My manicure with Lezen Nguyen takes thirty-five minutes. He gently rotates each finger, plying the tools of his trade to ensure each of my nails is shaped just right. “Pretty color,” he always says as he deftly applies the polish. As the manager, he also greets customers entering Foxy Nails from the wide hallway of Briarwood Mall. On this Friday afternoon, sixteen occupied stations plus a wedding party of six, waiting impatiently for pedicures and manicures, make for a hectic scene, like some choreographed Broadway production. Nguyen confidently directs the extravaganza while simultaneously doing my manicure. I never feel neglected.
Once a month for the past two years I’ve come to Foxy Nails for superior service from these hard-working Vietnamese nail artists. Nguyen works seven days a week–whenever the salon is open, he’s there. And he is happy to do it.
That’s why I was so shocked when he told me recently, “I don’t want to do nails. Never wanted to do nails.”
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, huge numbers of Vietnamese came to the United States, many of them living as refugees in California. The story goes that actress Tippi Hedren was concerned about their plight and helped some get licensed as nail technicians. Now, cities across the U.S. have Vietnamese-owned and -run nail salons.
Nguyen told me that his mother raised ten children alone on a small farm near Da Nang. She went into serious debt to feed and educate her children and then send them to a better life in America. Six of the ten kids got out of Vietnam, and all send money back home to pay off the debt and help with medical expenses for their mother, who now has diabetes.
“I want to cry, but I can’t,” says Ngu-yen, who wishes he could send more money than he does. “In my country, we take care back the parent.”
Nguyen talks to his mother frequently but has only returned once to Vietnam. “I don’t like it when I go home.” Home is a place of corruption to him. Bribing officials in Vietnam is commonplace, he says–for example, slipping a $5 bill into a passport to avoid an hours-long wait at customs.
“The rules in America–good!” he says. Nguyen seems happiest when talking about life now and his work at Foxy Nails, flashing a big toothy smile. And even though he never wanted to do nails, he works hard seven days a week to please his patrons.
“I can feel the walk–how the customer walk out to the hall–if they happy about the job we do.”
“He was killed?” I ask.
“Yes, you could say that,” Tony Vo says. “My father work in a big company. Over there, people watch him, want his job. They try to hurt him. The government, they say, ‘It was accident.’ They have money so they can cover anything.”
Vo owns the Nail Bar on Jackson Road, and I’ve come to talk to him after hearing Nguyen’s story.
Few customers ever learn the backgrounds of the people who do their manis and pedis, Vo tells me, because of the language barrier–many Vietnamese are self-conscious about their ability to speak English, afraid of making mistakes. But there’s no misunderstanding his happiness to be in the U.S.
“In Vietnam,” he says, “you work or you die.” His first job, at age seven, was hauling watermelons off a boat that brought them in from the countryside. I ask what his pay per day was “in dollars.”
“No-no. No dollars. Cents,” he says, figuring in his head. “Less than ten cents per day.” That was enough to buy a small bowl of food from a street vendor–his only meal of the day.
“Here, you work for what you want,” says Vo. “You can have whatever you want. I like it. I love it!”
Jimmy Vu, owner of Pro Nails on Eisenhower, was sixteen upon arriving in the U.S. His parents fled North Vietnam after the communists took over in 1954, only to be trapped when North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam twenty years later.
“We were always on the run,” says Vu, now thirty-nine. “In Vietnam, they treat us like enemy.”
All of Jimmy’s eleven siblings attempted to flee the country, including a sister who was one of the so-called “boat people” who went to sea in makeshift vessels.
“My sister, she dead on the water.”
Tragedies behind him now, Vu’s life is a different story, a happy story. Vu smiles when he talks about ten years of owning Pro Nails. Confident, but not arrogant, he says he’s content.
“We are the first generation here, then my children be the second generation. The second be better than the first. That’s my dream.”