Thu Cửu Nguyễn is a nail salon owner and a member of the last generation to grow up in Vietnam without communist rule. Thu Cửu’s complex relationship with freedom and security have led her to embrace the Republican Party of Donald Trump. “A Profile of Thu Cửu Nguyễn” sheds light on a frequently overlooked part of the American electorate.
The Vietnamese language abounds with proverbs. Thu Cửu Nguyễn has a favorite:
A heart that honors mother and respects father fulfils the worship of the child.*
This Confucianist sentiment—that the self is fulfilled through reverence of one’s parentage—is characteristic of Thu Cửu’s generation of Vietnamese expatriates. Hers is the last generation to have experienced childhood in a homeland without communism. It was first to flee the Fall of Saigon in search of asylum. It is part of the only major Asian ethnic group in the United States to demonstrate majority support for Donald Trump over Joe Biden.
As Thu Cửu speaks with conviction of respect for parentage as the sine qua non of social decorum, three things become clear to me. First, that second generation Vietnamese are less likely to share this conviction. Next, that examination of Vietnam’s tumultuous political history yields insight into the political leanings of this overlooked part of the American electorate. Last, that Thu Cửu’s steadfast reverence for family extends to fatherland.
“You can change your lover like you change your shirt,” she tells me. “That’s not how it works with parents. My kids don’t always remember that.” Two of Thu Cửu’s sons work as nail technicians in their mother’s salon. Both are vocal critics of her political preferences. As for the President’s harsh stance on immigration, one son told Thu Cửu that if Trump had his way, she would be sent back to Vietnam.
Her response? That if President Trump asked her to leave the United States, she would dutifully oblige. “If today Trump kicks me out, I will go and still be on his side.” When I press Thu Cửu on her rationale, she answers matter-of-factly: “When you love someone, you can die for someone.”
One week after Election Day 2020 and two days after the results were called for Biden, I meet Thu Cửu at her nail salon in the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side. On a typical pre-pandemic day, the salon would be packed with men and women. All would be clamoring for pedicures and eye-brow waxes. A skilled tailor, Thu Cửu is known for her attention to detail in all artistic domains. Her sons would dole out frosty White Claws—aptly named for consumption in a nail salon—and soon, customers would be laughing as they leaned into the rumble of massage chairs. Local news and reality television would merge in and out on the flat screen overhead.
Today, the pandemic rages outside and so does an unseasonable storm. Only two customers interrupt our interview, though masked heads pop through the door periodically, with promises to come back “once this is all over.” My intention is to ease into questions about Thu Cửu’s politics, but something in the air brings them to the foreground—despite Thu Cửu’s best efforts. She is cheerful and bubbly by nature, but visibly conflicted when it comes to asserting her opinion on politics. She frequently rushes into a sentence, only to stop and chide herself mid-way. “After the war—oh, that’s not a good one. I’m not proud of that one...” or “My kids, I wish they would—but, there’s no sense in thinking that way…” After a few starts and stops, Thu Cửu settles on something she wants to share.
“I’ll tell you a story, with just a little politics.” She connects her thumb and index finger to emphasize the diminutive. “Just enough.” Thu Cửu tells me that after the communists took over her central village of An Trạch, resources were scarce. One day, a neighboring family of four went down to the local market. Penniless, they signed an IOU and bought just enough to feed themselves. Upon returning home, they were so overwhelmed by shame that they poisoned their food and committed mass suicide. The end. While I am still blinking in disbelief, Thu Cửu has moved on to her next story.
She describes herself as the freest girl in town. The daughter of an affluent doctor trained in traditional Chinese medicine, Thu Cửu played while other girls saw to their domestic duties. By the age of five, Thu Cửu could juggle. Her freedom won her few friends, and before long her father hired a chaperone to accompany her walks to the Catholic school she attended, lest “the kids who rode the buffalos” beat her, as they had in the past. In many ways, Thu Cửu’s father was a protector.
Thu Cửu recounts the time she stole cash from his desk to buy candy from the local vendor. Thu Cửu was dragged into her father’s study. A concerned mother and tittering siblings eavesdropped from the adjacent room. The doctor’s study housed an array of instruments handy for beatings. He selected a hefty one, and proceeded to assail the wall. Thu Cửu was released and neither father nor daughter spoke of the incident again.
A protector and healer for some, Thu Cửu’s father was the bearer of harsh news for others. He was a man who saw into life and death. Villagers would line up outside Thu Cửu’s house, waiting to be diagnosed. The doctor would consult his books and astrological charts. Time and again he would predict, within a fifteen-day margin of accuracy, the death of the afflicted who visited him. He predicted his own death, and passed away when Thu Cửu was twelve years old.
Thu Cửu speaks little of her mother, who had died from an uncured illness one year before the doctor. According to Thu Cửu, her father refused to bring his wife to a hospital for treatment, insisting that traditional practices would suffice. The death of Thu Cửu’s parents coincided with the communist invasion of An Trạch. All this, Thu Cửu relates with a dutiful calm.
Her matter-of-factness gives way to great emotion only when I ask how she felt the day her home was overrun by the Việt Cộng. “Happy!” she exclaims. “Don’t tell anyone.” She looks behind her shoulder for a brief second, as though someone might be listening. “This was the best thing for my life because it allowed me to come to America.” She looks at me. “Tell the people reading your article that I am grateful to live in America.” With vehemence, she adds: “I have no complaints.” Thu Cửu is caught up in the grandeur of every word she is saying. “I liked the war because had there not been a war, I would not have come here. I’m telling the truth.” Her voice lifts and soon she is almost pleading with me. “I escaped Vietnam because I love freedom. That is the truth in my heart.” We both look up. A clip of the President seeming downcast plays on television. “Look how sad he is,” Thu Cửu says. She draws in her breath.
I am moved by Thu Cửu’s fervor, so stark in contrast to the apparent stoicism of her character. But what could be taken as indifference in the face of adversity is rather a thick skin developed over a lifetime of seeking equilibrium. The Vietnamese have had centuries to develop such a skin. The Chinese ruled from 111 B.C. until 939 A.D. While that may seem like ancient history, the Chinese left an enduring distaste for domination. The French arrived in the late 1850’s and remained a presence in Indochina until the time of the Second World War, when there was a period of Japanese occupation. After the war, France returned and maintained its influence until its decisive defeat at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954. Vietnam was severed in two. The United States would intervene, but the communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam would come to subdue the southern Republic of Vietnam.
Another common saying captures Vietnam’s political adversities in broad strokes. One thousand years of domination by the Chinese invader. One hundred years of domination by the French. Twenty years of daily combat within your country.** These lines are sung in a famous anti-war anthem by composer Trịnh Công Sỏn. They are followed by the question: After all this, what is left of your motherland’s heritage? The refrain answers, A sorrowful Vietnam. The chorus offers, A row of burning houses.
After several years living under communist rule and eighteen months spent in refugee camps, Thu Cửu would adopt a new patriotic heritage in the United States. In solidarity with the Republic of Vietnam, she would embrace American conservative Republicanism. Vibrant memories of her arrival feature a large ham and a winter coat. She wanted to put her skills as a tailor to use, and dreamed of starting her own fashion line and design school. Thu Cửu says that the language barrier would inhibit this dream. She acknowledges the challenge of raising children on welfare. She espouses the joy of learning that in the United States a woman can own a business. If only for the fact that Thu Cửu is not chained to domestic duties, she sees the freedom of her childhood as manifest in her nail salon. When I leave the salon, it is not clear to me if these two freedoms are truly of the same kind.
I think back to a phone call we shared on Election Day proper. “I’ll tell you what I think because you ask, but I don’t know much,” she had said. Two tendencies, one towards an affable meekness and one towards pride in great values like freedom, are active within Thu Cửu. She says she has voted “for the guy right now,” cautious of speaking the name of the Republican nominee over the phone. “Please don’t hate me,” she adds apologetically. Thu Cửu, like many of her generation, is wary of spies and wiretapping, which were common fare throughout the war.
On the whole, this caution has not stopped Vietnamese voters from showing Republican support. A 2018 survey by AAPI Data found that Vietnamese Americans are more likely than Asian Americans overall to identify as Republican (48% over 28%). APIA Vote shows that among Vietnamese registered voters, support is higher for Trump (48%) than Biden (36%). Donald Trump’s strong-man persona and tough-on-China rhetoric boast a natural appeal for those who have had it with communism. The progressive left’s language of “democratic socialism” wins no favors among those who rightly identify the Democratic—now Socialist—Republic of Vietnam with communist rule. But even as Thu Cửu entertains my curiosity about her perspective, she reminds me that she sees herself as ultimately apolitical.
She found herself voting in 2020 when a friend asked to be accompanied to the ballot box. “It doesn’t matter if I vote or not. I am just one small voice in the country, in the world.” She admits she did not cast a vote in 2016. “I only prayed inside, all the time.” She says throughout the President’s first term, her heart “went up and down” with fear that he would be booted out of office. For Thu Cửu, Mr. Trump is a lonely business man. Having already made his fortune, his run for office is a display of the utmost altruism. Thu Cửu will be disappointed if her candidate loses, but she is resolved to accept the results of the election without protest. She leans on one last proverb to justify her thinking. It means roughly, “You eat the rice of the house you’re in.”***
The potency of such sayings lies in their ability to say a lot while saying a little. Proverbs succeed in reaching the heart of a shared cultural matter while guarding the identity of the speaker a safe distance from the sentiment expressed. Although Thu Cửu is eager to speak in earnest, the safety of her identity is always a concern. In her North Side community, Thu Cửu goes by an American name of her own choosing. She asks that I use a different name for the article. Ironically, because she is known to the public by an American moniker, her real name cannot betray her identity. Together we brainstorm ways I might refer to her. She suggests that, for wider appeal among Anglophone readers, I bestow upon her the pseudonym “Elizabeth.” In the end, I have the privilege of calling her Thu Cửu.
* Một lòng thờ mẹ, kính cha cho tròn chữ Hiếu mới là đạo con.
** Gia tài của Mẹ by Trịnh Công Sơn
Một ngàn năm nô lệ giặc Tầu
Một trăm năm nô lệ giặc Tây
Hai mươi năm nội chiến từng ngày
Gia tài của mẹ là nước Việt buồn
*** Nhập gia tuỳ tục.