From there to hair

Immigrant tales from Hair International

Even in a globalized economy, you can't outsource the hands-on job of haircutting.

But on any given day, the chatter inside Hair International at Stanford Shopping Center has a decidedly global tinge, among customers and hairdressers alike.

When Pam Decharo took over the walk-in salon in 1990, she noticed most of the stylists and many of the customers were foreign born. She chose the name Hair International to reflect the shop's culture.

Immigrants are drawn to hairdressing because the training is affordable and it is a clean way to make a living, with an artistic bent, said Decharo, adding that many of her stylists had university and professional training in their home countries.

The foreign-born are a growing percentage of the local workforce, with nearly 50 percent of Santa Clara County residents speaking a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Today, 34 of Hair International's 36 stylists come from outside the United States and every one of them has a story to tell. Several agreed to share theirs with the Palo Alto Weekly.

Quyen "Chris" Thi

Country of origin: Vietnam

Current residence: Milpitas

"I am one of those so-called 'boat people' from 30 years ago. I escaped the communists by boat," explained Quyen "Chris" Thi, with a wistful look.

Recounting the story of his departure from Vietnam and immigration to America clearly evokes a lot of emotion for Thi, pronounced "Tee," who wavered between toughness and tears during an interview. "My life is very long," he said.

Thi was a 15-year-old boy in the midst of a basketball game in Saigon when he and his 17-year-old brother were swept onto a bus and driven to the shore. His mother had not forewarned them of her plan to use 16 ounces of gold she had saved up to get her sons out of the country.

The boys were shuffled onto a 42-foot fishing boat and -- crammed in with 200 other refugees -- sailed for a week. They ate dry rice and raw sauces and -- with bare hands -- threw the human waste overboard.

They spent the following year among 40,000 refugees on a Malaysian island, living with three others in a "house" they constructed themselves, and surviving on food rations from the United Nations.

Asked what he remembers about that time, Thi responds: "The price of freedom -- that's what I remember."

Thi and his brother obtained visas to the United States, where they got some help from an uncle, a former South Vietnamese air force mechanic who had settled in San Jose six months earlier. Thi was placed in a San Jose high school.

"Everything was new and I started learning English from the bottom up," he recalled. "There were other Vietnamese kids there. It was hard. I missed home. I learned sports, learned to socialize. When I was 18, I got my diploma."

Thi worked odd jobs to put himself through San Jose City College and had a 17-year career in technology, operating machines to make printed circuit boards. He was promoted to supervisor, but eventually decided to move from high tech to low tech.

"Everybody needs a haircut sooner or later," he said. "If you're really good, you can be your own boss, make your own schedule, become an artist."

At Hair International, where he has worked for four years, he chose to go by the professional name of "Chris," believing it has a friendly feel.

Since 1989 he has been married to Xoan Nguyen, who works in a high-tech clean room. The couple owns a home in Milpitas and has two daughters, Jennifer, 12, and Jacklyn, 3.

"'Daddy' has been an immigrant all his life so I treat them like Americans," he said, by way of explaining his daughters' given names. "Why have a different Chinese or Vietnamese name -- it will only confuse people." (Thi, an ethnic Chinese, is tri-lingual.)

"For Jennifer, I try to be her coach. We play basketball. I love to swim; she loves to swim. She loves school, and this summer she's going to be a Girl Scout."

Thi, who avidly follows world news, loves to play basketball, watch sports and listen to American music. "This is my home now. I don't have my roots any more," he said.

He's been back to Vietnam only once. "There's more capitalism now, less communism, but still pretty corrupt government-wise."

Jennifer thought "it's a very poor country still," he said.

Thirty years after the two brothers left on a boat, life is better for the Thi family.

"Now, we multiply," he said. "Last time grandma had a birthday, there were 17 of us. For the first 10 years, there were only two."

Shahrbanou "Lida" Zahmatkesh

Country of origin: Iran

Current residence: Redwood City

When her first baby was just a year old, Shahrbanou Zahmatkesh was arrested and jailed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Zahmatkesh and her husband had been trained activists in an anti-government group, lobbying to restore some of the civic freedoms -- including freedom of dress -- they had enjoyed prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution three years before.

Her husband, a senior member of the group, had fled. Zahmatkesh was placed alone in a cell, beaten with a cable and asked for his whereabouts, she said.

After a week, she was moved to a small, locked room with 15 to 20 other women. They were allowed out three times a day to pray, wash and use the bathrooms.

Her baby boy, Hanif, was cared for by her brother and his family. They were permitted to visit once a week. By the time she got out of jail, Hanif was 3 years old and Zahmatkesh could not find her husband.

When he showed up to visit he was arrested and jailed for two years. After he got out, although the government made life difficult for them, the couple had another son, Arash. Eventually, with help from a relative in Michigan, the family obtained asylum visas to the United States.

But Zahmatkesh's challenges were just beginning. Her husband, who had preceded her to the United States, got homesick and returned to Iran.

Zahmatkesh went ahead with the two boys, and in October 2002 found herself alone, with sons 13 and 21, in a new country and unable to speak the language. Eventually the couple divorced.

"It was difficult for me because everywhere I went, I couldn't talk. My sons said, 'Mom, you have to learn how to talk English; otherwise you can't get a job.'

"I thought, 'I have to make it.' I stayed awake all day and all night, watching TV, reading subtitles, watching a movie, the same movie many times, checking words in a dictionary. My dictionary was my savior.

"Later I said, 'This is not enough. I have to go out and talk to people.' I got on buses and talked to people. I went to Safeway and talked to people. When I didn't understand something I wrote it down and came home and asked my sons."

Eventually Zahmatkesh, who had learned hair styling in Iran, was hired as an apprentice in a small Persian-owned salon for $5 an hour. Later, a friend suggested she go to Palo Alto and speak to the owner of Hair International.

"I was scared. I didn't have enough confidence. On my day off, I got a bus and came in here and asked the first person I saw if I could talk to Pam. She said, 'I am Pam.'

"She said, 'I can see you are capable and I want to hire you.' I didn't know what 'capable' meant. I went home and asked my kid. He said it means you have talent inside of you and you're going to learn things quickly."

On her start date at Hair International in June 2004, Zahmatkesh said, "We didn't understand each other. My English was too bad. Pam said, 'Come back Thursday. We have an Iranian lady. I can see you're smart and hard-working. I know you're going to be good.'"

Little by little, the English came. With Decharo's help, Zahmatkesh attended beauty school in Hayward, leaving her apartment for a 6 a.m. bus to arrive at school by 9, then taking a bus to Palo Alto for work in the afternoon.

To learn men's cuts, which women were not permitted to do in Iran, Zahmatkesh handed out business cards to men on the bus offering free haircuts. A few would come and allow her to practice.

Today, five years later, Zahmatkesh is far more secure, with plenty of regular customers. Hanif is 28 now, married and studying structural engineering at De Anza College. Arash, 20, studies music at Chabot College in Hayward. Zahmatkesh recently completed coursework in phlebotomy and expects to obtain her state license next month.

"I'm really happy Pam gave me the opportunity to show who I am," she said. "If the divorce had happened in Iran, I would have to go live with my mother or my brother. I could never get a job. People won't respect you because your husband divorced you.

"This country has given me the opportunity. At the age of 48, I can be somebody. I can do whatever I want -- as much as I have the ability to do."

Jorge "George" Alvarado

Country of origin: Nicaragua

Current residence: Hayward

As a 13-year-old schoolboy in Nicaragua, Jorge Alvarado hid in his room for weeks at a time, not even venturing into the back yard.

It was 1983 and the forces of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega were going house to house in search of boys who could fight, Alvarado said.

"Basically they would put kids out with rifles and stuff, but the kids didn't know anything so they'd get killed in the fighting position," Alvarado said.

"My parents moved me from one house to another house to another house until they could get me out of there." The house where he hid the longest had only daughters, so the family believed the recruiters would not knock.

Managua, where Alvarado lived with his parents and two sisters, had become a war zone.

"You would have no access to food, no access to anything," he recalled. "It was dangerous to go outside. Bullets were flying everywhere -- it wasn't secure.

"The only people allowed to go outside were adults in search of food. Even if you had money you couldn't buy food. We traded food. All the major roads were blocked. The faucets didn't work -- we had to store water. We had to store everything.

"That was for one year. Nobody could do anything about school. The country was shut down."

Alvarado's parents, an accountant and a secretary, decided to try to get the family out until things got better in Nicaragua, he said. The couple finally got a U.S. visa for Jorge through an uncle in Panama.

Alvarado was delivered to his aunt, Norma Collado in Redwood City, and was enrolled at McKinley Middle School. Speaking no English at first, he made friends with students from Mexico. Now he jumps easily between Spanish and English.

"I had gone to a private school in Nicaragua and this was a public school. I blended in really quick with Mexican kids. As far as learning English, it took me about two years to actually speak, and writing took a little longer."

By graduation from Woodside High School in 1989, Alvarado was working at Jack in the Box. Later, a friend of his mother's trained him in bartending, making possible a long career with Sofitel during which he was able to travel -- but never once back to Nicaragua. While bartending he also attended the Ganaye Academy of Cosmetology and launched his beauty career.

Alvarado has been at Hair International for more than 16 years, and life in the United States is good. His whole family is here now.

"Here we have freedom of speech and a lot of different stuff. They don't have that in Nicaragua or pretty much every other country. Most of the people who haven't traveled outside the United States, they kind of have blinders on their eyes," he said.

Alma Marquez

Country of origin: Mexico

Current residence: San Jose

By the age of 12, Alma Marquez was working behind the cash register at her father's supermarket in Puebla, Mexico.

Jose Alcazar had lived and worked in the United States, but he and his wife Maria had decided to raise their family in Mexico.

"They always had a plan to have a big family and they decided if they were (in the U.S.) they wouldn't spend enough time with us because they'd be working all the time," Marquez said.

"My dad is one of those persons who wants to have lunches and dinners together all the time. His idea was to work in a family team."

From early childhood, all eight Alcazar children divided their time between school and the supermarket, where their "job" was to keep an eye on the employees and make sure they didn't steal. By 12 they graduated to larger responsibilities, such as unpacking and checkout.

"It wasn't a choice. I had to be there," Marquez said. "It kept our family together."

She studied accounting at the University of the Americas in Puebla and later cosmetology, but at 21 came up against the hard realities of immigration.

"I had my green card, but if you're 21 and you don't live in the United States, you lose your green card."

After living in the Palo Alto area for several years, Marquez tried moving back to Puebla, but found she missed the United States and returned here. Married for 10 years to a Mexican who was raised in the United States, she lives in San Jose.

She had no trouble five years ago deciding to become a U.S. citizen because she can keep her Mexican passport as well. "I like the privilege of being a U.S. citizen, and I can have the same privilege in Mexico too," she said.

Today, six of her seven siblings live in the United States and their father has sold the store in Puebla. "We all left, and he thought he couldn't take care of it by himself," Marquez explains.

She loves life in northern California. "I like the fast pace, a little bit more independence," she said. "Over there people are more into neighbors. Here, I like the fact that you're less clustered."

Marquez has no children herself, but suspects it would be easier to raise a family in Mexico than it is here.

"There is more family time there. What I see with my sisters who are raising kids in the U.S., they don't have enough time. Both of them work. If you're working eight hours, by the time you get home you're tired, so that's not the same quality of time we used to have with my parents, or that my brother in Mexico has with his children.

"Americans understand a sense of community, but the circumstances are different. In Mexico, shifts are shorter and you have more time to spend with your family. For whatever reason, life in Mexico is a little bit slower. Life in the U.S. is faster, everything is on a schedule, which I like."

Kumja Lee

Country of origin: South Korea

Current residence: Cupertino

Kumja Lee was shocked, shortly after arriving here from South Korea, to see a middle-aged man, in public, wearing shorts.

"Everything on the leg was showing. I was really, really shocked. In my country you would never do that way, especially men," said Lee, now well-accustomed to the fashion differences between South Korea and the United States.

A hairdresser in Seoul, Lee arrived here in 1994 with her husband and two young children, after an invitation from her husband's sister.

Despite her passion for beauty work, she spent the first four years assembling electronics for a Korean company while trying to learn English -- at Fremont High School, Cupertino High School and De Anza College.

"I really missed my (hairdressing) job," she said. "When I'm doing the hair, touching the hair, cutting or coloring, I really enjoy myself."

She went to cosmetology school to earn a California license and returned to the career she loves.

In the meantime her son and daughter graduated from Lynbrook High School in San Jose.

Both children still live at home. Sally, 21, studies nursing at San Jose State University. Kevin, 23, is finishing up at De Anza while working for a Korean computer company. Lee's husband, Wan, is an electrical contractor.

Each morning the Lees open their garage door to pick up the Korean-language newspaper Korea Daily, which is delivered to their Cupertino driveway seven days a week, carrying front-page news about President Barack Obama as well as about South Korea's conflicts with its neighbor to the north. Kumja Lee also follows Korean news and dramas on cable television and the Internet.

She misses her family in Korea, but appreciates many aspects of U.S. life, particularly public education, opportunities for children, accommodations for people in wheelchairs and an emphasis on community service.

"In my country we still need to do more," she said.

In her spare time, she attends advanced classes in cutting and coloring and takes pleasure in people-watching.

"Someone's hair makes them beautiful. When I walk down the street, I always look at the hair first -- just a habit. I say to myself, 'OK, she cut it that way; the color is a little bit faded out.'"

Korean women take more care with their appearance than Americans, she said.

"In my country, when I'm going out, make-up, hair and dress always have to be perfect -- even if you're just going to the grocery store. If you're messy, everybody will look at you."

Larisa "Lara" Aivazian

Country of origin: Soviet Georgia

Current residence: Campbell

Larisa "Lara" Aivazian grew up in the Georgian capital of Tblisi during Soviet times and studied music at a university in Moscow.

She has good memories of those years.

"We were really so happy. It was good until 1991. We never had to pay for education, medicine, rent, insurance. I found out all about that after I moved (to the United States).

"It was a free country," she said, with no apparent sense of irony.

But things got tough for Aivazian and her husband, whom she met and married in Moscow, after the collapse of the communist system put an end to the old ways.

"People weren't ready for the change. It was hard to survive over there," Aivazian said. "People were without jobs. They lost everything and a lot of them died. We came with our kids (to the United States) for the kids' future."

Aivazian's husband, a veterinarian in the Soviet system, became a taxi driver. Aivazian, formerly a music teacher, became a hairdresser. With hard work they were able to buy a home in Burbank and send their daughter and son to a magnet school.

The children, 6 and 10 when the family arrived in the United States, are now 21 and 25. Aivazian's son attends Los Angeles City College and works in the fitness industry. Her daughter graduated in political science from California State University at Los Angeles and works at UCLA.

Though Aivazian and her husband are Russian, "the kids are half and half," she said, noting that they spoke Russian at home and attended a Russian church where the children studied history and literature.

Last year, Aivazian and her husband divorced after 26 years and she moved north to begin a new life. She has been at Hair International for three months. In her spare time, she watches the news on Russian television and enjoys dancing, aerobics and working out at the gym.

The biggest difference she observes between Soviet and American ways are approaches to child-rearing.

"In my country, kids were closer to their parents," she said. "We had more time to be with the kids.

"Here, they give kids more independence, more freedom, they can do whatever they want. Sometimes the kids don't really respect their parents.

"It was so hard to raise kids here, but thanks God I was strong with my kids. They kept saying, 'Mommy, why are you different? Why don't you act like the other parents?' It's so easy to go the wrong way. Now they thank me. I am really so proud of my kids."

Phung Lang

Country of origin: Vietnam

Current residence: San Jose

As the fourth in a family of 10 children, Phung Lang's way to California was paved by her older siblings.

"They came on a boat, when it was dangerous," Lang said. The rest of the family came later, when it was safe and they could be sponsored by the earlier arrivals.

Lang worked in electronics, learned English and met her husband in Southern California. Coming from a Chinese family, her first language is Cantonese. She mastered Vietnamese in school in Vietnam.

The couple moved to an apartment in San Jose, and Lang attended beauty school in Fremont. Her husband works with computers.

They expect their first baby at the end of this month.

When the baby comes, Lang's mother will come up from Southern California to help. Then Lang needs to find some child care and get back to work.

"I've loved hair since I was a little girl," she said. "I love everything about beauty and fashion."

Dung Hoc ("Eric") Xa

Country of origin: Vietnam

Current residence: Newark

Dung Hoc Xa loves art and computers.

In 1997, as a recent immigrant from Vietnam attending Newark Memorial High School, he was offered a summer scholarship to study and work at Disneyland.

He turned it down. Nobody in his family had ever heard of Disneyland.

"I didn't take that chance," he says now, with some apparent regret.

With dreams of a dot-com career, Xa studied computer engineering at Chabot College and San Jose State University. Shortly before graduation, the dot-com bubble burst and Xa's sister, a cosmetologist, persuaded him to go to beauty school.

"You go to high school for four years and college for five years and you'd never believe you're going to do hair," he said, adding that he disliked his first job at a salon in Newark where he mostly did manicures and pedicures.

At Hair International, where he has worked for five years, he doesn't have to do those and finds himself drawn to the artistic aspects of updos and bridals.

"For now I am happy," he said, though hopes to return to school one day for a business degree.

Xa came to California at 17 with his mother, who gave up a profitable business in Ho Chi Minh City to help her sick, elderly husband reunite with his older children.

"She had to give up everything to get my dad over to see his kids," Xa said. "She was thinking of family values, so that's why she brought us over. My dad was here for six years, then he passed away. He got to be with his kids. It was good."

Three years ago, Xa purchased a home in Newark with his mother and sister.

"The mortgage is pretty stressful, but I like it here a lot.

"Here in this country, there's a lot of chances for people who are willing to work to be rich. There are a lot of open chances for you to do that, and public schools are free. There is so much opportunity here," he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Josie Glenn
a resident of another community
on Jul 17, 2009 at 1:18 pm

How exciting! Pam Decharo - YOU ROCK! Considering that you are our "esteemed" board member at Skyline College - cosmetology in San Bruno, we are literally bursting with pride for being connected to you and your "fame."
Congratulations and best wishes for continued success!

Like this comment
Posted by Becki Legg
a resident of another community
on Jul 17, 2009 at 4:08 pm

What an amazing woman you are Pam DeCharo. Always helping those in need and growing a wonderful business as a woman in a man's world. You go girl!!

Like this comment
Posted by Joan
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 28, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Pam, you are terrific! Keep up the good work. But don't stop cutting hair!

Like this comment
Posted by Dan Maher
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 29, 2009 at 11:13 am

What a great story. And I love my haircuts as well. Congrats!

Like this comment
Posted by Michael Mueller
a resident of another community
on Nov 1, 2009 at 7:47 pm

an incredible collection of stories. Pam, I'm very proud of all of your accomplishments. Wow!!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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