What Learning Vietnamese Can Teach You about San Francisco

My trip to Vietnam in December of 2017 is now booked, kicking into high gear my motivation to learn Vietnamese.  With just three short months left to learn this completely new language, I find the task to be a bit daunting.  Unlike Spanish or French or Greek, Vietnamese is completely unconnected to anything I know.   I dive in and try several different language programs and on-line applications.   However, I think my favorite part about learning a new language is what it teaches me about how it connects to San Francisco.  Learning Vietnamese has given me an opportunity to learn and connect more with the vibrant Vietnamese community living in my beautiful city by the Bay.

The Vietnamese Community in San Francisco

Let’s start with some background.  San Fransisco is home to about 13,000 people of Vietnamese descent.  San Francisco has the eleventh highest Vietnamese population in the United States.  San Jose is ranked number one with over 90,000 Vietnamese Americans living in its city.

In 2004, San Francisco officially designated the two block stretch of Larkin Street between Eddy and O’Farrell as Little Saigon, or Sài Gòn Nhỏ in Vietnamese.  Nhỏ means “little” in Vietnamese.  See, this is already getting easier.  In this small two block area in the heart of the Tenderloin, over 2,000 Vietnamese people live and own businesses.  There were over 250 Vietnamese owned businesses in Little Saigon including some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the city.

So why is the area called Little Saigon instead of Little Ho Chi Minh City?  I explore the answer to this question by talking to some of my Vietnamese friends who came to San Francisco as refugees.  In the process, I learn a lot myself about the different waves of Vietnamese immigrants who came to San Francisco.

The First Wave and the Tinniest Refugees

The first wave of immigrants came to San Francisco and California in 1975 during the last days of the Vietnam War and before the Fall of Saigon.  Many of these Vietnamese refugees were from the south and were fleeing the take over of Southern Vietnam by the communist government.  To those who left Vietnam during this time period, Saigon will always be Sài Gòn, the city’s name before the communist government renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City.

Among those who emigrated to the United States in 1975 were 2,000 of the tiniest refugees who came during Operation Babylift. In 1975, President Ford authorized the rescue of approximately 3,000 orphans to be brought to the United States from orphanages in Saigon.  These children were adopted or reunited with families in the United States.  Recently, several participants in this operation turned their memoirs  into a play called Children of the April Rain. This play chronicles the desperate rescue effort, the tragic plane crash and the tearful reunions of these tiny orphans.

San Francisco played a pivotal role in this operation when Colonel Robert Kane, commander in charge of The Presidio, ignored military protocol and mustered half of San Francisco to take in all of the rescued orphans.  Approximately 1,500 adoptees passed through the Presidio in San Francisco through this operation.    The Presidio’s Officer Club hosted a special exhibit documenting this operation last year in its on-site museum.  You can still read about the exhibit on the Presidio’s website.

The Second Wave Of Vietnamese Immigration in the 1980’s

The second wave of Vietnamese immigrants came to San Francisco in 1980.  Many of these immigrants were boat people fleeing poverty, political oppression and hoping to have a better life in San Francisco.   As it turns out, Hon Ha, the Vietnamese Interpreter in the Hall of Justice was one of those refugees.  One morning, in court, I tell Mr. Ha that I am learning Vietnamese.  I show off a little by greeting him with “Chào Ông. Ông có khỏe không?” (Hello Sir, how are you?)

I have known Mr. Ha for the past twenty years.  As a public defender, I have stood by listening as he translates the sing song sounds of Vietnamese that my clients fire at me at break neck speed. However, in these twenty years, I never knew anything about this man other than he has a perpetual smile and a friendly demeanor.  Today is different.  My simple effort to learn his language gives me the surprising gift of his story.

Hon Ha came to San Francisco in 1980 at age 20.  When he arrived in San Francisco, he father and mother remained behind in South Vietnam.  In 1985, his father was imprisoned and his mom exiled from Saigon.  It would be ten long years before his father was released from prison and his mother and father were able to travel to San Francisco to reunite with him.

Mr. Ha feels that many of the refugees from the South continue to call Saigon by this name because of they are angry about the killings of civilians attributed to Ho Chi Minh, the communist revolutionary leader.  He feels that much of the information given to tourist today is incorrect.  For example, he tells me that the tunnel in the south near Củ Chi were recently constructed by the government and not really a place were people hid during the Vietnam War.

He explains to me that many people in San Francisco were political refugees from the south of Vietnam that fled the communist government.  Much of the Vietnamese taught today is the Northern dialect because the North is the origin of the communist government.    I learn that many of the on-line language applications and language programs teach the Northern dialect.

The Origins of the Affordable Mani Pedi

Another Californian who had a lasting effect on the future of the Vietnamese in the United States was Tippi Hedren.  She was the blond star of Alfred Hitchox’s movie, The Birds.  Some of my favorite scenes from that movie were shot right here in San Francisco.  She is also the mother of movie star Melanie Griffith.

Back in the mid-70’s, when Tippi was not staring in movies, she was volunteering for an agency called Food for the Hungry.  She volunteered at the Hope Village, a Vietnamese refugee camp near Sacramento.  As the story goes, when Tippi noticed that the Vietnamese women admiring her long, polished nails, she decided to bring in her manicurist, Dusty, to teach the Vietnamese ladies how to do manicures.  In the late 70’s, manicures were expensive; a luxury only enjoyed by movies stars and women of means. However, the manicure industry was shortly transformed into an affordable treat with the influx of Vietnamese women trained in the art of the manicure.  Today, more than 80% of licensed manicurists in California are Vietnamese Americans.

JT Nails – Tiny and Jackie Celebrate 30 Years of Business Ownership

Another set of Vietnamese refugees who came to California in the 1980’s turn out to be my friendly neighborhood manicurists, Jackie and Tina of JT Nails on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.  Jackie came to California in 1980.  She was just 25 years old and four months pregnant with her son when she arrived in San Jose.  Her husband was a Navy man who had been imprisoned in a concentration camp for two years following the end of the Vietnam War.  Finally, he was released and they fled together from Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to Singapore and finally to California.

Jackie came first to San Jose because she was sponsored by her brother-in-law who lived in San Jose.  After Jackie’s son was born, she recalls meeting another Vietnamese woman in a park.  Jackie complained to this woman that she was bored just staying home taking care of her son.  The woman explained to Jackie that she should learn to be a manicurist.  The woman explained that doing nails was easy and it did not require much English proficiency.  Jackie followed the woman’s advice and soon graduated from nail school in three short months.

By then, Jackie and her husband had moved to San Francisco.  Jackie, now having given birth to her daughter, began working for a women on Union Street as a manicurist.  Jackie was hugely popular and developed a large clientele.  Jackie convinced her friend Tina to move to San Francisco.  Jackie and Tina were old friends who knew each other back in Vietnam.  Tina was living in Los Angeles.  Tina came to visit Jackie in San Francisco and fell in love with the city too.

On November 1, 1987, Jackie and Tina opened JT Nails together as business partners and co-owners.  Thirty years later, Jackie and Tina have a wall lined with holiday cards from loyal customers and lots of memories.  On the day that I interview Jackie about her story, I am lucky enough to meet a woman who has been coming to JT Nails for the last thirty years; one of their original customers.

When I tell tell the ladies of JT Nails about my travel itinerary, I end with “I will spend my last three days in Ho Chi Minh City.”  “You mean Saigon,” one of the ladies corrects me.  The others nod in agreement. To them, Saigon will always be Sài Gòn, the home they left behind.

Sometimes the best way to travel is to travel back in time by listening to the stories of others.  Jackie and Tina now greet me in Vietnamese and help me practice.  I have been their customer for the past twelve years.  However, today, I have a brand new admiration for these two amazing woman.  Plus it is pretty cool to be able to say “I want a manicure” in Vietnamese (“Tôi muốn làm móng”).

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Live it by asking questions because the answers will inspire you.

One thought on “What Learning Vietnamese Can Teach You about San Francisco”

  1. I love this post! You have taken me many times to JT Nails when I visit you. Now I know the rest of the story. In New Orleans I enjoyed the culture of the vibrant Vietnamese community there also, from the manicures I got, to delicious dinners, and the great Gulf Coast seafood I enjoyed caught by the skilled Vietnamese fishermen who settled there. Got my coffee and croissants from the coffee shop on Magazine walking distance from my apartment there. Looking forward to hearing your vacation adventure there.

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