In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action, H’Abigail Mlo’s short story “Summer at Tiffany’s” is the kind of narrative we need in the world. This fictional Montagnard Degar refugee family presents a facet of the Asian American experience that defies the stereotype that all Asian parents want their kids to be lawyers or doctors. Likewise, the story resists harmful stereotypes that depict Asian American students as a monolith of well-resourced privilege.
Instead, Mlo’s characters reveal the complexity of being an indigenous minority of Southeast Asia and a family of first-generation refugees making their way in the United States. Like this fictional family, Montagnard American communities carry with them from Southeast Asia a history of displacement, dispossession, and discrimination at the hands of the Vietnamese and other dominant groups. Such legacies of instability might inform a parent’s desire to keep their offspring close, wings clipped. As the United States wars with its legal definitions of fairness, Mlo’s nuanced fiction reminds us that the work of ensuring equal opportunities is far from done—and moot—where families cling to each other tightly after having lost so much.
– H’Rina DeTroy, Contributing Editor
In any other industry, a 20-minute lunch break would be flagged as a workers’ rights violation, but not here. Here, you’re lucky to steal two minutes to use the bathroom, let alone 20 for lunch. Lai and I only get such an extensive break because we’re the youngest employees—and because no one would want to visit a nail salon after finding two teenagers passed out on the floor from malnourishment. That would certainly be cause for a concerned Yelp review.
At noon, Lai and I make a mad dash for the storage closet, the makeshift breakroom. We multitask, washing our hands and microwaving our lunches like “Chopped” chefs racing against the clock to prepare a gourmet meal—if gourmet meals could be served in Tupperware. I grab an old Yoplait tub and open it to find, not yogurt, but ground chili peppers and garlic. Mom makes it to share. I top my food with the condiments, so does Lai, and we squat ungracefully onto the plastic stools, our knees touching and our food resting on our laps. We dig in. I don’t even have enough time to savor every bite of rice and crispy pork belly that Mom made.
We’re time management pros, having learned the hard way. On our first day of working at Nails by Tiffany, we chatted through our break and paid no attention to the food on our laps—or the clock. Twenty minutes ticked by. We went the rest of our shift hungry.
Now, hunched over our phones, we maximize the rest of our break by scrolling. I refresh my inbox. No new emails since this morning. I check my spam. Still nothing.
“Any news?” I ask Lai, ungluing my eyes from my screen to peek at hers. I instinctively pull at the strands of my freshly shorn bob, a haircut I thought would be perfect for summer. Until, that is, my best friend gravely pointed out my resemblance to Edna Mode from The Incredibles.
Ever the drama queen, Lai inhales deeply before switching from her personal Instagram account to her newly minted business account: @lai.naildesign. Her pride and joy condensed into a dozen squares, each one a photograph of nails manicured to the nines. Painted-on flowers and glued-on rhinestones in every color. One set is made to look like tie-dye, another like marble. Our eyes take in the tiny number spelling out her follower count.
“Oh my god,” she says. “Almost 100!”
“Oh my god,” I repeat. “That’s like, what, 20 more than last week?”
Lai nods delightfully and refreshes her page, as though the number will grow with each downward swipe. Her followers mostly consist of her former high school classmates and people from church, but I know her dream is to reach fame on par with Cardi B’s nail artist. “She’s Southeast Asian—like us!” Lai had announced to me when she first discovered the nail artist’s identity: Jenny Bui, whose page proudly boasts one million followers.
Lai pulls up her Instagram Story and snaps a pouty selfie. I watch as she types: Hey new followers! Thanks for the support. She follows the message up with a series of blushing emojis.
“I read that sharing your face gets you more followers.”
“Well, if it works for Jenny Bui,” I tease.
“Shut up, Sara!” she says, shoving me playfully. She’s admitted to me that she’s spent hours poring over Jenny’s profile, trying to uncover her secrets to success.
She eyes my screen. “No updates?”
I shake my head.
“Didn’t they say they’d let you know by mid-June? Isn’t it mid-freaking-June?”
“Just my future laid out in one email, no biggie,” I say with a shrug.
She lays a hand on my shoulder and squeezes gently. “They would be stupid to reject you,” she says earnestly. “There’s always cosmetology school—like your mom said, remember?”
I do remember, of course. Mom’s been dropping unsubtle hints all senior year. “You know Jennifer from church?” Mom brought up once. “College dropout. Classes too hard. Campus too far from family. She quit. Cosmetology school, easy. Close to home.”
She repeated some version of that sentiment for a year, hoping it would stick. It has, but not for the reason she thinks. I use every possible excuse, never outright telling her to drop it. I’m not a people person. The smell of acetone irritates me. I don’t like touching people’s feet.
“You don’t have to like people,” she’ll say. “And you’ll wear a mask and gloves.”
I silently return to my phone. Lai does the same, tapping through Instagram, while I search for an excuse not to check my empty inbox. I scroll through my photos, stop when I get to June. Lai and I attended each other’s graduations, exchanging flowers and stuffed animals. Though high school only just ended, it feels like the door hasn’t fully shut. I can’t shut it, try as might, until I receive that email that’s supposed to arrive mid-freaking-June.
When one door closes, another opens, I Sharpied on my graduation cap the night before the ceremony. I couldn’t think of anything else. While lining up to enter the auditorium, I felt my stomach drop when I saw everyone else’s caps. From naming their future schools and professions to honoring their families, they all had something to look forward to. I figured Rejected From the Two Colleges I Applied To was too wordy for a graduation cap.
When I told Mom this job would only be for the summer, she responded with the look: silent and disapproving. She wants me to stay within arm’s reach, to eventually be certified. Lai’s working towards certification. I don’t know if I should. It’s good money, Mom has tried to convince me. You stay home, work, take care of me and Daddy. My one certainty is that this job is enough—for now. I can stomach acetone fumes for one summer if it buys me time.
Our salon duties are simple since we’re uncertified. We scrub, clip, file, and buff nails before sending the client off to a seasoned nail tech to finish the job with a polish. Other tasks include taking phone calls, sweeping, mopping, and dusting. I like these duties best. We get paid $7.25 an hour, plus tips. Our moms got us the part-time gig. They’ve known the owner for years.
The owner is a middle-aged Vietnamese woman who goes by Tiffany—her real name a mystery—and seems to always wear a scowl on her face. One of the reviews for Nails by Tiffany reads: Great service. Tiffany, the owner, is a sweetheart who gets the job done. I have yet to meet this sweetheart the reviewer’s referring to. Still, her business has been active for decades. She must be doing something right.
A few other reviews mention Tiffany, but none mention Mom or Lai’s mom by name, even though they’ve worked here since Lai and I were in middle school. Most people will refer to the nail techs generally as “the ladies” or, more patronizingly, “the girls.”
“Wanna come over?” Lai asks. “Benny misses you.”
“I saw that monkey last week.” But I miss him too. Six-year-old Benjamin loves leaping in my arms and calling me Mai. Older sister. No one else calls me Mai but him.
Outside of our part-time jobs, Lai and I continue to be inseparable. This has been the case since we were nine, even though we basically only hung out every Sunday for two hours. Our devout parents became friends and, naturally, so did Lai and I. We’ve been mistaken for siblings. I’m an only child, though, and she has three younger siblings she’s often tasked with babysitting. Since school let out, I’ve been seeing the Ksor siblings a lot more.
“What have Yohan and Tuyet been up to?” I ask.
“You know them,” Lai rolls her eyes. “Hiding in their rooms—” she pulls her hands to her face, squinting harshly, and scrolls her thumb on an invisible phone. “—playing video games, watching TikTok. Can you believe they still use Snapchat? Who the frick still uses Snapchat?”
Tuyet’s well into her phase of teen angst and Yohan’s tailing closely behind. We used to all play, but Lai and I grew older, and closer, and it got too awkward to include the little kids. “Anak čar Mi,” Lai will tsk jokingly when her siblings bug her. American children. She’s the only one of them who was born in Vietnam and has memories of her childhood there. Though I have been to their house more times than I can count, it still amazes me that it is never quiet.
I wanted a sibling, but Mom made it clear long ago that that’s never happening. She said a bunch of stuff about stretch marks, her C-section scar, and how her stomach still sagged from carrying me for nine months. Plus, who would pay our mortgage and send money home? You? Third shift is hard enough for Daddy.
“Back to the grind,” Lai says at the end of our break. She pulls her medical mask over her face and I copy her. I check my phone one last time—nothing—before putting it on silent.
“Back to the grind,” I repeat with a groan. I know I shouldn’t complain. Mom says I should be grateful. She’ll occasionally throw in a I never hear Lai complaining about work. She is a good girl, to make me feel extra guilty. Dad silently nods in agreement every time.
We quickly navigate to our neighboring nail stations before Tiffany sends a glare in our direction. I nearly bump into one of the nail techs, Anh, trying to grab towels from the closet. The six nail techs here seem to always be frantic, not that I blame them. I notice Mom by the register, checking a client out who’s all-teeth when she smiles and thanks Mom for her service.
Summers are the busiest season at Nails By Tiffany. Students have graduation. Women want to get their nails looking prim and polished for their vacations. Lately, there have been more and more men coming into the salon to “treat themselves” (their words) to a basic mani-pedi. Lai and I exchange a smile every time we ring a male client up and notice the way his eyes bulge when he realizes he spent $60—before tip—on this indulgence.
After prepping our stations, we call over the next clients. Across from us sit a mother and her 30-something-year-old daughter, Jill and Janet, who visit the salon once a month. It’s their ritual, their monthly mother-daughter bonding, as they call it. Funny. A nail salon is the last place Mom would go to kick her feet up and bond with her only daughter.
“Your mom told me you girls just graduated high school,” Jill says, smiling at me and then at Lai. I reach for my clippers. Her Southern accent is palpable, like honey on white bread. But her next question is anything but sweet and syrupy. “Now, what are your plans?”
I let Lai speak first.
“I’m getting a cosmetology license,” she says proudly. The answer comes naturally. It always has. She’s wanted to be a nail artist since we were kids. Before Instagram and before she knew you could get famous for it like Jenny Bui, somehow Lai’s always had her life figured out.
“Well, when you open your nail salon, call me,” Jill says to Lai, the smile on her face never wavering. She turns to me, expectantly. Though I know she means well, I’d rather drink nail polish remover than talk about my future.
“I’m taking classes at H-Tech this fall,” I say, keeping it vague. While it’s true I’ll be at Hurston Technical Community College, I don’t mention the email that’s coming, the decision that’s supposed to shape my future. My Plan C, but a plan nonetheless.
I don’t look up from Janet’s hands, but I can sense the smile in Jill’s voice. “You girls are so hard-working. Your mothers must be very proud.”
And that’s the end of my conversation with Jill. She and Janet start talking about the latest episode of The Bachelor. Lai joins in. I’ve never been one to banter with clients. I don’t know what we’d talk about, seeing as I don’t keep up with reality TV or celebrity gossip. Plus, this job requires all of my focus. I’m still learning from a mistake I made my first week here when I clipped a woman’s nails too close to her nail bed. As a regular, the woman forgave me, even tipped me, but had it been a new client, I probably would have been sent to Yelp hell.
“Do you wanna do something this weekend?” Lai asks during a lull between clients. Our four o’clocks just became no-shows. We have two more appointments lined up and who knows how many walk-ins. I pull out two granola bars from my apron, one for me, the other for Lai. We both rip ours open. We don’t eat dinner until we get off around eight, just before sunset.
“Like what?” I say.
“The mall?” Lai offers.
We chew thoughtfully. I scrape the oats and peanut butter from the roof of my mouth.
“Wanna see a movie?” I offer.
“What’s playing?” she asks. “No rom-coms. Unless Timothée Chalamet is in it.”
I pretend to gag before sneaking my phone out of my pocket to check local showtimes. My eyes immediately land on the Gmail notification on my screen.
1 hour ago
From: [email protected]
Subject: C-Step Regular Action Decision
“No. Way.” Lai says knowingly.
“Yes way,” I practically shriek.
This was it: the open door. My future laid out in an email. C-Step or a gap year. C-Step or a few community college classes until I figure out my next step. C-Step or uncertainty.
“Mô̆!” Mom calls me over. Lai and I exchange looks. Mine says Shit. Hers says I know. Putting my phone away, I walk over to Mom’s pedicure station, where she’s using both hands and a stone tool to scrub the crusted skin of an old man’s feet. Mom gestures to her phone, which is sitting on the marble floor by her foot and buzzing with a phone call.
I answer the phone without looking at the caller ID.
“Hi, Daddy,” I say. “Ami is busy. What is it?”
“Tell Ami to pick up tomatoes before coming home. We’re out,” he says, his voice rusty from sleeping all day. “I want grilled beef with scallions and tomatoes for dinner.”
“Okay. Bye, Ra.” Short as my name already is, my parents still managed to nickname me Ra. Such is the fate of any Montagnard child whose name has more than one syllable.
“Ami, Daddy wants you to pick up tomatoes tonight.”
Mom sucks her teeth. “Stupid man,” she says, shaking her head. “Like I have time.”
I know she’ll make time for a pit stop anyway. The Wal-Mart near our house closes late.
The email weighs on my chest. Though I’m dying to say, “Mom! Guess what?”, I know I should only tell her when I’ve actually been accepted. I want to open it with her beside me like those kids on YouTube opening their acceptances to Harvard. But I say nothing.
Remembering what she said about college being too hard and too far away, her words are stamped onto my brain. I return her phone and walk back to my station. Lai’s with a client, a woman wearing teal scrubs and white Crocs, chatting about some other reality show.
“Lai,” I interrupt, alarming both of them. “Sorry. Can we open it together? Later?”
She nods, her eyes creasing. I can’t see it behind her mask, but I know she’s smiling.
Though Lai says she experiences eldest-daughter-syndrome, her parents aren’t like mine. Upon learning that Lai planned to attend Liberty Cosmetology School, they threw a small party, inviting their closest friends for bún riêu that they served in a cauldron-sized pot. They would have gone as far as roasting a pig if Lai hadn’t told them to save it for when she finishes school. I watched my parents slip an envelope with $100 into Lai’s hands. Mom hugged her. Like, fully wrapped her arms around Lai’s body and squeezed like she was her own daughter.
To celebrate my high school commencement, Mom made one of my favorite dishes, cá kho tộ, and presented me with a card stuffed with 20 five-dollar bills. Nail salon tips. I felt underqualified for a party since I didn’t have solidified plans after high school, so I didn’t ask for one. And I didn’t want aunties and uncles showing up pinching my face and hitting me with a chorus of: What’s next? Where’s the boyfriend? You’ve gotten big.
A few days before our small celebration, I mentioned taking a gap year. Dad erupted. A usually quiet man, his outburst surprised me. I guess I never gave him a reason to be mad at me before. He started going off about sacrifices and hard work and opportunity; how he didn’t want one year to evolve into two or three or 10, furthering the gap until it wasn’t a gap anymore. I never got the impression that my parents cared about my education or my future. They never entertained my ideas to go to summer camp or pick up a hobby like theater or sports. Too expensive was their default excuse.
I didn’t even tell them about Murray College’s C-Step Program, which would let me take two years at H-Tech before transferring and finishing my degree at Murray. Mrs. Jacobs, the school counselor, told me about the opportunity when she learned of my rejections.
I hid my rejections until I couldn’t. Teachers started asking and the class president sent out a survey to submit our names to the big ass bulletin board of college acceptances. Being among the few students who didn’t submit my name, I soon found myself in Mrs. Jacobs’ office. The other students with missing names planned to join the workforce or the military. I planned to wing it until the application cycle started again. The counselor had other ideas. “When one door closes, another opens,” she told me. She couldn’t believe I hadn’t expanded my horizon beyond two colleges, as a regular decision applicant no less. I wanted to tell her that there were only so many hours I could tolerate poring over essays and clicking through my FAFSA form.
With the C-Step application deadline mere days away, she wrote me a letter of recommendation and had one of the newer English teachers help me with my essays. I worked with Ms. Cooper every day during lunch for a week. I submitted everything with an hour to spare.
Dad ended up apologizing for his outburst through the balloons and flowers. Not a forthright apology, sure, but I could tell what message he was trying to send. I’ll make my parents proud soon enough. I just wish they had the patience to wait with me.
One of my last clients of the day slides into the seat in front of me, a woman who looks no older than 30 in her matching athleisure set. I wonder if she’s actually just come from the gym, then I spy the Lululemon zipper tag on her pale pink jacket and assume she has not. She has dirty blonde hair that falls to her shoulders and naturally long nail beds, her pink polish chipping off. I never paid attention to the length of anyone’s nail beds until I started working here. Now, it’s one of the first traits I notice about people, even outside of the salon.
“Hi, I’m Diana,” she introduces herself.
“Like the princess,” I remark.
“Actually, yes,” she says, sounding impressed. Placing her palms on the handrest, she tells me her mom thought it was fitting to name her after the beloved royal. I tell her my parents named me after their social worker, a woman who helped them resettle in North Carolina a while ago. “Hey,” she says suddenly. “Your English is, like, so good!”
I shrink. I smile with my eyes, glad she can’t detect my frown behind my mask. I keep my mouth shut until she leaves. I’ll show her, I kept thinking. I’m going to college. It’s not the truth right now, but it will be. Part of me was afraid to be so sure; the other part didn’t care.
It’s not the first time I’ve received a compliment for my English and lack-of-accent. I didn’t inherit my parents’ FOB accent, nor did I pick up on the local drawl. Lai has a ghost of an accent, enough for people to realize she’s not from here, lingering still from her years in Vietnam.
Ms. Cooper, the English teacher, asked me about my parents and where they’re from. She said, “College admissions like to understand your personal history so that they can get a full sense of who you are and why you’re a unique applicant.” I told her that my mom is a nail tech and my dad, a mechanic. That they’re from Vietnam. She urged me to write these details down, said that C-Step was designed for “students like me,” whatever that meant.
“Now, what are you thinking of studying? They’ll want to know.” she said.
“I can’t decide,” I said. She looked at me astonished. I continued, “I mean, my favorite subjects are history and English. But, I don’t know, what can you do with that anyway?”
Ms. Cooper smiled softly. She told me she felt similarly when she was my age, thinking that the “humanities,” as she called it, were a dead-end path. But I could be any number of things: an archivist, a publisher, a journalist. A teacher, she said with a wink. My heart fluttered at the thought of so many doors, so many options, none of them having to do with acetone or feet. I wrote about that, too.
Lai didn’t overhear my exchange with Diana, Princess of Weird, too busy chatting with her own client. I call over my next client. Thankfully, the woman with graying hair and papery fingers is too fixated on the TV, watching some HGTV show, to strike up a conversation.
I want a job where I don’t have to deal with rude customers. Is that too much to ask? Mom wouldn’t understand if I used this defense. She’d tell me to suck it up, that she’s dealt with rude customers for years, that there are rude customers at every job everywhere.
Thirty minutes to close, Lai and I tidy our stations. She offers to drive me home so that I don’t have to wait around until Mom is done with her last client. I tell her to wait for me outside.
“We’ll open the email together,” I say, hiding my excitement in front of the clients.
I walk over to Mom polishing a client’s nails. I tell her Lai’s driving me home and that I’ll meet her there. “I can pick up the tomatoes,” I add, the news of the email on the tip of my tongue.
“Roma,” she says with a small nod.
“This your daughter?” Mom’s client asks before I turn to leave. Mom informs her that, yes, I’m her only daughter, Sara, the recent high school graduate who turns 18 soon.
“She looks just like you,” the woman says, smiling up at me. Though I disagree with her, I thank the woman quickly before leaving through the back door.
Lai’s there waiting for me by the passenger door of her silver 2008 Lexus LS. When I reach her, she grabs my shoulder, shaking it lightly. “Open it!”
“Okay, okay,” I breathe. I pull open the email and click the hyperlink. I log into my portal, which takes three tries. My thumb hovers over the link that reads Decision.
I hold my breath.
“Dear Sara,” I read. “It gives us great pleasure to offer you admission to the C-Step Program of Murray College. Among the many strong students—”
“You got in!”
I blink. I re-read the first line. The words pleasure and offer scream at me.
Before I can react, Lai squeezes her arms around me. She’s jumping and, by default, so am I. She’s screaming You got in, you got in, repeatedly until I join her.
I got in, I got in.
She lets go of me, but she’s practically shaking. Then, I realize, it’s me who can’t be still. How could I be? I finally feel like I’m moving in the right direction, one that I made for myself. I feel the door of high school finally closing behind me and a new one opening up.
Lai insists we celebrate. We get into the car. “I think Pho Hien Vuong closes at 9:30 pm. We can make it!” she says, strapping in. “Dinner’s on me—and I’ll throw in a Thai tea.”
Lai’s putting a song on while I turn towards the nail salon, where Mom’s probably applying a layer of top coat over her client’s nails. It only just now crosses my mind that I could go to her, jump out of the car and run to tell her about the acceptance. Let her know that I do have a plan in motion. Maybe we’d tell Dad the good news together at dinner.
Dinner, I remember. The Roma tomatoes.
“I can’t celebrate tonight,” I tell Lai. She pouts. “I told my mom I’d help with dinner.”
She nods understandingly. There’s no changing course once you’ve promised your mom something. At least, that’s the case for Jarai mothers.
“Well, then, let’s commemorate this moment,” Lai declares, whipping her phone out. I watch her click Add Story. After positioning herself on the screen, she gestures for me to get close. I lean in. We smile for the camera. I watch as she types: Bestie’s going to college! And though it still doesn’t feel real, I know that it will be.
H’Abigail Mlo is a Montagnard American, Southerner, and writer based on Lenape Land (Philadelphia). As a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, she co-founded Voices of the Highlands to meet a long-time need in the Montagnard community for connection and storytelling. In 2021, she wrote a children’s book in four weeks with Room to Read titled Yă’s Backyard Jungle. Outside of writing, H’Abigail is a hobby film photographer, outdoor enthusiast, and foodie.