When Minh Pham was 7, he’d be sitting near his mother, coloring in a book, breathing in the fumes of acetone while she bent over a woman’s hand and painted flower petals smaller than a grain of rice onto her fingernails. His mother would murmur to him in Vietnamese, “I want you to become a doctor.” But Pham, by the time he was 17, joked in high school that he would marry a doctor because he didn’t want to be one.
His mother, Ann Nguyen, is one of the women who bring color to millions of American lives, sitting with curved backs over feet, expertly brushing vivid shades of paint onto toenails, adding glittery top coat in names like Easy Money, whispering to one another of children and dinner and home. At Nail Spa Boutique, in Riverside, Kim Ngo sits on a low stool, where she spends 10-hour days trimming excess cuticle from human toenails, rubbing dead skin off with a pumice tool, then rinsing feet, drying them, massaging lotion into the calves and ankles of women, of men, of children. Ngo came to Riverside 25 years ago from Saigon. She strokes on colors: Too Red, Great Smoky Mountain, Nirvana. She murmurs in Vietnamese that she doesn’t miss Saigon so much, but there is a wistfulness in her voice. Her husband was in a reeducation camp, punished by the Vietnamese government after the war with America was over.
Pham translated that day at Nail Spa. His brother’s wife, Nga Pham, painted nails at a nearby Lucite table. For three years, Minh Pham had worked with me on Nail Tyme, his book of poetry and essays about his mother’s life and his, as a graduate student at UC Riverside. He talked to me often of his father, in a reeducation camp for 10 years as punishment for fighting alongside Americans during the Vietnam War and for eventually trying to flee by boat. His father was forced into a forest filled with land mines, to clear trees. Once a day, he was fed a small bowl of rice and a tablespoon of salt water. He ate wild mushrooms and leaves. Pham’s mother, Ann, quit college, where she’d been studying literature and law, to sell cigarettes and used clothing in the streets of Saigon, and she used the money to buy her husband dried fish, vegetables, and medicine.
Pham told me,
Under “HO,” Humanitarian Operation, families of Southern Vietnamese soldiers who suffered communist persecution were allowed to come to America. Our family came in 1994. My mother studied literature and law before the Viet Cong invaded Saigon. My parents chose to come to America so my brother and I could go to college. My mother told me that if I stayed in Vietnam, I would be selling lottery tickets on the streets or making carpenter nails in a factory. My eighth aunt and her daughter, my female cousin, worked in a factory hammering nails. My brother and I would not be allowed to get a good education because my father fought against North Vietnam.
The culture of Vietnamese-owned nail salons began in 1975, when 20 female refugees, most with children, arrived at a tent city called Hope Village near Sacramento. Tippi Hedren, the actor famous for appearing in the Hitchcock movie The Birds, visited the camp, and the women were fascinated with her painted nails. She arranged for them to attend beauty school, and an industry was born. Now, about 70 percent of the approximately 8,500 nail salons in California are owned by Vietnamese Americans, and an estimated 45 percent of American nail technicians are Vietnamese. But sometimes customers forget how hard, physically, the technicians work or that they’ve spent their savings on training and licensing. Now and then, customers berate technicians for a smudge, or complain about a fill, or make fun of their language. But other customers feel like family—and look forward to the gentle hands and delicate touch of women like Ann Nguyen.
According to Pham,
My mother had to find work in less than a month of coming to America in order to keep our family from becoming homeless. Family friends owned Nail Tyme, in Corona. She didn’t have to know English, and the tips helped her pay for food. But over time, she developed asthma from breathing in the fumes. Her only dreams were for her two sons to graduate from college and to visit her seven siblings living in Vietnam.
In 2013, Pham received his master of fine arts degree from UC Riverside. I draped the velvet hood over his shoulders and then embraced his mother. I consider her a heroine.
Ann Nguyen, at 67, currently works at Soleil Nail Spa, in Corona. Her joints ache, she has asthma (breathing acetone fumes aggravates it), and she is tired, using that tiny brush to painstakingly apply brilliant colors to women’s smallest toenails, one flick of her wrist thousands of times.
In December 2018, she wore a black-and-white Ralph Lauren dress to walk her son Minh Pham down the aisle of the historic Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church, in Pasadena, where she transferred his hand from her arm to Julius Su.
Pham calls his husband Bee, and Su calls Pham Mung Bean. Their ceremony featured a chemistry experiment and hilarious vows. Su was born in College Station, Texas, so intellectually gifted that he enrolled in Caltech at 15, majoring in physics and biology. He founded an educational technology company in Pasadena, and Pham teaches at a Los Angeles high school.
One hundred and ten people attended the wedding, where I met Angie Su, Julius’s mother, born in China. After the ceremony, we drove down California Boulevard, and then along other avenues, and eventually passed under historic Route 66 on the way to Capital Seafood, in Arcadia, where the reception lasted for hours. I danced with Pham, and then his mother put her arms around me. Her son made his dream come true. He is a writer, and he married a doctor, and his mother moved across the floor in an elegant gown, smiling with joy.
Every nail salon is graced by a Buddha on the altar, surrounded by flowers and incense and fruit. Offerings for a good day.