money. You can go anywhere and work.
“Some people say so many Vietnamese do nails because they do not like to work hard. I say that is a lie! Asian women, we are really patient. We love to spend time to do detail things with our hands. God gives it to us somehow. We know how to pamper people. We learn how to pamper our family. That’s the way of our culture. We learn from the beginning. We learn how to take care. We work hard. If you come from a very underlevel country of being poor, you work hard to have a better life.”
As Betty and I parted she said, “You know, you should talk to everybody here. They all have a story.”
Tony Bill, a good-looking 37-year-old, exudes charm. He radiates energy. His friendly attitude and happy spirit made me want to spend the day with him. As we talked, the female employees who were experiencing a lull in business clustered around.
“I have lived here since 1990. Maybe over 13 years. I left my country by myself. No family here. Um, I looking for a job only for myself.
“I sent to sponsor for my mom and my father. They came here three years ago. They live in Oceanside. When they came here, for two months or three months, they miss my country a lot. They cry. But now, it’s okay being here. Yeah. They spoil of the benefit in America. They live for her a lot. That’s why they so happy to be here.
“I not live in Oceanside. I live in East San Diego, with my wife. I have two kids, boys, four and five.”
I asked Tony how he learned English. “I don’t have time to go to school to learn English. I learn from my customer only. Before we came to United State, we go to Philippines. We learn English, class, you know, yeah. It teach me a little bit, not too much. But when I came here I learn by myself, or learn from customers.”
He loves the United States. “I like it here because everything is freedom and everything is easy for me to do, everything, you know. I must say, I don’t like nothing, you know. I like everything.” All of this was said amidst laughter.
“My country not easy to make money a lot. Right here, that easy, you know. Because my country, that’s a poor country. That’s why most people, they don’t want to spend a lot of money, and that’s why the business not work well, you know. In America much more they want to spend money for holiday or spend for family, they spend every day. That’s why it’s easy to make money and live.”
As to why he is a manicurist, “Because the nails, it’s easy to apply for job. And before, I hear a lot of people say they work for American company, sometimes they lay off or they quit job easy. In nails it easy to apply for job. If you not happy, you can apply anywhere you want.
“I went to school in La Mesa. The school is named California Hand Design.
“I work here a year and half. But I know, I know owner a long time ago; ten year ago. I know her, Ann, a long time ago.”
Regarding the nail business in general Tony said, “I like this job because I keep this one 13 years ago because, umm, I like to talk with the customers. That’s a job I like. I like people, you know. I will keep this one. Or, maybe I will, I will change.
“I had my own nail shop. I have five business before, but because of right now, um, too much trouble business. You know, worry a lot. That’s why we don’t want to open for myself. I like to work for somebody now. Right now we have one business, for my own. My wife take care for my business. A nail salon too.”
Tony has problems with the chemicals. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes we keep too busy, sometime chemicals make for my nose, uh, get a little bit runny nose, yeah. It goes away.” We commented on the good ventilation in the Professionail Salon, and Tony said he is not bothered by chemicals here.
“I work part-time only. I work from Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday only, and work ten-hour days. On the day off here, I go back my wife business. I take care for her. I will help for her.”
When Tony is not working his “part-time” job of 50-plus hours a week, he likes to investigate business prospects. “I like to go around to…I like to do business. Sometimes I take a day off, I go around some shopping center. I looking for if they have a good location, yeah. I would call to ask to open business. Or, if I cannot open business, I tell my friend to come in, yeah. They will open a business.”
One member of Tony’s fan club that day was Jenny Cao, Ann’s daughter. Jenny looked the typical Southern Californian girl, in her distressed jeans, platform sandals, and tight-fitting top.
“I’m trying to help my mom. I’m getting my license. I enjoy the customers, and I make good money for my age now. I make more than my friends. Just sitting here helping answer the phone I can make more than my friends.”
Candy, who was still within earshot, interjected, “That’s because this is her mom’s shop.”
“I speak both Vietnamese and English, because when I was younger, my grandparents raised me while my mom worked and my dad was working. They took care of me, and they would speak my language all the time, so for being born and raised here, I speak it pretty fluently.”
Unlike her mother, Jenny has visited Vietnam. “I went back last year with my dad to visit my grandparents and my cousins. I stayed in Saigon. It was very nice, and there are so many things you can do there. But when I went back there to the countryside where my dad’s family is, it’s pretty bad in there. It’s very different. I’m very fortunate to live here, actually. They value so many things over there, like the schools — they’re not like the schools over here.
“I’m going to a junior college, and I’m planning to transfer to UCLA or UC Irvine. I want to move up north.
“I actually do a lot of studying in school, so I come in when my mom needs me. When it’s busy, when it’s really busy. Mostly on the weekends. I’ll come in and help her answer the phones and do the towels.”
Jenny says when she is not in school or working, “I hang out with my boyfriend and my friends. I go shopping a lot. I go out clubbing a lot.”
Her answer to what she likes best about living in the United States was “freedom. You know we have our rights. We have our rights to say whatever we want. When I went back in Vietnam, well, I am very fortunate to have a good school here. I brought my schoolbooks and papers, you know, and they went ‘Wow!’ They are so amazed. It made me realize how fortunate I am to live here, because they don’t have what we have.”
“Freedom” rolled off the tongue of each of those I interviewed. On my third visit to Professionail I sat down at a manicure station with 49-year-old Kim Tu. Before I asked any questions she declared, “I like it in the United States. I like the civil liberties and the good education. I like the freedom.
“My husband picked my name for me,” she continued. “Kimberly. I say, ‘It’s too long. No. No. No. Kim.’ ” She spelled out her Vietnamese name for me on a business card. Bhch Tuyet Nguyen. She had chosen a shorter last name as well. Pointing to Bhch she said, “This is my middle name.” Pointing to Bhch first, then Tuyet, she said, with a sparkle in her eye, “It means Snow White.”
Kim is the oldest employee in the salon. She wore no makeup. A hint of white sprinkled her hair, which was pulled back in a matronly ponytail, and her wire-rimmed glasses appeared chosen for practical reasons rather than fashion.
As effervescent as Tony is, Kim is subdued. She is humble. The way she carries her body, the way she speaks, the way she serves the customer, everything about her conveys humility. As attractive as Tony is with his frisky personality, so is she equally attractive as one graciously serving others.
Kim worked diligently on my nails while we talked. I have acrylic nails that involve several steps of filing, applying acrylic, more filing, buffing, and finally polishing, resulting in ten perfect nails. She accomplished this while subjected to questions that made her uncomfortable.
“My husband was in the Army for the United States, and after the Communists took over, many had to go to jail for 5 years, 10 years, 20, I don’t know. My husband was in the jail 8 years.” Her husband can’t work. “My husband is retired. He get broken here [pointed to ear] and here [pointed to shoulder]. He get hurt so many places in the war.”
She did not marry her Vietnamese husband until some time after his release from jail. They had a son in 1985. “When my son was three years old my husband bring him to live in the United States. I stayed in Vietnam. My husband and son came back to visit Vietnam after about five years and I got pregnant. I born my daughter in Vietnam. Then move here.
“I came to the United States in 1993, 10 years. I was an accountant in Vietnam for 16 years.” Kim did not want to be an accountant anymore and chose to become a manicurist because she wanted to do something “happy,” plus the training was affordable and job opportunities were plentiful.
“It cost about $700 to go to beauty school, and it took me about four months. You have to take test, English test. I only take once. I pass,” she said with her demure smile.
She passed, but she admitted that she finds the language difficult. She apologized for speaking poorly. The fewer my questions, the better our conversation worked. Most of my questions evoked answers that had no relationship to what I had asked, so I just let her talk.
“I live in East San Diego with my husband and my two kids. I have a son, 18, and a daughter, 10.
“I work six days a week. Tuesday was my day off. I usually work 9:30 to 6:00 or 7:00. The weekend is the busiest.
“My husband does all the cooking ’cause when I get home I am too tired. When I have a day off I clean my house, things like that. Maybe go shopping a little.
“My parents still live in Vietnam. We went last year — my husband, my son, and my daughter — to visit Vietnam for one month.” I commented that it must have been nice. “It was very hot. I like it here.”
Thanh Nguyen, known as Julie, likes it here too. She was a young girl when her family of five moved from Vietnam to San Diego ten years ago. She has visited Vietnam once since leaving but said, “It was just okay. I like over here better. I like the weather.”
Julie’s father also fought against North Vietnam and was incarcerated for years after the war. Julie doesn’t remember how many years, but the family saw him only a couple of times during his imprisonment because the prison was far from their home.
“I only work here for three months,” Julie told me. “Before I was working in a salon in La Jolla.”
Julie lives in Rancho Peñasquitos with her husband and seven-month-old son. Her mother takes care of the baby while she works.
Like others, she said she learned most of her English from her customers. Julie was by far the shyest employee but also appeared to be the most in demand. On the three days that I visited the shop she was always occupied with clients. She must have a “good hand,” as they say in the business.
There is still one story to tell about Professionail Salon. It is the story of Thuy Le, known as Tony Le. Tony with the good financial. Tony, the owner.
When I asked Tony what “Thuy” means, he said, “When I was born, I look different from the rest of my family. My name comes from a poem from ancient times. It means, ‘Who is it?’ ‘Who this guy?’ ”
That was exactly what I had been wondering as I’d listened to Ann’s admiration for Tony.
Tony Le is 41 and lives in Orange County. He has lived in the United States since 1980.
“I came from a middle-class family. All of my immediate family is very educated. We lived in Saigon City, as we called it. After the collapse of Saigon, I was forced into the military to invade Cambodia. In the middle of the process I was able to get out of the country with the help of my dad.
“I got out of the country in 1979. I was in a camp in Indonesia, and it took me roughly a year before I started my journey here to California. I was 17 when I came out of the country.
“I was on a boat. We were called the boat people. So when we got out into international waters, we waited for whatever ship would pick you up. It was an Australian ship that rescued my boat, and they dropped us off in Indonesia. At that time there was no refugee camp set up by the Red Cross. We just stayed on an island with the native people there, that’s all. It was a little bit traumatic.” He spent his time trying to stay alive in the midst of a tribe of unfriendly natives. “We chopped wood for food. We started out with about 90 people in our boat. Only about 20 remained and only about 6 of us were healthy and young. The others were old men or children.” The six strongest decided to escape. “I escaped again. I stole the natives’ boat and tried to escape.”
What Tony and his companions didn’t know was that the tribe communicated by drums to another island what had happened. The tribe on the second island, knowing that the first tribe planned to kill the refugees, arranged with a ship from Singapore to pick up the Vietnamese and deliver them to a safe part of Indonesia. From there, Tony wrote letters to the United States hoping to find someone to sponsor him.
A judge in Berkeley eventually came through and sponsored him. “The judge wanted me to study the Bible. I lived at the church establishment, in a dormitory. I really wanted to go to the regular high school. I wanted to go to regular school, so they placed me in a regular family. I was only there for seven to ten days and the man molested me. I escape again.”
This time Tony ended up on the streets until he “met some new friends. I lived with five Mexican people and we shared a room together.”
The first months that he was in the United States, he tried to learn English on his own. Then “I went to the community college, San Jose Community College. I went there to study ESL.”
During this time he was also trying to earn money. “Then I saved money and I bought a car. And then I lived in the car and I saved more money. In about a year I kept going to community college and kept working.
“About then my oldest brother and sister also escaped from the country. In about two years they left Thailand to come to the United States.” Tony later sponsored his parents.
By then, Tony was renting an apartment. “I got my B.S. in biology from Cal State Hayward in 1985. I went to work for a couple of months; then I went back to school again. I went to California Marine Academy and got an engineering degree, a marine technology engineering degree.
“In 1987 I got a job working for SCE, Southern California Edison. It’s a power plant. I was an engineer operator, and I worked there until 1990, and while I worked for SCE they sent me back to school to get a master’s degree at UCR, University of California Riverside.
“So I started working again and saving my money, and another opportunity came by at SCE, and I thought I was going to get to move up into management.” With his education and experience, Tony felt he was the best candidate for the job. Instead, the power plant selected someone who did not have a management degree. The company claimed that it did not discriminate, but Tony believes the situation was unfair.
“I had hoped in a big company to move up the ladder, but now there wasn’t any opportunity for me to move up.
“By then I had saved up about $150,000, and so I quit again. I think I will start my own business, and I think about what do I really like to do. I am really an outdoorsman. I love animals, I love wildlife. That’s my hobby.
“My first business came through somebody I knew in New Orleans who knew about a business, so I bought an oyster farm over there. I don’t know much about oysters, but I think, what the heck, and I went there and I bought an oyster farm for $25,000. Since I don’t know much about the technical running of the farm, part of the deal was that I would pay the current owner to stay on for a year in order for me to learn the business.” But the man remained only two months, leaving Tony stranded. “I don’t know crap about oysters. All the oysters die.”
After the oyster business went belly-up, “Another friend of mine called me about a nail salon.” The friend was setting up a nail salon and needed help, so Tony stayed on in New Orleans. The salon was “small, in a typical strip mall. It was dirty and cheap. Located in a black neighborhood.” Tony worked to get the shop ready for the grand opening one Saturday morning. The women employees put up signs that the store would open at 6:00 a.m. and Tony could not understand the logic, but he says that by 6:30 people were swarming in to get their nails done. The business took off.
“I opened in New Orleans about three or four nail salons because the money was good. But I did not have a passion for it. I opened them up because of the money.
“In 1992 I come back to California, because my original plan was to open a restaurant, so I opened a restaurant, and that business not good. I lost a lot of money. So I went back to the nail business, and I would open one a month for a while. I would open them in inexpensive strip-mall centers.” Tony told me one reason he could afford to open so many so quickly was that “the rent was cheap because the landlords were dying to have someone lease the property.”
Tony was opening so many salons he didn’t have enough operators. “In 1994 I opened a cosmetology school in Westminster, California.” He contacted a woman, Kim Anh, who was well known in the business, having taught for 30 years. “It’s a reason I come back to California, because I know her.” Tony made arrangements for her to run the school. Because she was an expert and Vietnamese, he named the school after her, the Kim Anh Academy of Beauty. Now he had another critical element of the nail business covered, and as he said, “I just cranked people out” to work in the salons.
“In about 1994 or 1995 I started into major shopping centers. Ninety percent of all nail salons are located in regional and enclosed malls. I opened a whole bunch of nail salons, more and more.”
I thought of the long hours the women at Professionail worked and wondered about Tony’s hours. “All the time. I’m on the phone, on business trips to Vietnam and Australia.” He has a staff and secretaries, but he is actively involved in his business, always thinking of the next challenge.
In 1999 Tony became aware that the market was saturated. “The only nail salon that can survive today has to be the best.” It’s the “higher-end salon” that will make it “because that’s what people want. All the nail salons I have opened for the last three years are the really high-end. I have to do it to limit the competition. We charge the same price for the same services,” even though he has “four times higher overhead than the typical nail salon.” Professionail in Solana Beach is one of Tony’s high-end shops. According to him, the two keys to survival in the business today are “location and operation.” Tony owns five high-end salons in San Diego County.
He has also opened two more cosmetology schools. It was only a matter of time before he opened a nail-supply warehouse, thus establishing a complete nail-oriented enterprise.
“Right now I own about 150 shops. I have 20-something in Canada. Last year I opened 11 in Australia.”
It is no wonder that Tony refers to the United States as “a land of opportunities. It’s a playground to express myself out to the max.”
After all the talk about good luck in the Solana Beach salon, I asked Tony what he thought about good luck.
“I don’t really believe in luck. My definition of good luck is where opportunity meets with good preparation. When opportunity meets with preparation, then it becomes luck. I tell my people, ‘Always prepare. In a lifetime, opportunities will arise. You must be ready whether it is through education, or planning ahead, whatever. If you are prepared, then when opportunity comes you can catch the good luck."