A Brief History and Unspoken Reality of the Vietnamese Nail Salon Worker
Anjelah Johnson is a comedian who did a stand up show titled, “Nail Salon.” It was posted to YouTube in 2007 but in 2018, it continues to be shared through various platforms as comedy. In the video, she describes her experience of going to a nail salon by immediately imitating a Vietnamese nail technician with the line, “Hi honey, what you need today?” in a thick accent as the crowd roars in laughter. This original stand up video has been watched over 34 million times, just on YouTube. This video alone has shaped many into seeing the nail industry and the Vietnamese women behind the counters as a two dimensional image painted with a heavy Vietnamese accent, poor grammar, and greed for money. Despite the negative connotation behind nail salons, there is another story to be said–a story about survival, entrepreneurial spirit, and altruism.
The history of how Vietnamese people came to dominate this $8 billion industry can be traced back to Hollywood star Tippi Hedren following the Fall of Saigon. As a relief coordinator for Food for the Hungry, Hedren came to a refugee camp in Sacramento in 1975. Here, along with a group of 20 Vietnamese women, Hedren helped pave the way for a new generation of nail industry businesses. After she helped these 20 individuals become licensed nail technicians, they all went their separate ways. These individuals started to spread news of this opportunity to other Vietnamese refugees and opened up their own nail salons. Within a short period of time, nail salons became a cornerstone of the Vietnamese community’s economy. Vietnamese entrepreneurs came to revolutionize the industry by offering discount services that made nail salons more accessible and thus more popular among the public. Naturally, families and friends who came to the U.S. also joined this industry where they could work alongside each other and pool resources.
However, for Vietnamese refugees, this was not just about capitalizing on this new economic opportunity. For many workers, this was about making money to send back to their family in Vietnam, affording a quality education and better life for their children, and surviving in a foreign country. In fact, overseas remittances accounts for 8% ($14 billion) of Vietnam’s economy. Furthermore, the American Dream for many Vietnamese parents resides in the success of their children. While it can be a lucrative and good temporary job, education has served as the beacon of growth and opportunity and has always been the number one priority for much of the Vietnamese community. The Vietnamese workers have turned this act of survival into an act of altruism for their families in Vietnam and their children growing up in the U.S. Upon reflection of Johnson’s “comedy,” one must consider that behind the counter is a human-being trying to make a living not just for themselves but their family.
Life of a Nail Technician
So far we have addressed the false perception of the nail industry that Johnson depicted of Vietnamese nail technicians. We have discussed the brief history of how Vietnamese people came to dominate the industry. But what is life actually like for nail technicians? A typical day for a nail technician looks like coming in at least an hour before the salon opens to set up and prepare for the long day ahead of them and staying in late nights when customers straggle in at the very last minute. Traffic through the nail salon typically varies day to day. Busyness can be affected depending on the day of the week, season of the year, weather conditions, and holidays. Most nail technicians work based on commission, meaning they get a cut of the profit made from each client. Because the flow of business is ever changing, there remains income uncertainty causing nail technicians to pick up extra hours on nights and weekends in order to ensure that financial ends are met. Being a nail technician is not an easy job. Not only does becoming a nail technician require people to put in long hours in cosmetology school, it takes a toll on their own body. All day, nail technicians are hunched over in small rolling chairs at the pedicure station and breathing in strong, harmful chemicals of nail products all the while trying to remain positive to provide their best customer service.
Working in a nail salon does not come without social and health repercussions. Vietnamese workers have to constantly navigate the day to day interaction with customers. There is a surprising amount of logistics and coordination involved in making the process more efficient during a busy day. This can make the salon seem more chaotic in the midst of Vietnamese being yelled across the room. From the workers perspective, this is just how the salon operates. From the perspective of customers, this can come off as unprofessional. However, finding the balance between providing the expected “spa” treatment, maintaining conversation and rapport, and working efficiently within the salon can be very tiring. During a busy day, this balance becomes particularly difficult to maintain. Walk-in and waiting customers expect a faster process while customers with appointments demand special treatment. In these situations, workers may come off as rude or not attentive because of the faster work pace. Customers are surprised when Vietnamese workers are more stern and tough against unrealistic customer demands and expectations. While Vietnamese people are seen to be resilient and capable of enduring through difficult times, it does not mean that they will be submissive and docile. Workers may understand the importance of customer service within this profession, but also maintain a high level of self-dignity and respect for themselves. As a reminder, Vietnamese nail technicians are doing this for their families–not to serve and please customer demands. For those whose parents work or have worked at a nail salon, remember the daily sacrifice being made here. This “dirty” and “demeaning” industry has been the economic backbone that has allowed the Vietnamese population to prosper.
Yet the long days and constant exposure to toxic chemicals have long-term health consequences for nail technicians. Nail products contain harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and methacrylates. Yet health and training materials often are only available in English despite Vietnamese people making up nearly 50% of nail salon workers (White, Khan, Lau, Leung, Montgomery, and Rohlman 2015). The most common health problems cited are skin and respiratory problems. Some veteran technicians are able to identify each other due to a coffee-colored stain skin discoloration on their cheeks. Yet the media is often silent about this issue or direct health concerns at customers rather than the workers who are significantly more at risk. The most immediate response to these health concerns have been to implement shop and table ventilation systems and utilize personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and masks. Like with most health concerns, however, this is a reactive rather than preventative response. Nail products, under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, do not require FDA approval. Of the 20 most common nail product ingredients, 17 are hazardous to the respiratory tract. There is a revolving door and conflict of interest between the cosmetics industry and the federal agencies tasked with reviewing and regulating health and safety concerns. Proper regulation of the ingredients that go into nail products could help prevent future health problems. The cosmetic industry and federal government must be held accountable for addressing this matter. Until this happens, the image of nail salon workers will continue to be of a Vietnamese woman behind a mask.
Nail technicians are often the butt of jokes and reduced to simple stereotypes; but it is important to address the long history that has led Vietnamese people to become 80% of the industry. Becoming a nail technician requires people to put in long and arduous days. It is a career that involves health risks and come with social downfalls. Yet Vietnamese people, particularly those who cannot afford higher education or recently immigrated, continue to become nail technicians because of familial ties and a shared language at work. As children of Vietnamese refugees, we all know someone who works in the nail industry within a two degree separation (someone who knows someone you know). The economic, social, and health impact that this industry has had on our family and community is undeniable. It serves as both a gateway for opportunity and a carrier of negative health and social consequences. These negative repercussions are compounding and only get worse if left unaddressed. We must remember that the sacrifices made by our parents are ultimately for us. As the biggest beneficiaries of these sacrifices, we must stand up against the social stigma and health inequalities that remain prevalent.