Vietnamese immigrants find the American dream at Nail Trix Salon

By Colleen Brown

We’ve all seen it before. Manicure stations on the left, pedicure on the right, with light decor, posters and fake potted plants placed at seemingly random intervals. Sinks are located in the back and mirrors tacked on opposite walls reflect images back and forth smaller and smaller to a greenish-tinted infinity. There’s stereotypical easy listening music in the background and a rack of brightly colored nail polishes on one wall. A small room in the back of the salon has a stiff white table and bright lighting where customers lay down to have hair waxed off their eyebrows and upper lips.

The workers spend most of their time attending to customers who stubbornly keep trying to use their phones while their nails are drying.

Nail technicians peel old polish off fingers, clip cuticles and file down nails. Customers get to pick a new color from the wall, or if they want a gel manicure, from a little basket filled with rings of brightly painted plastic nails. For pedicures, customers get their feet and calves washed and smothered in lotion. Their callouses and bunions are scrubbed away using a loofah and elbow grease. Two to three coats of polish, then a quick dry under a UV or LED lamp and customers are out within an hour.

A worker at Nail Trix helps customers pick out colors for gel nails.
Toan Pham helps customers pick out colors for gel nails at Nail Trix nail salon.

There are more than 17,000 nail salons in the U.S. according to census data. Manicures aren’t just for special occasions anymore.

I myself am a frequent visitor to Chapel Hill’s salon, Nail Trix, just off Franklin Street. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been going for almost two years and never even bothered to learn any of the workers’ names. Customers come in, get their nails done and leave. Never once have I seen any customer seriously engage with a technician. Even if customers wanted to, most of the workers are Vietnamese and the language barrier  stymies conversations and prevents understanding.

In spite of these roadblocks, I found the workers at Nail Trix to be friendly and open. They were willing to speak with a young journalism student about their lives, despite the fact that they didn’t really understand why they deserve to be written about in the first place.

Making the adjustment

I spoke with two technicians, Toan Pham and Anhthu Ngo, as I was getting my nails painted.

Toan Pham is perhaps the smallest fully grown woman I have ever met. The 32-year-old comes to about my shoulder, if that. Pham has short, straight black hair and rocked Coach designer glasses with a chic yellow blazer. I let her talk me into painting my nails a bright poison green as I spoke with her and Ngo.

Pham moved from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, to North Carolina two years ago with her husband Hieu Nguyen and four-year-old daughter Han. Pham used to be a preschool teacher. She stopped sanding my nails with a square nail buffer in order to articulate, more through gestures than words, how she would teach the children drawing, music and writing.

“I want to be teacher again,” Pham said. But her daughter Han, Americanized as Hannah, knows more English than she does. And until Pham’s English improves exponentially, it’s unlikely she’ll be hired as a preschool teacher.

This demotion in careers, I soon came to realize, was a common theme among the workers. It seemed to be the price for a life in America.

When asked what she liked most about America, Pham said, “Americans nice people, very kind. And is so clean here.”

Ngo seemed more like a mother to me than any of the other workers. Ngo goes by the first name of Sophie, a name she picked after quitting her job as a realtor in Vietnam and moving to America. She’s 46 and is short with mid-length black hair, dark eyes and warm skin.

Her English is good, a result of living in the U.S. for 10 years. She married her husband, Jack Bui, 25 years ago in Vietnam.

“And you ask me if he handsome — yes,” Ngo said of her husband. We giggled like teenage girls. “I hope so, I keep him.”

I was struck by how comfortable and organic the conversation felt. The women were funny and open.

“You good person, with good heart,” Ngo said when I explained why I wanted to write about these women, and how their lives and stories were so interesting. “Good people with good heart do good things.”

Ngo said that while she still misses Vietnam, each year, she misses it less and less.

“The first year I come here, I learn little English,” Ngo said. “I was sad a lot. But now, 10 years, I better. And I understand a lot of English and now I love Chapel Hill. I love North Carolina. And the last year I be back in my country three weeks, but I missed here a lot.”

‘Vietnam is my family’s country’

Tina Ngo, who shares a last name with Anhthu but is not related, is small as well, with a well-lined face and heavily penciled in eyebrows. She wore chunky flip-flops with black socks. It was a slow afternoon, with just one customer in for a pedicure, as we sat and talked between the nail polishes and the register at the front of the salon.

Ngo moved to the U.S. in 2006 from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, with her son.

“When I came here I had no choice,” Ngo said. “I try to help my son in school by work.” Ngo gave up a managerial position at a company that sold kitchen equipment so her son could receive a better education.

Ngo is proud of her son, Kaiser, who is in his first year of medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill on a full scholarship. Kaiser was 13 when he picked his American name. Kaiser means “emperor” in German, which he picked because of his love for the German national soccer team.

Ngo was born in 1959. As she sat in the plastic waiting chair, bouncing a flip-flop off one foot, it hit me. She lived through the Vietnam War.

“My daddy was police officer,” she said. “My mom work for Marine.”

Ngo’s father was jailed for almost a decade following the war because of his allegiance to the South Vietnamese Army.

“Some people die in jail, or still in jail,” Ngo said. Her parents, in their eighties now, still live in Vietnam.

Ngo gained her American citizenship a few years ago. “I took a promise,” Ngo said as she looked directly into my eyes. “One country is my country. This is my country. Vietnam is my family’s country.”

Vy Nguyen wandered over to me in-between drying breaks for her customer’s nails. She breaks the streak of small women in the salon, clocking in at a towering five feet four inches. Nguyen wears her hair in a ponytail and has a habit of shuffling nervously from foot to foot and fiddling with her small wire-framed glasses.

Nguyen grew up in Danang, a major port city famous for its seafood and beaches. She told me about Vietnamese food, consisting mainly rice and noodles, as well as pork, chicken and goat.

Vincent Tran, the only male worker at Nail Trix, jokingly added “dogs and cats” to the list of foods from the opposite side of the room where he was painting a woman’s nails. We all laughed.

Nguyen’s mother and brother convinced her to live in the U.S. with them. She studied business and learned some English back in Vietnam, and I asked why she works at Nail Trix instead of going to school.

“You start again at zero when you come here, everything you start over,” Nguyen said. “I come to learn a lot. All the English and all the customs. I make good money. I want to go to school so it’s better for me. But I need to learn English first.”

Nguyen had to cut our conversation short when her customer’s UV light timer went off.

Finding the American dream

Working at Nail Trix pays a decent salary, especially on busier days when up to 60 people visit the salon.

The older women seemed content with their job. But the younger women see Nail Trix more as a stepping stone. It helps their English improve and pays enough for them to save up for school.

These women share similar stories, backgrounds and hopes for the future. They love and respect America and do not this country for granted. They gave up more respectable careers in Vietnam to move to the U.S. They had to start over with virtually nothing.

For all their hardships, these women are putting their children through school. They make their own money. They are improving their English and have earned or are in the process of earning American citizenship.

“I am American dream,” Tina Ngo said. I had to agree.

Edited by Hannah Smoot

Being transgender in Alamance County: Zayden, Ben and Lily

By Kenzie Cook

Zayden Isaac sips on water in a coffee shop somewhere in Chapel Hill, a long way from his home in Graham, North Carolina. The dim lights dance around Zayden’s face as he tells his story of self-discovery, coming out and transition just weeks after his 18th birthday.

Back in his hometown of Burlington, Ben Xhemaili sits in his living room while his parents are out shopping and his little sister sings karaoke in her bedroom. His eyebrows draw together in a mix of concentration and sorrow as he recounts his struggles of the past two years, just a couple of months shy of 18-years-old.

Across the state, Lily McGilvray pauses “Chill with Bob Ross” on Netflix to share her own story a couple of months after her 21st birthday. Emotions swirl in her eyes as she retells both her hardships and her blessings.

Each transgender person has a different story to tell, and Zayden’s, Ben’s and Lily’s stories are unique to people from deep within the mostly conservative Alamance County. While both Zayden and Ben seem to have somehow known who they were their entire lives, Lily has barely just discovered herself in college. Some transgender people are lucky enough to face little-to-no struggles while coming out and throughout transition, but others must live every day feeling unaccepted and abnormal.

Zayden, Ben and Lily each has an entirely different look than they had just years earlier. Lily had a full beard and several more pounds. Now, she had a slight figure and a face as smooth as silk. Zayden’s case was the opposite. Three years ago, he wore his hair down past his shoulders and coated his eyelashes in mascara. Now, his face was fresh and his haircut was close to his skull. Ben, whose hair was once long and styled with curls, now wore his cropped short. All three individuals have experienced major changes physically, mentally and socially; and, although their stories are quite different, they share one thing in common: all are happier now that they get to experience life as their true selves rather than hide behind their physical bodies.

Alamance County, where these three people are from, is not notorious for accepting LGBT youth. The schools rarely let transgender students use the bathrooms or locker rooms that matched their identity well before the North Carolina government ever enacted House Bill 2. Lily had already escaped to Barton College before coming out, but Zayden and Ben were just beginning high school when they first revealed who they really were.

Zayden

In December 2013, Zayden, then known as Leslie, stared in the bathroom mirror, trying to figure out who the person staring back at him was. The long hair didn’t fit, the makeup didn’t make sense and the feminine clothes were a catastrophe. He knew who he was and this was not it. It was his freshman year of high school, and it was time for him to finally accept who he was. He decided to chop his hair off, replace his clothes with those from the men’s section and stop wearing makeup.

“I liked it when people assumed I was male; and I knew with my hair being as long as it was, everyone would always just think I was a butch lesbian,” he recalled. “While that’s absolutely fine for some people, it wasn’t for me and it made me really uncomfortable when people called me a lesbian, because that implied that I was a female who was interested in other females, and I wasn’t a female.”

The road to coming out was long and confusing for Zayden. He knew who he was, but he wasn’t sure the world was ready to know as well. At the start of his freshman year, he came out as a lesbian, and his parents and church were surprisingly accepting of it. Zayden didn’t tell anyone he was a transgender male until partially through his sophomore year. This was met with hardly any backlash or surprise, but Zayden still struggled with getting his teachers and parents to acknowledge his true identity. It was not until his junior and senior years that people finally started calling him by his new name, Zayden, or in some cases his nickname, Lee. Peers and teachers started using male pronouns when referring to him, but he still had to use the girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms at school.

“My mom calls me Lee but avoids using pronouns when talking about me,” he said, laughing slightly when asked if his parents were accepting of who he is. “She’ll say ‘Lee’ ten times over in a sentence just to avoid using a pronoun.”

During his junior year in high school, his first year after coming out as a transgender male, Zayden started going to the biweekly meetings of Trans Talk Tuesdays, hosted by the LGBT Center of UNC-Chapel Hill. Although he found slight comfort in being surrounded by people similar to him, he felt he didn’t quite belong in the group.

“It seemed like everyone else was struggling way more than I am,” he explained. “Plus, I’d prefer people just think I’m a guy than know I’m transgender.”

Ben

In the summer of 2015, Ben Xhemaili, then known as Yllza, faced a similar situation as Zayden. Though he came out as a lesbian the year before, he didn’t feel that term was quite right. He, too, made the conscious decision to chop off his long brown locks and ditch the mascara, and he loved the results. His parents attempted to make him grow his hair back out, but he refused. He finally felt closer to the person he really was: a transgender male.

While Ben’s journey to figuring out his identity followed along a similar path as Zayden’s, he faced a few more obstacles along the way. Zayden was lucky to be in a family that initially accepted him when he first came out as a lesbian before he knew who he really was. Ben came from an Albanian family who followed the Islamic faith, which included a strong discrimination toward anyone of the LGBT community even if it was their own child. Miraculously, Ben managed to hide his sexuality – and eventual gender identity – from his parents until his junior year of high school.

“Coming out wasn’t something I had decided to do, but rather a choice by my ex-girlfriend,” Ben explained. “I wanted to wait until I was 18.”

In the fall of 2015, Ben cowered on his bed shortly after his parents discovered a picture of him hugging his girlfriend. His father barged into the room, demanding he tell the truth of his relationship with the girl. Ben swore up and down that he wasn’t dating a girl, and that the hug was simply friendly. His dad snapped. No daughter of his would be a lesbian, especially not with an American.

Ben, who had been considering the idea that he might actually be a male born into a female body, knew immediately that if his parents could not accept him as a lesbian, they definitely could not accept him as a transgender person.

Flash-forward to a year later, to the fall of 2016. Ben’s mother helps him pick out a new name and helps him get access to hormone injections to begin his official transition. Even though Ben believed his life would never get better since he was a transgender teen in a Muslim family, over the course of a year he managed to change the minds of his conservative parents and turn his life around.

Lily

Two years after Zayden’s initial self-revelation and just a few months after Ben’s, in the fall of 2015, Lily McGilvray started on a long road to her own self-discovery. She had just started her freshman year of college and couldn’t shake the feeling that she was parading around as someone she was not. She tried to convince herself that she could just ignore it, and it would eventually go away.

“I was trying not to think about it,” Lily recalled. “But, then I started thinking about it a lot. Then, by the summer of 2016, I was certain.”

Despite her friends being mostly accepting of her new identity, coming out to her family was an entirely different experience. Her mother found out before she had the chance to come out. The doctors had mailed her hormone pills to the wrong address, and her mother forced her to come clean. Her father found out soon after, when her mother made her switch to his insurance.

“Telling my family was nerve-wracking,” said Lily. “My dad is completely cool with it, and my mom completely hates me.”

Her twin brother Justin didn’t outwardly react to Lily’s revelation. He simply changed pronouns for her. Justin explained: “She told me that she was transgender, and I just said, ‘Okay, cool. Do you want to play Rocket League?’”

Lily’s not completely out yet. At school, she still goes by male pronouns and her old name. She doesn’t plan to come out completely until she looks more feminine so that less people are confused. “My school was a Christian school until recently, so everyone here is really conservative. But I have my own bathroom and my own shower, so it’s not a huge deal.”

Back in Alamance

Transgender people across the world have different struggles, whether they are in a transphobic environment or not. Alamance County doesn’t seem to be bursting with people identifying as transgender, but that could be because it’s not necessarily an inviting place to the LGBT community and many could be are afraid to come out. Zayden, Ben and Lily prove that transgender people are incredibly brave in the face of adversity. Even though Zayden didn’t experience the same backlash as Ben or Lily, he still struggles simply by having the wrong body. Now with House Bill 2 hanging over their heads, their lives are even more in limbo, which only makes them braver. Perhaps one day, Alamance will be more accepting so these three are not alone and no longer have to struggle.

Edited by Samantha Miner