The Last Refugees

This family's roots are in Vietnam, but the next generation is branching out.

With Trinh the only child still at home, Sum spent years trying to coax his family back to Colorado. By 1989, Lynda, Danh and Thanh had returned.

Trinh was dumbstruck by the change in her baby brother. He was now a man -- respectful, kind and very handsome. At six feet tall, Thanh towered over the rest of his family. His siblings would find themselves staring at him. When he caught them, they'd look away.

"Why are you guys looking away?" Thanh would ask. "You can look at me."

A family affair: The young Sum (third from top 
left) with the family he left behind in Vietnam.
A family affair: The young Sum (third from top left) with the family he left behind in Vietnam.

When the family got word that Thanh didn't show up for work one morning, they knew something was wrong. Then they got the phone call. There had been an accident, a head-on collision on the highway. The steering wheel hit Thanh so hard that it cut off his breathing, and he died instantly. His friend in the passenger seat broke nearly every bone in his body, but survived.

Just before his death, nineteen-year-old Thanh had told Danh about a vision in which he was floating in the air and could see everything, but no one could see him.

"So I told him to shut up, you know," Danh remembers. "But he knew." He believes that Thanh, who was born on Christmas Day, was a saint.

For months, Thanh visited his siblings and parents in dreams. "They would actually see him," Danh says. "And then he disappeared. He never came back, and I think the reason why is because it hurt so much when we saw him."

To this day, no one speaks of Thanh to Anh. There are no pictures of him in their home, but Sum keeps Thanh's driver's license in his wallet. And although he and Anh are Buddhists, Sum hosts a big celebration every Christmas. "And life keeps going and going," Sum says.

Trinh quit her job at the furniture company not long after Thanh's death. Not knowing what else to do, she enrolled in cosmetology school.

In the 1980s, the Vietnamese introduced American women to affordable manicures, helping boost the nails business to the $6-billion-a-year industry it is today. Nails Magazine estimates that 39 percent of all licensed nail technicians in this country are Vietnamese -- and a half-dozen are Sum's offspring.

Lynda's oldest daughter, Erica, who started doing nails when she was fourteen, thinks she can find a Vietnamese nail salon on almost every corner in Aurora. She attributes the phenomenon to the fact that Vietnamese like to be surrounded by family. Not knowing what else to do in this country, a few Vietnamese women learned to do nails and opened salons, and they taught friends and family, who went on to open their own shops.

Trinh worked as a manicurist for a year before opening her own shop. When Suong, Chi and Lynda (who'd been in Virginia) moved back to Colorado, the sisters all worked together. Suong later left to open her own place, Nail Perfection, down the street, but there are no hard feelings. She still helps out at Top Nails on Sundays.

Sixty-nine-year-old Sum beams with pride as his house erupts with laughter. A grandchild is playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on the piano; another is running or rolling around upstairs, and thumps echo through the walls. This home, which he and Anh bought in 1994, has the greenest front lawn on the block. (Sum conserves water by skimping on the back yard, where loud rap music is playing right now.)

The front door keeps opening and closing as people come and go. Just inside that door is a framed photo of Sum presenting President Bill Clinton with a petition against U.S. recognition of the Communist regime in Vietnam. The same photo is displayed in the dining room, in a frame with another picture of the event taken from a different angle. Right beside it is an autographed picture of Clinton; on the opposite wall is an autographed photo of President George W. Bush.

While Anh makes fat egg rolls with big pieces of shrimp in the kitchen, Sum sets up a folding table in the living room. The kitchen table isn't big enough for his extended family.

Every night at the Nguyen house is like a family party. Trinh and Chi show up around 8 p.m. after closing the salon, just in time to eat. Chi and her two daughters, five-year-old Jenny and sixteen-year-old Vanessa, live with her parents; Trinh comes for dinner every night. Lynda has stopped by, but she won't stay long tonight because she has a house to show. Suong is working late, but her kids are here.

Her eldest daughter, nineteen-year-old Melissa, has been helping her grandmother in the kitchen.

When the cooking is done, Anh takes a seat on the edge of the couch, right by Lynda. She sits straight, her fingers laced in her lap on top of the red apron, her legs crossed, her toenails tipped in silver. She points to the mantel and begins speaking rapidly in Vietnamese. Aside from the "Thank you," "Nice to meet you" basics, Anh speaks only Vietnamese -- though her children suspect she knows more English than she lets on.

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