“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!