Quynh-Mai Nguyen: Band geek, designer, ex-seamstress

Quynh-Mai Nguyen: Band geek, designer, ex-seamstress

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Quynh-Mai Nguyen is a gal with a hearty laugh and a twisted sense of humor. As an example, a banner on her new company website reads, “Our website is a work in progress and distractions like YouTube and the rapture don’t help, but we promise that we are still producing good work.” PGN spoke to the business owner and self-proclaimed band geek about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

PGN: So Q, where do you hail from? QMN: I grew up in Lancaster County, which many people associate with Amish country, but it can be surprisingly urban in some places. My high school was predominantly black and Latino. So it’s not all Amish horse-and-buggy country. I came to Philadelphia to go to Moore College of Art and Design, and I’ve been here ever since.

PGN: What do you do now? QMN: I’m a graphic designer. I’ve worked in the advertising department at Pep Boys, was with a marketing and communications firm for four years and now I’m doing my own thing. I started a small design studio called Bold and Italic Designs.

PGN: What did you do with Pep Boys and did you get a discount on tires? QMN: [Laughs.] No, no discounts! It was a summer job during college. I was on the night shift and would resize all their circulars for newspapers all around the country. It was monotonous and boring but good experience.

PGN: Family? QMN: I have a blood sister who’s 11 years older than me and a stepbrother and stepsister. My mom and stepdad are in Louisiana and my father is still in Lancaster.

PGN: Bobby Jindal country! Where in Louisiana are they? QMN: About two hours west of Baton Rouge in a small town called Abbeville. They moved down there when I was in 11th grade. His family owns a small shrimping company and they went down there for work. I wanted to finish school here so I didn’t go with them. My father wasn’t in a financial situation to take me in, so I actually stayed in Lancaster on my own. I stayed with one of my best friends and her family. They became a second family to me.

PGN: So you could have gone down and had [from “Forrest Gump”] “shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan-fried, deep-fried, stir-fried shrimp. Pineapple shrimp, coconut shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad and shrimp burgers”? QMN: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, pretty much! Every time my mother would come visit here on the East Coast, she and my stepdad would smell like fish because the van they drove up was filled with frozen shrimp!

PGN: I hope you like shrimp! QMN: I love shrimp. But I actually have an allergy to shrimp.

PGN: That’s just downright O’Henryish. QMN: No, if they’re fresh from the sea I can eat them. It’s when you buy them from the store that there’s a problem. You know they dip them in chemicals when they have to ship them.

PGN: Yuck. So you were kind of an only child growing up. QMN: Yeah, my older sister was never around when I was young. She was already in college by the time I was a teen.

PGN: [Laughs.] My older brother was just visiting and I reminded him of how he used to torture me. What’s the worst thing your sister did? QMN: That’s funny! I don’t know ... my sister was always gone! I do remember some good things she did.

PGN: Like ... QMN: Well, I grew up in a very conservative Vietnamese household. I wasn’t allowed to do sleepovers, I wasn’t really allowed to do many school social activities, so I always had to lie to my parents and pretend I was doing school council or at band practice when I wanted to do anything non-academic. I remember my sister would come home from college and take me away for the weekend, which was always a nice break for me. She was really the only outlet I had in experiencing normal American life. I joke around and tell people that I was a “sweat-shop” child!

PGN: Now that’s funny! QMN: But true! My parents coming to this country didn’t know the language. They worked blue-collar factory jobs. To make ends meet we had a secret sewing shop in the basement. Every day after school I would have to go down and help cut thread and turn shirts inside out and I hated it. I didn’t have a childhood growing up.

PGN: Can you sew now? QMN: Uh ... OK, yes, but I try not to admit it! I try to block that part of my life out and always ask someone else if I need anything sewn. [Laughs.] So don’t tell anyone!

PGN: It’s our little secret. So your mom’s a shrimper, what does your dad do? QMN: He’s retired now. He has a lot of health problems, including diabetes, which is a big problem in the Asian community. The up side of it is that he’s gotten in touch with his spiritual side in recent years. He shaved his head and goes away to retreats in Virginia to meditate at these temples. We call him the pre-monk!

PGN: Was your family religious growing up? QMN: Actually, not at all. So my parents separated when I was in my freshman year of high school, my dad went into a deep depression and coming out of that he gained his newfound spirituality. He’s very different than he was when I was growing up. I mean he does some things that are still like my dad, some things never change, but he’s really into Buddha now. Actually to the point that he’s starting to push it on me and I hate that.

PGN: What was your favorite thing to do growing up? QMN: It always had to do with music. Band especially. PGN: When did you get into music? QMN: I picked up the violin in third grade and dropped it. Picked it up again in sixth grade and then switched to the xylophone. Once I got into high school, I dropped out of orchestra and focused solely on band. I was in regular band, marching band and percussion ensemble.

PGN: So one time at band camp ... QMN: [Laughs.] Oh, I never know how to answer that! But I did go to band camp and percussion camp. Because I was a mallet player, we were in the section they called the pit, so we got to be inside in the air conditioning while everyone else was outside sweating!

PGN: What was a crazy band experience? QMN: Oh gosh, I can’t think of anything from back then, but I currently play with the Philadelphia Freedom Band, which is a local LGBT community band. We do marching band in the summer and concert band in the winter and fall. This past OutFest was probably one of the best, craziest, most memorable band moments ever. Some friends of mine were running the Dyke March and the Liberty City Drag King table, and they had these antigay protesters standing on the corner barking out homophobic, antigay stuff all day long on megaphones. They were there for hours and everyone was getting sick of it. My friend said, “Quynh, can you bring the band over and do something?” I was like, “Absolutely!” and gathered about 12 band members. We made an arched circle around the protesters and started playing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” The whole crowd started cheering. It was the most glorious moment in my life. People were dancing and taking so many videos and pictures: I now know what it feels like to be filmed by paparazzi. The protesters went to another corner and we followed them. They moved three times and what was so memorable was that all we did was play music. We didn’t engage in any hateful speech, we didn’t confront them, nothing aggressive at all, just the power of music. It was a beautiful thing. The pizza shop guy across the street gave us all pizza on the house, another person walked by and gave us a $20 donation and said “Thank you, thank you, thank you, I had to listen to that all day until you came along.” It was great. We’re still getting emails about it.

PGN: A non-violins protest! So, how did you get into graphic design? QMN: I had a graphic-design class in high school, which led me to what I do now.

PGN: A favorite project? QMN: I’m working right now on a promotion for Philabundance, which is the region’s largest hunger-relief organization. They’re a high-profile client and it’s great to be able to do something fun for a great cause. I love working with them because they’ve given me freedom to be creative and are really enthusiastic about everything I do. It’s a real ego booster! I’ve had employers in the past who want to put you down, but then take all your work.

PGN: Give me the career-day version of what you do. QMN: As a graphic designer, people come to me with a message or an idea and I help them make it creative and understandable for the general public.

PGN: We all have multiple personalities; describe some of yours. QMN: I’m a perfectionist so I can be very critical — some might even say mean when I’m in my work mode! I can be hard on interns, but at the same time I can be very constructive. I’m just very cautious about anything that goes out that has my name attached to it. On the flip side, in my personal life, I’m very easygoing — very laid back and easy-go-lucky. I’m always happy.

PGN: Since it’s almost Halloween, what was your scariest moment? QMN: Back in about ’02, I was driving with some friends on the 476 exit ramp getting on to 76. It was winter and there was black ice on the road. We started sliding and couldn’t stop or control the car. We slid until we hit the guardrail over a drop. If that guardrail wasn’t there, we would have gone down. That’s the scariest thing I can think of offhand.

PGN: Someone you miss the most from your youth? QMN: Probably my first girlfriend. Not on a romantic level, but on a companionship level. We split on very good terms and we still talk now, but she’s in the Air Force in Texas. She taught me a lot and is in good part responsible for the way I am today. I used to have a lot of anger and was really short-tempered and she helped me learn to control that. I also came from a very sheltered background and wasn’t very open-minded, so she also helped me understand people better and taught me to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

PGN: Where did all your anger come from? QMN: I think my family. We’re not very close: In fact, I haven’t spoken to my sister since last February, when we had a fight. I’m also resentful of the way I was raised, even though I now understand why my parents felt they did what they had to do.

PGN: What cartoon character best represents your personality? QMN: Ha ha! It would probably be one of those Japanese animation characters. You know, the ones that are cute and then they get really angry but they’re still cute. My friends always tell me I’m funny when I get mad. One of them recently jokingly called me “The Angry Panda.”

PGN: A smell that makes you stop and reflect? QMN: Lemongrass and ginger always make me think of home. It’s used in a lot of the cooking, especially in broths for when you’re sick. It’s a very comforting smell.

PGN: What was your worst job? QMN: Telemarketing. I hated it and walked out after a week. Second-worst job was at a hot and cold Dairy Queen. It was awful. They were both high-school jobs.

PGN: Hot and cold? QMN: Yeah, they served hot and cold food. My best job was working at Toys “R” Us. It was the highest-paying high-school job. Most employees hated Christmastime but I loved it. I got to open and demo all the toys. I’m a big kid at heart.

PGN: What’s a toy you still have from your childhood? QMN: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. I still have some of them in the original package from the ’80s!

PGN: A favorite place you traveled? QMN: I went to Vietnam after college. I went by myself and it was the first time I’d ever traveled out of the country. I got a chance to meet my mom’s side of the family for the first time and I also went to Cambodia. It was interesting because I didn’t speak Khmer, but I knew people through family friends who spoke a little Vietnamese. It was a humbling experience and changed my perception about quite a few things in life, especially the way we live in America.

PGN: So a last question about you. Being raised in a conservative family, how did you break loose? QMN: I ask myself that every single day! With all the arguments I had with my family, how was I able to open my mind and break away from what I was taught? I just don’t know. Maybe it’s the go-getter in me: That when I see something, I find a way to get it. Since I didn’t have many adult role models in my family, I looked outside the home to teachers and parents of friends. I learned to think for myself and make my own decisions. Sometimes that got me in trouble: When I was 18, I got my tongue pierced and my mother was so upset she refused to come to my graduation. They were very concerned about image. Me, not so much. I more concerned about finding out what makes me happy. So far, so good.

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