A Native of Bangkok, Thailand, Tina Kim came to America in 1991 for her education and to see the world. While hoping to obtain an MBA, she jokes that instead she got her “Mrs.” as she married six months after coming to the United States. A very rocky road was soon to follow.
Growing up in a big family was not always easy. Tina was in the middle of her three sisters and four brothers. “It’s cheaper by the dozen, I think. You had to eat fast and get fast, or everything is gone before you get there,” Tina explained.
“Mom sewed to help my dad. I worked when I was 11 years old in a T-shirt factory to earn money for school to help my father,” Tina attests.
After working in an optometrist’s office, Tina worked for the Phillips Company in their planning department. When she came to Chattanooga, she was 29 and attended Georgia Tech.
After marrying, she became the mother of her two children, Raymond, now 18, and Kara, now 11.
“When I got here I pretty much had to work all the time,” Tina says. She used to enjoy swimming and bike riding back in Bangkok, as well as volunteering in the orphanage. Time for doing the things she enjoyed seemed to be a thing of the past.
In 2002, after her daughter was only six months old, Tina’s husband packed his bags and abandoned Tina in a one-sided, bitter divorce leaving her penniless.
“He walked away and I had to work two jobs in order to keep the house. Nothing was in my name and I now had to pay the bills. It was pretty tough coming to the United States - when you don’t know the language, you don’t have people and you don’t have family. You feel like you are in the middle of the ocean,” Tina describes.
Tina went through the hurt alone, not telling her family about the divorce until four years later.
“I wanted to tell them in person because I was still in pain. To tell them over the phone and cry over the phone would only tear them up. They knew I was here alone and they would worry about me if they knew my husband left me alone with two young kids; they would want to come here… and come here to do what?” Tina asked. “Nothing would change what happened. There was no use to tell anybody.”
Tina decided to take a nail technician course and felt very lucky that the owner of the school was a customer of the restaurant. “She knew me and she asked me why I was coming to nail school. I told her about going through a divorce and that I had no money, but that I could make payments. She told me that I didn’t have to pay tuition until I earned the money; she was very sweet to me,” Tina says.
She began saving her tips from the restaurant while she had worked there during her marriage. “When customers would come into the restaurant, I would see the shiny coin and not want to spend it – I put it in a large pickle jar. I saved it up until 10 jars were full. Huge jars. I never touched it,” Tina vows.
“After my divorce, I had no money and I didn’t know how I would get money to buy food for my kids,” she says with tears in her eyes. “I didn’t want to cry in front of my kids, they didn’t have a daddy – they only had me. So I would go in the closet and sit and cry by myself.”
One day while crying in her closet, Tina suddenly saw something shiny on the floor – a quarter. She had forgotten all about saving the coins during her time at the restaurant. Alone and not knowing how she was going to pay her bills or feed her children, Tina now had hope.
“I brought a jar to the Bi-Lo, and just that one jar was $700,” Tina remembers.
By the time she cashed in all of her jars of leftover coins that she had accumulated; it totaled about $8,000 in cash. That money would help her to make her house payments.
“My husband always thought I was crazy when I was saving my jars, but you never know when you would need it later. I could now buy food and make my house payments,” Tina says.
“It was at this time, I felt God really guided me – the whole way through this. He showed me the way. Going to nail school and working at the restaurant - I was so tired, I used to park the car in the parking lot and sleep for 10 minutes before starting work. Once, a police officer came up to me and said, ‘Ma ’mm, I see you take a nap every day, just be careful.’ It was tough,” Tina insists.
Working hard, not sleeping enough and under a huge amount of stress took an unhealthy toll on Tina’s body. She began working at the former “Denise’ Nails” in East Brainerd and in 2006, Tina was struck with breast cancer.
“I worked so much, I never went to see a doctor – I had always been healthy. But all this time the cancer was growing inside me. I never took time for myself or had routine checkups. I also didn’t have insurance,” Tina stated.
Tina had only worked at the nail salon for a few years when she found a cyst the size of a ping pong ball. There was no history of cancer in her family so she had thought it was just a cyst.
“That same day one of my former customers was on a visit from Arizona and stopped by to say hello. She is a registered nurse and I asked her about the lump. She had called a friend of hers who was a pathologist to do a needle biopsy. He called me and said he was not happy with what he saw. He wanted to send me to a surgeon,” she says.
Tina was eligible to apply for Tenn-Care and it covered her medical expenses for her breast cancer.
She underwent a mastectomy of her left breast and followed up with eight sessions of chemo. Just 10 days after surgery, Tina experienced complications that could have cost her, her life.
An artery had ruptured in her chest.
“I just felt tired and so hot, I took off my shirt and I was brushing my teeth in front of a mirror and I felt something running like liquid under my skin. In the mirror, I saw the first pop – like a meatball,” Tina expresses. Then a second pop, like a tennis ball. I called 911. The ambulance came and I was taken to the emergency room at Parkridge,” Tina conveys.
The surgery room was full, leaving Tina waiting for hours before she could go to surgery. She could no longer move her arm and the stitched wound from the mastectomy was pulling apart as her chest was swelling with blood.
Though she was about to lose her life, Tina did not feel scared at all. “I didn’t think I was going to die. I felt just normal, I had peace. I felt so calm. God blocked me away from the thought. The doctor said, ‘it is amazing, I don’t know what is in you – you are not even in shock.’ I lost a lot of blood,” Tina accounts.
The doctor told Tina if her heart had beaten any faster that she would have lost more blood and possibly her life. Staying calm saved her life. The doctor told Tina that he feared she would lose her life before he was able to perform the surgery.
Tina recovered. She had a family staying with her who was able to help her. “A year after I divorced, a friend had called me and told me that her brother’s family came to the United States and had no place to live. She asked if they could stay with me,” she said.
Tina was uncertain to have people she didn’t even know living with her, but she wanted to help.
“A husband, wife and two kids went from strangers and became like family,” Tina admitted. “It was meant to be, God provided the help. I helped them and they were there to help me.”
A few months after surgery, Tina had learned that her other breast had a lump. To avoid chemo again, she decided to have her right breast removed as well. It turned out to only be a calcium deposit but she felt comfortable in her decision.
Tina didn’t work for a year. She lived off of her savings from the nail salon. “Money had run out and I needed to make money. It was hard but even though I had to walk through sharp rock - I go,” Tina proclaimed. “I am not scared of anything anymore.”
Two months after coming back to work at the salon, the owner asked Tina to take over the salon and buy it. “At first I said no. I had spent all my savings. But then I thought, maybe this is God’s will. He answered my prayer. I went to the bank and my credit was good. When you take a loan out, the interest will eat you up – so I had to work seven days a week, nonstop,” Tina attests.
It’s now been five years that Tina has had TLC Nails on East Brainerd Road. She had built up equity again and, when offered a chance this year to purchase another nail salon in the Gunbarrel area, she decided to build her business with a second location. “I had trained my techs. It takes about three years for them to really get good. Now I could send some over to the other location and I could slow down,” Tina says.
Business has gone well for her - so well that the former owner of Tina’s nail salon wanted to buy the salon back from her. Tina did not want to do that and the owner ended up setting up a salon right next door. Tina’s business did not suffer, customers continued to come to TLC and her new location.
“When I had cancer, I prayed to Him, ‘Show me the way to go.’ Even when I face sharp rock - I go. It takes a lot of guts to start a business with zero money,” Tina says.
“My dad always said to me, ‘To be a human being, you don’t have to be smart. You cannot pick to be born smart… but you can pick the way you want to do. Don’t give up. Before God will give you something, show Him how hard you can do and He will back you up’,” Tina recalls.
Even though she and her family choose different religions, Tina relies on her Christian faith and uses the wise words of her father combined with her own faith.
“I had to work very hard and God has always given me what I ask Him for, but I had to be willing to go after it and not give up. You can’t just sit at home and ask God to help you – you have to show Him you are willing to step out from the front door. If you never start with number one, He will not give you number two,” Tina insists. “Tell him exactly what you want and show Him how hard you will work to have it.”