The critical moment came on March 16, when a gunman opened fire at three Atlanta area spas, killing eight people including six Asian-American women.
The shootings came as hate crimes against Asian Americans surged because of racist rhetoric linking them to the global spread of the coronavirus.
“We grieved heavily. Our hearts were tremendously heavy,” Nguyen said. “When you get tired of grieving, you want action. You want change.”
The pandemic had previously prompted Nguyen, co-owner of Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove, to form Nailing It for America. Nailing It worked with partners such as Orange County United Way to collect donations, distributing $30 million worth of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and meals to isolated seniors, Nguyen said.
Black belt teaches self defense to beauty college students in California.
Nguyen, 47, was on a group text chat with Nailing It leaders when news broke of the Atlanta shooting.
“Our conversation changed. It took on a new purpose,” he said.
Nailing It had already been discussing the rising hate incidents. Now there was a death toll in an industry similar to Nguyen’s own.
After the Atlanta shootings, Nguyen invited Garden Grove Mayor Steve Jones to Advance Beauty College to make a press statement. When Jones came the next day, he announced he had asked police to increase patrols in areas frequented by elderly Asian Americans. Other officials and police officers have visited to teach students and community members how to avoid becoming a victim and what to do in case of a hate incident.
The city also neighbors Huntington Beach in Orange County, where white supremacists gather for periodic demonstrations.
“I’m a young female and Asian and there’s so much violence going on … I really want to know what to do if I get into situations,” said beauty college student Vy Truong, 19.
Self-defense classes like those held in the college’s main classroom have also been started elsewhere among Asian Americans in California.
At Advance Beauty College, martial arts instructors work with around 50 students and a few outsiders about once every two weeks.
Mannequin heads used for hairstyling lessons are set aside and students and martial arts instructors gather on an open floor plan surrounded by mirrored salon-style work stations.
At the second session, Tam Ha, a 58-year-old aikido black belt, demonstrated how to ward off a larger and more powerful attacker long enough to get away. He taught countermoves that might send an assailant careening to the ground, and how to deliver punches to vulnerable areas.
“Both as an Asian American and as a woman in general, I felt like it was very useful for defending myself,” said Linda Tran, 21. “A lot of us are really on edge, because you don’t want to get attacked. Mostly the older Asian Americans because they’re kind of left defenseless.”
Nguyen was born in Vietnam, brought to the United States at age 1, and raised in Garden Grove, site of the largest ethnic community of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. Advance Beauty College is his family’s business.
Many Vietnamese settled in Garden Grove upon coming to the United States after the Vietnam War in the 1970s. The city south of Los Angeles has a population of 170,000 that is more than 40 percent Asian, according to U.S. Census data.
The Nguyen family business, started by his parents, says it has graduated 50,000 students over 35 years. It has two campuses with a total 500 students – many of them Vietnamese women – and 50 instructors despite limited capacity due to social distancing rules.
Nguyen said his parents raised him to keep a low profile, but the times require him to act against fear, hate, ignorance and violence.
Now his group is organizing activities such as a benefit concert to fight anti-Asian violence. Last Friday, two days before the latest white nationalist demonstration in Huntington Beach, it hired a sky-writer to scroll “NO HATE” some 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) in the sky.
“Growing up in a Vietnamese household, I was taught to be a good immigrant, be a good refugee,” Nguyen said.
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t work.”