Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
As often as she can, Tina Diep, who is of Vietnamese and American heritage, travels to Vietnam, taking money, food, clothes and supplies to that country’s orphans and the impoverished. It’s something she loves to do. Something she needs to do.
“I believe this is why God put me here,” Diep, 51, said, as she sits in the office of her Pink Ribbon Nail Salon on Albuquerque’s West Side. Money she makes working at the salon funds her donations in Vietnam.
She remembers well her own hard times there.
Born in central Vietnam, Diep is the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and a young American serviceman who did not know he had fathered her. Given up by her natural mother, Diep went right from the hospital to a Vietnamese couple who raised her. She lived with her adoptive parents in Vietnam, struggling to get by, until they were able to move to the United States when she was 15.
The pandemic grounded her for two years, but she does all she can to help those who now live difficult lives in Vietnam. She had saved $25,000 to contribute when she returned to Vietnam two months ago.
“I’ve been going there for more than 10 years,” she said. “But I do more since I was diagnosed.”
More than five years ago, Diep learned she had severe breast cancer. She’s undergone a radical double mastectomy and is being treated with chemotherapy.
“It’s a mess,” she said.
Now, in addition to her efforts to help the unfortunate in Vietnam, she contributes to cancer research and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Memphis, Tennessee, research and treatment facility that focuses on kids with cancer.
Diep’s salon, which opened in early 2019, was named Pink Ribbon to heighten awareness of breast cancer.
“After (the diagnosis), I see nothing is important,” she said. “Now, I’m going to help people as much as I can.”
Diep’s husband, Joe Nguyen, 53, also of Vietnamese and American heritage, is with her in the Pink Ribbon office. So is Charlie, Diep’s tiny service dog.
It’s quiet because it’s a Tuesday, the only day the business is closed. The salon, which has 12 employees, is free of the busy chatter that fills it most of the time.
Nguyen is talking about Diep’s’s work in Vietnam.
“She buys rice, noodles and seasonings,” he said of his wife. “She buys clothes, toiletries, things in bulk and ships them. She buys on sale at Walmart.”
In Vietnam, he said, she buys fresh produce and delivers it.
Usually, she makes those trips to Vietnam alone, while Nguyen remains in Albuquerque to tend to the business. He worries about her.
“She is gone two or three weeks, maybe a month,” he said. “The trips take a lot out of her. She’s on chemo medicine. She has seizures brought on by the heat. In Vietnam, she has friends and family to look after her. The hardest part for me is when she is on her own. When she gets on that plane, I lose contact with her for 24 hours. If she passes out on the plane, or in an airport, and gets taken to a hospital, I won’t know where she is.”
Nguyen’s father was also an American serviceman who was unaware he had a son in Vietnam. His Vietnamese mother raised him herself and Nguyen moved with her to the U.S. in 1983, settling in Rochester, New York.
He joined the U.S. Air Force and served for 22 years. After the Air Force, he worked in the contracting business for the government. He met Diep on Facebook when he was living in Fairfax, Virginia, and she was in Philadelphia.
Nguyen finances the nail salon, paying business expenses so Diep can use the money she earns for the contributions she makes to cancer research and the needy in Vietnam.
They moved to Albuquerque in 2018 because that’s where Diep found her father.
Donald “Doc” Carmichael was just about 21 when he got out of the Army, but, by that time, he had served two tours in Vietnam. He was with the 75th Brigade of the 1st Infantry. On his second tour in Vietnam, he was assigned as an adviser for South Vietnamese rangers.
He was born in Roosevelt County, New Mexico, and lived in tiny Causey, southeast of Dora, before moving with his family to Dimmitt, Texas, when he was just a few years old. Doc is a family nickname that grew out of a younger relative’s difficulty in saying his name.
In December 1973, after his Army service, he married Keri, who he met when they were in grade school.
Through the years, Carmichael was a New Mexico State Police officer, a farmer and rancher in Dimmitt, a cowboy in Oklahoma, worked the oil fields in Oklahoma, had a motel in Tatum, New Mexico, was the grounds superintendent for the Lovington public schools and more. Keri worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 26 years.
In 2016, Doc and Keri, the parents of three adult daughters, bought a house in Rio Rancho. That year, Nguyen called their middle daughter.
“He told her, ‘I think you may have a sister you don’t know about,’ ” Keri said.
The three daughters talked it over with each other before approaching their parents.
“Well, hell, it’s possible,” Doc said.
For years, Nguyen has used the latest developments in DNA evidence to help people of Vietnamese and American heritage find their American fathers.
He found his own dad, a U.S. Navy veteran living in Florida, and was able to spend a few years getting to know his father before he died. He started looking for Diep’s father not long after they met.
“I and Joe got lucky because our dads are so nice,” Diep said. “It’s not always that way.”
“Some people are not very nice,” Nguyen said.
But, in December 2016, as soon as tests confirmed that Carmichael was indeed Diep’s father, he and Keri flew to Virginia where Diep and Nguyen were living.
“We were with her when she got the (cancer) diagnosis,” Keri said. In January 2017, they went to Philadelphia to be with Diep when she had surgery there.
“She’s my daughter,” Carmichael said. “I want my daughters around me. My biggest regret is that we didn’t know Tina when she was 5. We had to wait until she was 45.”
“I tell her she is my newest, oldest daughter,” Keri said.
Not knowing who her parents were had always affected Diep deeply.
“I felt I’m nobody because I don’t know where I come from,” she said. “I’m still looking for my mom. If I had not met Joe, I (would) not know who my father is.”
After more than a year of long-distance visiting, Diep decided to move to New Mexico to be close to the father she had found.
“She wanted to know where she was from, what kind of people we were,” Carmichael said. “She decided we were pretty good people.”
Carmichael, 71, was damaged by his time in Vietnam. He has been treated for two different kinds of cancer related to his exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by the U.S. in Vietnam, and also for post-traumatic stress disorder.
But, in May 2018, he and Keri accompanied Diep on one of her trips to Vietnam.
“She asked us to go meet some of her family back in Vietnam, and I said, ‘They’re my family, too,’ ” Carmichael said.
He said the trip helped him view the Vietnamese people in a different way.
“I wasn’t jumpy, I wasn’t scared, I didn’t want to shoot them,” he said.
Diep will continue to make her trips to Vietnam for as long as she is able. She hopes to make another one before the New Year. But the cancer is a vicious adversary.
“I’m not scared to die,” she said. “I’m just so happy to do what I do. But I can’t do it without all the women (customers) who come here.
“If they hear one day something happened to me, just look up, say goodbye and smile.”