Melody Johnson, contributing writer
If you are looking for Lien Nguyen, you will find her six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., at LA Nails in the Cache Valley Mall. Lien is a nail care specialist and manager of one of the largest full-service nail care salons in Cache Valley. After greeting you and guiding you to a comfortable massage chair for a pedicure, or to a hand care station for a manicure, Lien often says, “You pick a color.”
Because Lien has a distinct Asian accent, new customers often ask where she is from.
Lien is willing to share the story of her journey from her homeland to Cache Valley, but you better grab a box of Kleenex before she begins. It’s a tender, but epic tale that reminds what it really means to sit in a comfortable chair, in a public place and talk openly about any subject we want.
Lien and her husband, Phu, left South Vietnam in 1988.
“It was a time in history when even the trees in the jungles of Vietnam would have picked up their roots and left if they could have,” another Vietnamese manicurist in Lien’s shop said.
“We escape,” Lien explained.
From 1975 to about 1997, almost two million South Vietnamese people sought refuge in developed countries. More than 700,000 escaped by boat. The United States committed to the resettlement of about 400,000 refugees while Australia and Canada took 137,000 a piece. France relocated 96,000. Britain accepted 19,000 to their shores.
Lien and Phu fled because they suffered not only from political repression but also religious persecution.
“We Catholic,” Lien said. “But not allowed to go to church.”
Also, Lien’s father worked for the South Vietnamese Government when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army and lost his job. He was at risk of being incarcerated in a reeducation or land reclamation camp. An estimated 165,000 South Vietnamese citizens died of brutality, starvation and disease in these prison camps, according to the History Learning Site.
After the war ended and some prisoners were released, finding work was still a problem for government workers and their families. Other factors such as a slow post war recovery, many natural disasters and crop failures made the people feel a sense of hopelessness and a desire to start over somewhere else, The Acculturation of Vietnamese of Refugee Children, written by Min Zou.
Lien had to leave beloved family members behind including two sons, which was not uncommon considering the dangers involved in an escape.
Lien and her husband stealthily struggled through the muddy jungles of Vietnam until they reached Cambodia. There they sought passage from Cambodia to Thailand more than 300 miles away. The exit fee for legal documentation and passage at that time was over inflated, and the options for passage unreliable.
“I pay 24 gold bars,” Lien said.
And though she didn’t know exactly how much that was in in American money, to leave the country took advanced planning and savings, and often depleted the family’s entire income.
The boat Lien and Phu finally boarded was about 23 feet long and held 18 people. No one was allowed to bring food—only water. Despite a frightening storm in open seas, they made it to an overcrowded refugee camp in Thailand. They waited there for two and a half years for an interview with immigration officials, and the opportunity to relocate to a developed country.
It was during the long and arduous wait in a refugee camp that Lien gave birth to a third son. Eventually the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) began the resettlement process for the Nguyen family, and although they eventually made it to freedom, they faced equally challenging social and economic problems.
“I don’t have any relatives in the United States, and my baby was 7 months old,” Lien said.
The Catholic Church gave the family $120 each—including the baby. That money, and food stamps, made it possible for them to start a new life.
Lien and Phu’s first job was sewing clothing for The May Company in Orange County, CA. Conditions seemed to improve for the Nguyen’s until Phu underwent open-heart surgery and could no longer work. Lien continued to support the family. Eventually, she was able to afford to attend beauty school and become a manicure/pedicurist in a nail salon.
In 1995, Lien’s boss and good friend, asked her to consider working in a new salon he opened in Logan, UT. He had moved to Logan to attend Utah State University. When he finished his schooling, he decided the weather in Cache Valley was too cold, and returned to California. He left the nail salon—LA Nails—in Lien’s capable hands.
“I like to live here,” Lien said. “My kids like Cache Valley. One of my sons graduate college as a civil engineer,” she continued. “But he don’t want to leave Cache Valley to get a job.”
Now three generations of Lien’s family live in Utah. Some of her family members from South Vietnam have joined her as part of the LA Nails team: her brother, Kevin, a sister, Kim, and a nephew, Juan.
Lien is looking forward to her favorite holiday—Christmas, and to her birthday, which is Dec. 23. This is when she takes time off work to be with family and play, eat, and, of course, open presents.
Lien’s advice to refugees entering the United States, “I think the first time come to the U.S., or everywhere, we need English first, and then some skill,” Lien said, “I did not have time to go to school, raise my family and work, so I learned English from my children and by watching TV.”
Next time you go to the Cache Valley Mall say hello to our neighbor Lien Nguyen, tucked just inside the door of LA Nails. Most likely, if you are there to get a manicure or a pedicure, you may hear her say, “You pick a color,” in a distinct Asian accent. If you also want to hear an epic tale—first hand—just ask this question: “Where are you from?”