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Jeff Manes: Living the American Dream

Johnny Nguyen is pictured with Sassy Nails customer TheresSkeen Portage. She stopped say hello drop off loaf homemade banana-nut bread.

Johnny Nguyen is pictured with Sassy Nails customer Theresa Skeen of Portage. She stopped in to say hello and drop off a loaf of homemade banana-nut bread. | Photo provided

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IF YOU GO

What: Sassy Nails

Where: 6636 U.S. 6, Portage (next to Imax16)

More information: Call 734-6690.

Updated: October 10, 2012 6:11AM



“I trained you to become a very special manicurist, not just a plain manicurist ... . Because you make more money.”

— actress Tippi Hedren

Johnny Nguyen wasn’t the easiest interview. He is a humble man who speaks softly and prefers not to talk about himself. The only way he’d allow me to take his photo was with a customer.

Nguyen, 35, and his wife, Amy, own and operate Sassy Nails in Portage. They also live in the city.

I’ve never had a manicure and felt self-conscious talking to Johnny because, the night before, I’d been loading stink bait onto treble hooks while tight-lining for catfish in the Kankakee River.

My nails were a mess.

***

“I came to Sacramento, Calif., from South Vietnam when I was 10,” Nguyen began. “I went to school in California to learn English.

“I go back to Vietnam on occasion. Financially, Vietnam is doing a lot better. It was a much more primitive life for my parents.”

It’s a warmer climate in Vietnam.

“Yes, very hot and humid. I don’t want to talk too much about Vietnam.”

No problem.

“We came to this country with nothing. We start from scratch and were doing OK until the economy in California took a tailspin. It is a very high cost of living in California.”

Do you find folks in Northwest Indiana different than the people of north-central California?

“People are more friendly in Northwest Indiana — more open. They share their stories with me. When customers come into the salon, it’s more about conversation and relaxation. When they walk out of here, they feel great. Our place is very popular.

“The only thing I dislike about Northwest Indiana is the cold weather, but I’ve learned to deal with it.”

Have you grown accustomed to American food?

“Oh, yeah. But we still eat a lot of fried rice and dishes like beef noodle soup.”

Tell me about Sassy Nails.

“We are a full-service salon. We do manicures, pedicures and much more.”

It seems an inordinate percentage of manicurists are of Vietnamese descent.

“Most cultures have a niche; the Chinese operate restaurants, and Koreans do a lot of dry-cleaning.”

I feel you; a lot of Italians came to this country as shoemakers.

“Vietnamese people like jobs that are of service to others; we like to make people happy. The economy drove a lot of Vietnamese people into the nail business.”

Explain, please.

“Some people might have tried to attend, say, medical school, but had to drop out for financial reasons; they turned to the nail business. It doesn’t make any difference what you do for a living, as long as you are happy doing it.”

From God’s mouth to your ears. Johnny, I made good money in the steel mill, but hated it. I don’t make any money as a writer, but I love it.

“It can be difficult running a business and trying to make everyone happy.”

How many days per week are you open?

“Seven; I work from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and I work from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.”

Ever take a day off?

“Rarely.”

How long can you keep up that pace?

“I choose to be here for a long time. We don’t know what the future holds.”

You have to make hay while the sun shines.

“Exactly.”

Do you and Amy have children?

“Not yet.”

How many people do you employ?

“Ten.”

What percentage of your customers are women?

“I’d say at least 95 percent. The customers are of all ages.”

How long have you been in the nail business?

“Five years; Amy has been doing it for 15 years.”

Bear with me, please, are all pedicures the same?

“We have nine kinds of pedicures. The most popular ones are milk-and-honey and lavender. I’ve added a new one to the menu list called chocolate martini. Customers like choices.”

Clients soak their feet in these concoctions?

“Yes, a lot of people have thick callouses on the bottoms of their feet; the milk and honey will take all that away. Lavender is good for people who are on their feet all day; it relaxes them.”

The deluxe manicure?

“It includes an exfoliating sea-salt scrub, moisturizing mask wrapped in a warm towel and an extended massage with polish.”

***

A couple years before Nguyen was born, Saigon fell. Throngs of Vietnamese people emigrated to the United States — in a hurry.

At the time, when actress Tippi Hedren wasn’t plying her trade on a movie set, she served as an international relief coordinator working with Vietnamese women in a camp near Sacramento.

Hedren asked her manicurist, Dusty, if she would teach the Vietnamese women nail technology. The manicurist agreed, and a niche for Vietnamese-Americans was born.

Johnny Nguyen is the epitome of the American Dream come true. It makes me happy to share his story.



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