Oklahoma City (OKNews): A world traveler, a chemical engineering student and an aspiring pharmacist walk into a barber shop.
All three prep their work stations, grab their clippers and get to work at Hank’s Barber Shop in Oklahoma City. Because at Hank’s, the barbers are about as interesting a collection of hair cutters you can find.
Ky Nguyen is the world-traveler, and current owner of the shop at 2435 N Classen. He has been to France, Portugal, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, to name a few, and plans to visit Israel this summer to learn about Jesus, he said.
Dieu Thy Nguyen is the elder of Ky Nguyen’s two sons, and is a chemical engineering student at the University of Oklahoma. He expects to graduate in May, and is job-hunting for positions in his field when he isn’t studying or helping his dad at the shop, where he’s more commonly known as “Big Thy.”
Anh Thy Nguyen is the aspiring pharmacist and biochemistry student at the University of Oklahoma. He’s the younger brother of Dieu Thy Nguyen, and is more commonly referred to as “Little Thy.”
The trio moved to the United States from Bien Hoa, Vietnam, in 2008 when Anh Thy Nguyen and Dieu Thy Nguyen’s grandfather, Ky Nguyen’s father-in-law, sponsored their family to join him in Oklahoma. Their grandfather fought alongside the U.S. in the Vietnam War, and spent nine years as a prisoner of war. The boys were still in school when they moved, but Ky Nguyen went to work doing what he’d done for decades in Vietnam — cut hair.
“In high school, I go to school half day in Vietnam, and half day I learn to haircut,” Ky Nguyen said. “My uncle would take me and I’d cut hair from that time until now.”
While getting his cosmetology license in Oklahoma, a tip from his instructor led him to Hank’s Barber Shop. A man name Vilat Khamphan owned the shop, having purchased it from the original Hank in 1995. Khamphan is originally from Cambodia, and knew Ky Nguyen’s cosmetology licensing instructor. After the referral, Khamphan hired Ky Nguyen in 2008, and he worked for Khamphan until 2013, when Ky Nguyen purchased the shop.
Khamphan still works in the shop, manning the fourth barber chair alongside the Nguyen family.
Language was a huge barrier for the barbers Nguyen when they moved from Vietnam a decade ago, and continues to be a challenge today. Dieu Thy Nguyen and Anh Thy Nguyen were in high school and middle school, respectively, when they moved.
“It was a shock at first because I didn’t know any English,” Anh Thy Nguyen said. “Culture wise, it was like coming to a different planet, I would get mocked (at school) and I didn’t even understand it.”
His father struggled at work with the language barrier.
“The first time I came here, I knew how to cut, but I didn’t know how short or long,” Ky Nguyen said. “I have tried to learn every day, and some American guys are very nice and when I speak the wrong one (word) they teach me how to say it right.”
But the three have improved since moving, and Dieu Thy Nguyen even views the struggle as a positive in his life, and one he will carry forward into a chemical engineering career in the near future.
“I had a fear of talking to people, but not anymore,” Dieu Thy Nguyen said. “I learned you have to talk to get better, and learn from your mistakes. I’ve gained that skill and I think that will help in chemical engineering because I can talk to people and make them understand it.”
Work and school
Ky Nguyen has more than 40 years of experience cutting hair in two countries. While his sons showed interest in attending college to study other subjects, he encouraged the pair to pursue a cosmetology license as a fallback option.
“My dad said, ‘You can maybe later help yourself, or help me,’” Dieu Thy Nguyen said. “It doesn’t hurt to learn about those skills because you don’t know your future. So that’s how I started to be a barber.”
Dieu Thy Nguyen, who is three years older than his brother, has worked at Hank’s for several years. Anh Thy Nguyen has worked at the shop for a year-and-a-half.
The work benefits both sons while in school.
“He’ll (Dieu Thy Nguyen) be graduating in May and I’ll be graduating in December,” Anh Thy Nguyen said. “So this is a part-time job. You know, help my dad and help build up the shop, and then at the same time earn some money because you know how college is.”
Anh Thy Nguyen hopes to attend pharmacy school after graduation. His father’s guidance, while sometimes strict, has helped him stay out of trouble and aim for success.
“He’s not an easy boss,” Anh Thy Nguyen said. “Not as a boss in general, but as a dad as well.
“If it wasn’t for him I’d be out there doing drugs or something like that,” Anh Thy Nguyen said. “I’ll be honest, that’s how it is. I went to a high school where kids were like, ‘Do you want some of this or that?’ I could pretty easily have fallen for that.”
Dieu Thy Nguyen is more earnestly job hunting with his graduation quickly approaching. He’s grateful for the opportunity to finish a college degree. He said he’s received encouragement along the way from his family, his dad specifically, to pursue his education.
“Having the cosmetology degree was for if I couldn’t finish my degree, but here I am, I’m almost finished,” Dieu Thy Nguyen said. “I love chemistry, and I’m good at math too. That’s why I decided to try chemical engineering, and it’s working out. I don’t have to be really good at English to solve all the problems, so here I come!”
Potentially losing two barbers in the coming months doesn’t seem to bother Ky Nguyen. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
“I feel lucky,” Ky Nguyen said. “Because I can’t believe I’m an owner. When I came here, I had empty hands. I have good work and good health, and I am lucky.”