“I left my country when I was 14,” he said.
“What city were born in?” I asked.
“I lived in Hue (pronounced ‘weigh’); it’s in the middle of Vietnam. Hanoi is in the top. Saigon is in the south. That’s where the American troops were. Hue is in the middle. The king? Long ago. The king lived there; the king’s houses are still there.”
I watch as he trims the cuticles of my finger nails.
“You want Pink Lemonade again?” He asks me.
“Yes, I like that color.”
“You need something new! You need red. Something hot. You always get Pink Lemonade,” he chides as he reaches for the Pink Lemonade.
“Pink lemonade was my dad’s favorite drink,” I explain. “Whenever I see my nails in Pink Lemonade, I think of my dad.”
“Oh,” he draws out, “your dad like your nails?”
“He died three years ago,” I tell him.
“Okay,” he says, “Pink Lemonade.”
“I lived in the refugee camp in Hong Kong for six years,” he said.
“Were your parents with you?”
“No. I went with my uncle. My mother, she die while I in the camp. I didn’t find out for 5 months. We didn’t have telephones or the internet,” he wiped a faint smudge of Pink Lemonade from the side of my finger with his nail.
“Did you go to school in the camp? Did you learn English there?” I asked.
“Well…they had English class. ESL? but it was slow. They talked slow. They said, ‘repeat after me: What’s your name?’ so I repeat after the teacher, ‘what’s your name?’ but I didn’t know what meant. I came here to Sacramento. I didn’t understand what you say. I went to school for three years and I learn American English. It so fast!”
“How old were you when you got to Sacramento,” I asked.
“Oh…I was 23, 24,” he shook his head, remembering.
“I thought you left your country when you were 14?” I asked.
“Yea! 14. I live in refugee camp in Hong Kong, then took a boat. I was on a boat in the ocean for 19 days,” he pauses, looks up from my hands, locks eyes with me. “No food. I had no food for 19 days. I was so hungry when I get to the beach, I see a crab.” he makes a scurrying motion with his hand…the crab…”I was so hungry I catch the crab, and just eat! I didn’t cook it. I was so hungry.”
“You must have been starving…” I say, because I can’t think of anything else. I think back to what I was doing when I was 20 years old.
“Yes. But I went to a new refugee camp in Philippines,” he looks at me again. “Phillippines?” he wants to make sure I know the Philippines. I nod my head. “I was in the Philippines for two and a half years. Then I come to Sacramento.”
“Almost ten years?” I ask.
“Yes, ten years. Just…” he makes a waving motion in the air with his hand; he wipes his eyes with the back of one hand. “Ten years…just gone…”
“How did you start doing nails?” I ask him.
“My friend. She do nails; she said I can go to school and do nails. I was working in a convenient store,” he shakes his head as he meticulously paints my nail.
“That’s a dangerous job,” I say.
“I worked the night shift. But I gotta work. I need money. So I work in the store. I have to work.”
“I understand that,” I tell him. But I don’t think I do, at least not how he understands it.
He’s 46 this year, born in Vietnam in 1970. He fled his home country in 1984; he arrived in the U.S. in 1993. He’s owned his own business doing nails for 8 years now.
We compare lives a bit. I tell him I’m 43; I was born in 1972.
“That was the bad year,” he tells me. “That the year when all the buildings destroyed.”
“That was the year when the U.S. had the most troops in Vietnam,” I tell him.
“Yes.” he says, “you 43?” I nod. “You call me your older brother.”
For more information about why many nail technicians in California are Vietnamese, click here: The Fascinating Story Behind Why So Many Nail Technicians Are Vietnamese