Vincent Le, Arlene Huynh and their 8-year-old son Nathan relax at their home in northeast Dougherty County. Le and Huynh are natives of Vietnam, but they have realized the American dream by building their own successful business.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Spend a little time talking with Arlene Huynh, Vincent Le and their precocious 8-year-old son Nathan, and you quickly realize this is the quintessential American family.
Arlene and Vincent started their own business -- Elegance Nails at 2723 Dawson Road -- so that they could alternate their days off and at least one of them be with Nathan every day. "Time with our son is more important than working; it's our bonding time," Arlene says, and Vincent smiles at his wife's words.
Talk about America's Independence Day celebration with the couple, and you understand how deeply Vincent and Arlene love their country. "I don't think a lot of people here understand how good they have it, how lucky they are to be Americans," Vincent says.
While such sentiment might ring hollow coming from some jaded citizens, whose words of patriotism are more jingoistic than heart-felt, it's especially moving coming from Vincent and Arlene. Both were born in Vietnam and came to America seeking the life that this country's freedom promised.
Arlene Huynh's father escaped from a Viet Cong prison and risked his life as one of the infamous "boat people" who left their homeland to escape persecution. Vincent Le's father was a high-ranking South Vietnamese politician who was imprisoned when his country fell and died in prison after nine years of internment.
"I felt like part of my life was missing because my father was not with us," Arlene, who with her mother and brother was brought from Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City) to America by her father when she was 14, said. "I was so excited to come to America for the freedom that I'd heard so much about, but I was scared, too.
"I remember coming to Los Angeles and seeing all those cars. I didn't know a word of English, and I'd never even ridden in a car before. As much as I wanted to be with my father, I remember telling my mother, 'We've seen dad now; can we move back?'"
Vincent's journey to America came later in life. He was finally allowed to leave Hanoi (to join his brother in Austin, Texas) while in his 20s.
"Because of my father's (political) record, we were not allowed to leave," he said. "I came as an exchange student, and with the fall of Vietnam I was not allowed to return."
The couple met in California -- Vincent, a photographer, was looking for a model, and Arlene, an 18-year-old beauty at the time, certainly fit the bill -- came to Georgia to work with a Vietnamese family that owned a nail salon at the Albany Mall, and they gradually have earned a place among the most beloved business owners in Southwest Georgia.
After a 10-year apprenticeship of 11-hour days, six days a week, and with Nathan on the way, the young couple decided to open their own business. Their work ethic, attention to detail and kindness won over a legion of customers, who came along with them, and their business gradually became one of those American success stories that inspires made-for-American-TV movies.
"To watch this family grow and see their journey with their amazing little boy; well, they're just living the American dream," said Lacy Lee, who was a regular customer of Arlene's when she worked at the mall and has remained a loyal customer since. "I found Arlene to be a cut above other nail techs here, and she and Vincent both have a professionalism that's hard to find.
"I had a friend who called and said she needed a new nail person, and I told her I've got just the shop for you. But I warned her: 'You're going to fall in love with them.'"
That friend, Tina Harden, now doesn't miss her every-other-Tuesday appointment. And, like Lee, she sings the praises of Arlene, Vincent and their staff.
"I look at Arlene and her family, and theirs is just the true all-American story," Harden said. "We're about to celebrate Independence Day, and this family is what the day is for. America has provided opportunities for so many worthy people from other countries who have come here and become amazing assets."
Arlene, Vincent and their staff -- which includes Vietnamese expatriates Johnny Bui, Kim Pham, Lynn Nguyen and Arlene's mother, Van Huynh, who taught her daughter "all she knows" and has a room-lightening smile -- focus at Elegance Nails on the traits that have won their customers' loyalty: quality over quantity, honesty, trust and emphasis on customer service.
"I feel that our clients become our friends and family," Arlene says. "We could do a job in 20 minutes and rush them out, but that's not the way we do things. We appreciate the time with them; we consider that time precious."
Cheryl Henderson and Kay Wylie are among the Elegance regulars who sing Arlene, Vincent and their staff's praises.
"They run a wonderful, efficient business, but Arlene and Vincent are such giving, caring people," Henderson, a customer for more than a decade, said. "I've seen Arlene reach out to the young people who come here (from Vietnam), seen her teach them how to pay their bills and help them adjust to life in a new country.
"America is a melting pot, and I just wish that all the people who came to our country were like the people here. There is a saying my husband and I have heard over the years in our ministry: 'Don't go where you're tolerated, go where you're celebrated.' We celebrate Arlene and Vincent."
Wylie said she will always be grateful to the Elegance staff for the kindness they showed her late husband.
"When my husband became ill, he came here with me and found that he liked being here, liked the peace that it gave him," she said. "They offer the epitome of good, professional service, and their thoughtfulness is unbelievable."
Neither Arlene nor Vincent spoke more than a few words of English when they came from their small Asian homeland to America and its large, wide-open spaces. But they adapted and assimilated. And they've made certain their son, who is in the Dougherty County School System's gifted program at Lake Park Elementary, doesn't take for granted the opportunities they made for their family.
"We want him to have a better life than we've had," Arlene says, and Nathan assures his mom that he's not planning on taking up the family business. "I want to be an inventor," the 8-year-old says matter-of-factly, agreeing that creating the latest must-have videogame is a worthy pursuit.
Nathan's never been to Vietnam, but Vincent says he'd like to take his son there when he's a little older and better able to understand the significance of the land half a world away. But, Arlene points out, while she and Vincent certainly have roots that bind them to their native land, they are in every way Americans.
And proud of it.
"I've spent most of my lifetime here in America," she says. "And, you must remember, most of the time I was in Vietnam was wartime. I'm glad I'm here; I'm glad my father brought my family here. This is our home."