From Horrors to a New Life: A Bloomington Success Story Because the U.S. Took In Vietnamese Refugees

Jennifer Mai at home with her family: (l-r) younger son Ryan Nguyen, Jennifer, older son Christopher Nguyen, and husband Peter Nguyen. Photo by Stephen Sproull

Jennifer Mai at home with her family: (l-r) younger son Ryan Nguyen, Jennifer, older son Christopher Nguyen, and husband Peter Nguyen. Photo by Stephen Sproull

BY MIKE LEONARD

For 18 years, clients have patronized The Nail Studio on South College Mall Road and most have received salon services from owner Hai “Jennifer” Mai.

“She’s always there,” says Diane Buzzell, a regular customer. “Always very welcoming.”

But only a small number have ever heard Jennifer talk about how she came to Bloomington from her native Vietnam. “We were boat people,” the 49-year-old mother of two explains. “The people I do tell say I ought to write a book.”

Jennifer was 9 when South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam in 1975 and she witnessed an attack on a village marketplace near her family home in Phan Thiet. “Bombs went off. I saw several hundred dead people — women, children, babies — all kind,” she says. “I saw people explode. Guts. Hands on the ground. I still get chills thinking about it.”

By 1979 the family decided its only recourse from Communist oppression was to flee. So one night, her parents and their five daughters waded into the surf and boarded a shrimp boat carrying other escapees. Their small boat was to rendezvous with a larger boat and take them to Indonesia.

“When it came time to pass my infant sister (Hien) up [to the small boat], a wave crashed in and swept her out of my mother’s arms,” Jennifer recalls. “Instantly there was no hope, but several seconds later, my mother felt something at her leg under the water and it was my sister. It was like a miracle.”

The small boat never connected with the larger rendezvous boat carrying food and water, and for a week they languished adrift at sea with several people, including Jennifer’s mother, suffering from dehydration and delirium.

Eventually, Jennifer’s family and the other boat people landed on an uninhabited Indonesian island which had neither shelters nor houses. “Only monkeys,” Jennifer says. The family survived for a year on the island before the United States government accepted them as political refugees.

Immigration documents from 1981 when Jennifer and her family arrived in America; young Jennifer is the child in the middle row. Photo by Stephen Sproull

Immigration documents from 1981 when Jennifer and her family arrived in America; young Jennifer is the child in the middle row. Photo by Stephen Sproull

The family landed in an unlikely place — Gatlinburg, Tennessee — which presented more than just acculturation challenges. “The people who took us in put us in a garage without heat,” Jennifer says. Her father, a former naval officer, found work as a busboy, and to feed his wife and five young daughters, he regularly smuggled back uneaten food from the plates of diners.

Eventually, a social worker discovered the conditions in which the family was living and moved them into low-income housing. After a couple of years, they made their way to Bayou La Batre, Alabama, near Mobile, where the fishing industry included shrimping, an occupation the family knew about from their native Vietnam.

The children grew up and began charting their own courses. Jennifer wound up in Orange County, California. For two years she put in 16-hour days doing physical labor (including assembling cable lines) while also attending school to improve her language skills and earn a cosmetology degree.

In California, she met Peter Nguyen, now her husband of 23 years. After setting up shop in several cities, including Indianapolis and West Lafayette, Indiana, the couple settled in Bloomington. They have two children, Christopher Nguyen, 22, a senior at Indiana University, and Ryan Nguyen, 17, a senior at Bloomington High School North. Mai’s parents still live in Alabama. Two of her sisters live in Bloomington and also operate nail and salon businesses.

“Jennifer amazes me,” says Buzzell, one of many longtime clients. “She works very hard, the shop is very efficient, and they do a great job for a very reasonable cost.” Services at The Nail Studio include manicures, pedicures, artificial nails, waxing, and permanent makeup application.

And while Jennifer is quick to express appreciation for her rewarding life, she saddens visibly when asked how she feels about the current controversies concerning immigration.

“What if no one had accepted us when we were just poor boat people in 1979?” she asks. “I can’t imagine what my life would be like if the United States had not accepted us when we were desperate.”

Jennifer and Peter on their wedding day in 1992. Photo by Stephen Sproull

Jennifer and Peter on their wedding day in 1992. Photo by Stephen Sproull

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