A Vietnamese Nail Salon: Behind My Blue Mask

In the summers, I am a nail technician.

I suppose you could say that I grew up with the trade. My parents came to the United States in their late thirties, and for Vietnamese immigrants like them, the nail industry was a solid, easily accessible career choice. When I was little, my parents had owned a small nail salon in a town just south of Denver – Happy Nails, it was called.

Because my parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, I was often left to my own devices at the nail salon. I spent those afternoons and weekends idly among polish, nail clippers, and PEOPLE magazines. Perched atop my designated spa chair, I would cheerfully greet clients coming in and out of the salon through the bites of my afternoon snacks. I still remember from that tall vantage, I could observe everyone: Auntie Mai nodding and smiling with her client next to me, my mother scurrying to seat new clients who’ve just walked in, and my dad in the back sneaking a quick snack before starting on another pedicure. There was often a mix of broken English, laughter, and this unforgettably sweet, floral scent mixed with the strong acrylic smell. That was my childhood.

Reeked with acetone and formaldehyde, my childhood dreams revolved around these Vietnamese nail salons. Perhaps, not knowing any better, I would watch the adults around me with intense admiration. My parents were cool, and I wanted to be just like them. I suppose, when you are small, the adult world is so amazing – it is almost magical. When I was little, I, too, took my inspiration from my adult parents. My childhood superheroes didn’t have capes or cool suits; they wielded nail clippers and donned blue masks (to protect them from the strong chemicals of acrylic liquid, I would later learn). They made art and spread smiles. In my mind, they were creators.

It never once crossed my mind that being a nail technician was a humble occupation. In my eyes, bows and hospitality were part of the service that a nail salon sells to its clientele. Truth to be told, “humble” wasn’t part of my vocabulary – not like pedicure, full set, fill, polish, and gel nails were. At that age, I never understood what they meant when my parents told me, “This is a humble job. You don’t want to be me.” At that young, innocent age, the salon was all I knew. I knew it, loved it, and thrived within it.

Fast forward a couple of years, I don’t sit and observe my parents in absolute wonderment anymore. Now, I, too, join them as a nail technician of my own. It isn’t as magical as my childhood dreams have made it to be. I am finally older now. I am more experienced and more knowledgeable. Perhaps, I know better. Perhaps, not. After all, what is wisdom? What is knowledge? Knowledge empowers, people say, but very few understand that the empowerment of one comes at a price paid by another. The physics of momentum famously dictates: Each force has an equal but opposite reaction. Likewise, the standards of empowerment, success, and wealth is often measured by standards of segregation, failure, and poverty. I wish more people would ask: Who, exactly, is being empowered? And who is the stepping stone?

Growing up among nail salons, I have learned a lot. And yet, sometimes, I wish I can unsee my experiences and ignore what vast knowledge my society has bestowed. In my years as a nail technician, I have learned to swallow my pride as I squat down to start a pedicure. I have learned to ignore that uncomfortable twinge of envy as I see girls my age walking in the nail salon. In front of my clients, I have learned to mask my ambition – to filter my passions, to be humble as fitting for my position. Now, I have learned to understand why parents have said, “Do not be like me. Please don’t be like me. You won’t like it. Study hard to be someone better.” I have learned so much – and almost wished I hadn’t.

(To Be Continued…)


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