Untold Stories and Newly Told Tales

By Jessica Phan

Donna Mohamed’s mother’s family arrived to Chicago, Illinois with $10 to their name after relocating from California in 1984. Before then, they had been in the Philippines during an attempt to escape Viet Nam after the war. Donna’s mother, a child of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier through the Viet Nam War, carries a Vietnamese skin complexion with Caucasian features.

When Ronald Reagan passed the American Homecoming Act, which allowed children of American soldiers to enter the United States, Donna’s grandmother and mother, a child at the time, rushed to get their paperwork completed. When it was their turn to finally be interviewed, they were called into the immigration office and interrogated in separate rooms. “They would interrogate my mother and try to get her to say that that’s not her mom because a lot of people would kidnap AmeriAsians; that was their golden ticket,” Donna explained. “But she was persistent and said ‘no, that’s my mom.’” Finally, after two years, her mother and grandmother were able to come the United States, first arriving in the Philippines, and then to California. In 2018, Donna’s family learned that the American soldier, her grandfather, was a spy during the war.

Malcolm R. Jackson, Donna’s maternal grandfather

The oldest of five children, Donna Mohamed, maiden name Nguyen, was born in Chicago in 1987. Donna developed her work ethic at a very young age. Instead of doing conventional household chores like washing the dishes or taking out the trash, Donna helped her mother at the nail salon when she was done with her school work. At five years old, she helped her mother at the nail salon folding towels, and at seven she began removing nail polish. “I always wanted to please my mom, I wanted her to love me and I noticed there was a trend. Mom was happiest with me when I worked hard so I worked a lot,” Donna stated. Now, when her children asks her what she did for fun as a child, Donna excitedly and proudly shares that she worked and she loved it.

Growing up in a nail salon, the greatest issue for Donna and her family was the treatment, judgment and stereotype of service industry workers. Donna recalled a time when she was only 12-years-old doing pedicures (but you have to say you’re 15 and in school to get your license). “A lady was talking to her friend, looking down at me, and said ‘I don’t know how they can do this, my husband would never let me do this.’ I remember going into the bathroom and just crying.”

At 18-years-old, Donna opened her own salon. Inspired by the stories and experiences she inherited from her mother and growing up in a salon, Donna made it her mission to give the world a different perspective on this industry.

Donna (top row center), her mother (second row center), and her siblings

“I think that there are benefits to being in the salon industry, but unless you’re super confident, it’s also very vulnerable to be in this industry… So I started writing about being in service and I think it’ll be fun to give voice to this world because it takes a lot to sit down, like by someone’s feet, and clean it.”

These experiences have shaped Donna to be the business owner that she is today. As a salon owner, Donna’s priority is her workers. In discussing today’s political climate, Donna expresses that she is an advocate for her workers and that she will protect them first. “A lot of women walk through those doors and check their humanity at the door. The way they talk to Asian Americans, to immigrants, can be so disgusting, and I’m so glad that I can be an advocate for my coworkers so I make it clear to my clientele that my coworkers come first… I will real quick reject your ass!”

At the salon, women come in and talk about their problems and for a moment, no one cares about politics or debates about the issues in the world. Donna explains that women come in to relax, destress and talk about their problems; the conversations are mostly about family, raising kids, and cheating men. In a small, charming salon in Chicago, women gather at Donna’s salon to unwind and empower themselves through the support of one another.

“I feel like politics is so divisive. It forces people to think that there are only these many options.” Donna expresses that while she recognizes there are global political issues, she wants to focus on the local and personal level, helping people through her work as a business owner and storyteller. “My husband is more politically involved and we talk, we go back and forth, but I prefer to be in bliss because you don’t feel like you have a presence there, you’re not visible,” she explains, referring to the world of politics.

Donna and her husband

Instead, Donna is writing to examine her family history and to ensure her family’s story continues to live on. Donna has written a book about the extraordinary women in her life, dating back to her great grandmother, who was part Chinese. Donna is now writing short stories and Vietnamese folktales for children. When asked how growing up as a Vietnamese American shaped her as a person today, Donna stated, “I love being Vietnamese. I wouldn’t change anything.”

Donna is a wife and mother of three beautiful children. With a multicultural family, Donna hopes to instill strong, cultural values in all her children by sharing her folktales, stories and experiences with them.

Donna’s children: Esmee, Juliette and Nahiba (not pictured)