Sang, now 47 years old, came to the US in 1988 from Laos. She had three sisters studying in Moscow and was living with her mother. She was the only child left at home. Her aunt, who lived in the US, arranged for her and her mother to come to the United States, but Sang’s mother didn’t want to leave Laos. Sang wanted “a different lifestyle” and the “opportunity to see a big country.” When I asked her why she wanted to come to the US she said, before falling into hysterics, I could write she also “wanted to sit on a big plane, a Boeing seven four seven.”
She came to the US speaking only basic English, “words like hello and goodbye.” Due to her limited ability to communicate, she decided there were three options for work – she could be a babysitter, a cook, and or a maid. She found a job as a babysitter but quickly decided that her English skills wouldn’t improve unless she had more opportunities to practice. And she was too “outgoing” to be a babysitter; she didn’t like being in a home all day.
After three months of babysitting, a cousin arranged for her to be a cook at a Thai restaurant in Dupont Circle. She worked as a cook for three years, cooking being one of her passions. When the restaurant manager wouldn’t let her take a full week vacation, “seven days in a row,” she quit. “I wanted to act like an American. Americans take a full week vacation. The manager thought that because was my English not so good I didn’t know better.”
She was convinced her limited English skills were the sticking point preventing her from moving on to greater success, so Sang started taking English classes at LADO International College while working in a deli. After a year’s worth of English classes Sang took a job as shampoo girl in a hair salon. “I wanted to practice my English. American women come in and get their hair cut. And I practice English.” She was earning $5.25an hour plus tip.
Wanting to transition out of being a shampoo girl and into cutting hair, she applied for beauty school, but was rejected for lacking a US high school diploma. Her boyfriend got her a job in the Omni Shoreham café as a cashier. Noticed for her hard work, she was offered a job as a café manager but declined. Sang was more interested in doing than managing. “I liked stocking the cases with muffins and candy bars. That sort of thing.” But the Omni did convince her to travel to Boston to set up a café in the hotel there, where she stayed for three months. Upon moving back to DC she got a job as a cocktail waitress at the Omni. “I worked as a cocktail waitress until I got pregnant and got too big for the uniform. Size 14, 16, I got too big for all of them.” Sang, slim and barely over 5’, waddles around to demonstrate.
Out of a job, Sang decided to apply again for beauty school. “I looked through the yellow pages and found the words hair cutting. It was listed under beauty school. What is this word, beauty, I don’t know, so I went to the library and got a dictionary to look up.”
This time luck was in her corner and she was able to enroll without a test, without a high school diploma, with only proof of a green card, a SSN, and a check for $100. “Come back at 6:00 PM for orientation,” the receptionist at the hair school told Sang. “Are you sure you want me to come back?” Sang asked, worried her English wasn’t good enough. “Yes, come back,” the receptionist told her. So Sang went back to the beauty school at 6:00 unsure what she what would happen next. “I didn’t know the word orientation.”
At the orientation Sang discovered, “I spoke better English than anyone there. They gave us equipment – scissors and brushes – and I thought it was good to be an American.”
While pregnant, Sang took classes. It took her a little longer than a year to finish; because of the pregnancy and birth of her son, she took classes a slower pace than the other students. “When I went to take the test, I took my baby.” She passed the practicum test but failed the written. Undaunted, she took it again and this time passed. “I had a job lined up with my temporary license downtown on K Street. The first day I had five customers.” Within three months she had built up a steady list of clients through referrals. Years passed and she opened her own salon in Woodley Park “with no business degree” and English that was “so so.” There she trained other hairdressers, built up a steady business, and delighted her customers with Laotian cuisine – an added benefit of getting your hair cut with Sang.
With family demands becoming too much — “I am the man of the house” — she sold her salon and began renting a chair at another salon in Woodley Park. But Sang had another idea she wanted to explore. A few years before she sold her salon, she began thinking about opening another business – a food cart selling Laotian cuisine. She began saving and bit by bit saved enough to purchase a food cart on “July 12, 2010.” She remembers the date exactly. Now she brings her cart to festivals, to L’Enfant Plaza at lunch, and to carters’ events.
Her ideal, she says, is to cut hair three days a week and take out the food cart three days a week. “Half and half.”
Sang knew she always wanted to cut hair and feed her customers. “Everyone always wants to get their hair cut. You don’t have a job, you need your hair cut for interview. People like to look sexy and eat good food. They go together.”
Sang’s next idea is to open a school for low-income women that have an interest in becoming hair dressers. “I want to be the instructor. I just need to find someone to write for the grants and sit in the office. Don’t put me in an office job,” Sang said as she jittered around the salon, a long way from “hello and goodbye.”