SANTA CLARITA – Mama Rose, Sharon Given and Nancy Nguyen are family, but they do not celebrate the holidays together. Their bond is not one of blood, but it is not just commerce, either. “When you get out of your country and have lost your family, you keep the love and caring for them,” manicurist Nancy Nguyen said. “Instead of sitting and moaning, depressed, you give that love to your clients – as family – as you take care of them the best you can.” Her clients’ loyalty bears this out. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBlues bury Kings early with four first-period goals Sharon Givens – an eight-year devotee whose name Nguyen shortened to make it easier to pronounce – has followed the manicurist to three shops. What used to be a short walk has evolved into a half-hour drive. Mama Rose drove from her lodgings in Thousand Oaks – after traveling from Arizona three days before Thanksgiving – so Nguyen would have time to “cook” her. The cooking process involves a pre-manicure soak so warm you feel you could be listed on the menu between the lobster and prime rib. Clients adore Nguyen in spite of the ritual. “She scalds your hands and feet till you scream,” Givens said. She ran her fingers through a bed of purple glass pebbles lining a bowl as her cuticles softened. “I think I’ve sent her 30 of my friends,” Givens said. “She knows my whole family.” Vietnamese immigrants work in or own a number of nail salons across the Santa Clarita Valley. Many of them have tried their hands at other businesses and careers before settling on this one. Patrons may have no idea the soft hand holding theirs once gripped the hull of a boat headed to an unknown shore. Givens commended Nguyen and fellow manicurist Billy Bui for engaging her in conversation about travels and family and not shutting her out with talk-fests in Vietnamese as they work in their rent spaces at The Nail Garden in Newhall. Mama Rose’s next-door neighbor is 89. She is not a client, but Nguyen cradles her hand anyway. When Nguyen takes her 15-year-old son, Tan, a ninth-grader at Hart High School, to a nearby Spanish tutor, Nguyen visits the older woman, who is “like my grandmother.” “I sit next to her, hold her hand, watch TV while I’m waiting for my son,” she said. Nguyen’s grandmother died in 1998. Tan greets all of his mother’s customers when he stops by, Givens said. “He was only 7 when I met him,” she said. “We’ve all watched him grow up.” On Sundays, Tan learns to read and write Vietnamese at a school in the San Fernando Valley. The boy spoke like a native during a family trip to Vietnam, made before his great-grandmother died. “Nobody knew he was born in the U.S.,” Nguyen said proudly. There is a flip side to perpetuating Tan’s link to his cultural inheritance. It is cultivating gratitude for his American roots, Nguyen said. “I take him there so he can see how lucky he was to be born in the U.S.,” she said. Vietnamese children must work to help support their families, she said. Nguyen’s sister still lives in Vietnam. The women send e-mails and talk every couple of weeks. Nguyen shares the caramel-like candies – dense with banana, peanuts, sesame and ginger – that her sister sends. She was 17 in 1978 when she immigrated to the United States with her uncle and cousin. Her uncle’s friend in Visalia sponsored them. Nguyen stayed on with the family friend to finish high school when her uncle moved to Los Angeles a few years later. Nguyen recalled a favorite teacher at Redwood High School – Mr. Chen – but blanked on his first name. “Laurence!” Mama Rose chimed in from Bui’s station. She lived there once upon a time. After high school, Nguyen studied nursing, juggling English and medical lingo in her brain. She worked as a nurse’s aide at a hospital. Then she married her husband of 16 years, working alongside him in business. “Her husband got her into nails,” Givens said. Nguyen’s husband volunteered her services as a translator to a family friend who ran a nail salon. One thing led to another. Nguyen learned the trade and sank roots in Santa Clarita in 1998. She feels she was divinely guided to this line of work. “There’s a purpose for me here,” she said. “I have no idea why God sits me here to do this.” It may be her answer to an earlier prayer: make sure you send me to be with people because I can’t work with a computer. “Maybe this is why God wants me to be here, to listen, to comfort them in things,” she said. While Nguyen has embraced all things American, she tells customers her Thanksgiving turkey “ran away.” All the way to Las Vegas. And she has to catch up with him. The soft-spoken Bui came to the United States in 1981 when he was 25. He had escaped Communist rule in Vietnam by climbing aboard a fishing boat in the darkness in 1979. The former student huddled side-by-side with nine people for four days, scrambling for a place to sleep. “We had to hide from a guard at the border,” he said of the escape. “If they catch you they put you in jail or they might shoot you if you don’t stop.” The boat captain was his friend. The refugees landed in Hong Kong, where Bui stayed for 5 months. Then he came to California, staying with a friend from Hong Kong who lived in the San Fernando Valley. Six people jammed into two rooms. Bui dragged his mattress into the living room. He stayed in the place for about a year while learning the sheet-metal trade. As he talked, Bui finished off a client’s pedicure, dabbing stray marks of bright red polish with remover. Bui followed a year-and-a-half working sheet metal with 13 years in the ink cartridge business. Then he switched gears, training to become a manicurist. “I had fun. I enjoyed it,” Bui said. Customers were friendly and they helped him master English. He sometimes paints his tiny human canvasses with flowers, favoring airbrush designs. Bui spoke of the Vietnamese tradition of seeking perfection in their handcrafts, suggesting it could be one reason so many immigrants flock to the hands-on nail care business. Many of Bui’s family members still live in Vietnam. Two brothers have settled in Seattle and another lives in Oklahoma City. Bui returned to Vietnam three years ago to attend his father’s funeral. “I believe most of the people who live in Vietnam dream about coming to America,” he said. “I appreciate the American government, especially the people who gave open arms when we came.” Bui, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, said he wishes he could afford to live in Santa Clarita. He is married and has two sons, 18 and 25. Both of them have learned Vietnamese. Bui speaks a smorgasbord of tongues: some French, Spanish and Chinese, and English and Vietnamese. He soaks up culture by visiting the Vietnamese community in Santa Ana, he said. And celebrates Thanksgiving with a potluck. Across town in Saugus, Tan Tran owns Accent Nail and Spa. Like Bui, he fled Vietnam in 1979. He and his brother spent five days aboard a boat headed for Thailand, where they knew no one. The brothers lived in a Thai refugee camp for almost three months before they were sent to the Philippines. They spent eight months waiting for “processing” for the final destination: America. “They tried to teach you English,” he said. “They stopped by every morning. That’s how we learned … how to buy a ticket, food.” Tan settled in Atlanta and worked as a dishwasher and in the sheet-metal trade. He moved to Texas about nine months later in search of his fortune, working on a fishing boat. “After two months I found out there was no way,” he said. He took off for San Francisco, where he worked in a restaurant and as an electronics technician. He bought a furniture store, but it was not meant to be. He made two more forays into the electronics field before finding his pot of gold. In the late 1980s, his wife, Kim, began to learn manicuring. In 1990 they opened their Saugus salon. Now she takes care of the customers while he runs the business. They live in Santa Clarita with their three kids, who are 17, 12 and 3. The kids have learned their parents’ native tongue. Tran last visited Vietnam in 1995 and hopes to go again next year. The couple’s hard work has paid off. Six weeks ago they opened a second nail salon in Valencia. Tran reflected on the 15-year climb. “When I stepped out of my country, I was looking forward to freedom,” he said. “We try day by day and learn day by day, trying to become the best person in this country. “If you can do it, you do it,” he said. Judy O’Rourke, (661) 257-5255 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. 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