Dirty Nails

Minh Vu

© Copyright 2018 by Minh Vu

Photo of woman having their tonails done.
For my mom, her mom—my grandma whom I call “mom” in Vietnamese—and all of the other Vietnamese women out there.

I was born in my family’s nail salon. It was in the waxing room, and my first swaddle was made up of giant waxing strips. Normally, they’re used to tear the hair off people’s pubes. For me, they were warmth and protection.  

I was raised within glass doors kept shiny with diluted Windex, among towering boxes of acetone, and atop giant pedicure thrones. Such was my childhood kingdom. Alphabet blocks were replaced by white Arial stickers I used to spell out “JEL MANICURE” and “BIKIKNEE WAX” on the price board. Instead of bicycles I rode bumper cars with the pedicure stools. And the rest of my time I spent trying to fit my toddler toes into the pastel foot separators that looked like mini combs.

Within this kingdom I watched my grandma raise a family. Whereas it normally takes six months for business owners to turnaround vacant spaces, my grandmother wasn’t building a business. She was building our home. The pallor of peeling plaster was rolled over with a deep textured azure, like the ocean she immigrated across in the 1970s. Dim overhead lights were torn down and replaced with a crystal chandelier that albeit fake, brought illumination in a time of immigrant loneliness. And red leather diner stools from the space’s past life was refurbished into sleek manicure chairs.

The nail salon was my world. It was where all of life existed.

Nail salons occupy a large portion of the beauty industry, generating on average 75 billion dollars yearly. From 2014 to 2015, the number of storefronts experienced an increase of over 240%, expanding to over 360,000 locations across the country. Even the cinema industry dwarfs in comparison. Nail salons outperform by over 20 billion dollars. This “McNail” phenomenon, as economist Mark Fahey puts it, has allowed nail cosmetics to become accessibly cheaper and thus culturally ubiquitous. Over 100,000 Americans visit them monthly, and 50% of American females are regular consumers.

Because of this growing popularity, the nail industry has received much attention from muckrakers and government officials over the past couple of years. In “The Price of Nice Nails,” Sarah Maslin Nir discusses the “rampant exploitation of those [manicurists] who toil in the industry.” Here, she probes the manicurist through a sociological lens, concluding that the manicurist “live[s] a li[f]e that unspool[s]… in the prim confines of the nail salon.” Nir’s study is also conducted within the scientific framework of theoretical economics. The nail artists are research subjects—“workers” buzzing “[i]nside the hive of the salon.” Through her field research, she calculates, as the title of her piece states, the opportunity and labor costs of the nail artist—her position within the “economic spectrum.”

Nir’s piece was a breakthrough headliner and initiated a movement that fought for nail laborer’s rights including better workplace ventilation and higher hourly wages. Other journalists hopped into the fray, including Kate Garber who deemed nail salons as “havens for modern slavery” in her Guardian piece. And this investigative work became instrumental in enacting workers’ rights policies. On May 11, 2015—just three days after Nir’s exposé—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared an emergency order that required 143 nail salons to dole out $2 million in reparations. Thanks to progressive activism, the nail-industrial complex was dismantled after years of exploitative practices.


Upon encountering this literature, I began to question the idyllic memories I associate with the nail salon. I thought about my and my mom’s morning ritual, by the old radiator where she’d feed me Maruchan cup noodles after I picked out all of the dehydrated vegetables. I’d play Super Mario as dust bunnies flew out and danced along with the sounds of my pink Game Boy. I thought about those long two-hour drives to Long Beach Island—where our salon was—in our dinky glaucous 1970 Toyota Camry. I’d stare out of the window and gaze at the pristine million-dollar beach houses while my tattered Pokémon blanket dangled to my toes, which were always stained from my Hello Kitty sandals. I thought a lot—about this nail salon, this kingdom that my grandma built.  

My grandma tells me all the time how the life of the Vietnamese can be found in any nail salon. She says to look closely at how tightly the towels are folded, how neatly stacked the Marie Claire magazines are, and how every nail polish bottle faces forward. The history lives in the details. “It’s a history of labor and attention.”

She recounts Vietnam’s mythological origin:

It begins with the first rice plant the woman-farmer sticks into the dry earth and cultivates with her calloused hands, which are cupped by those of her mother and her mother’s mother and so forth. The woman takes care of this plant until she can grow a garden on the mud floor of her hut. That way, she is able to raise a family and feed them food made from delicious herbs.

When her daughter leaves because of the war, the woman goes back to her farm and digs up the rice plant for her. The daughter keeps this sapling safe in a tiny cracked teapot packed with dirt and chipped dried rice, and she carries it over to America with the same tender gentleness her mother held her with. When she arrives, she builds a nail salon like how her mother grew a rice farm, and she places the teapot by the Buddha statue that she keeps in the backroom. With this new home, the daughter is also able to raise a family and pass down the nail salon to her daughter and to her daughter’s daughter and so forth.

My grandma sits somewhere along this matrilineal timeline. I recall her constantly running to the backroom to pray to Buddha in between her clients. Her white jeans would stain gray on the dusty concrete, and their seams would pull taut as she bent her body to the world, whispering silent words to the golden man. This image was akin to her maternal ancestors, field laborers back in Vietnam who knelt on the paddy soil as they spent hours plucking rice piece by piece with their hands.


I am caught in this juncture between the political and the personal. Were these moments I held fraudulent? Were we tokens that upheld the model minority myth? Were we complicit in reinforcing the oppressive structures erected by capitalism? The nail salon—what is home for me—also became the site of destruction.

On one hand, I am grateful for the powerful muckraking work that brought light to the severe work exploitation that was deeply entrenched within the nail industry. Nir and her colleagues exhibited profound initiative through weaving research and narrative to thus confront and dismantle the entire complex that fed off human labor. This radical progressivism is the same political philosophy that brought about the feminist movement, black liberation, queer rights, and immigration reform, and I have benefited from this network of radicals. They are why I’ll be able to marry. They are why my family could cross the Pacific throughout the 1970s. Because of food stamps I was able to eat cup noodles while playing Super Mario by the old radiator. This work brought me life.

But at the same time, this work invalidated my life, too. There is erasure happening through Nir’s reductive essentializing of nail salons as a mere service industry. Her papers fail to point out the long colonial history behind the nail salon and what it signifies for the Vietnamese immigrant. Sure, there are facts and figures present, but the nail salon is more than an industry. More than a storefront rather a destination, it is a Vietnamese Ellis Island that allowed them to escape from war, assimilation, and rape. With the nail salon, the Vietnamese could build permanent places, unlike their rice fields that got burned back in the Southeast. The nail salon is a center of resistance. It is a spatial, aesthetic, and cultural tool that allows the Vietnamese to preserve their history through pseudo-assimilation into Western culture, which in turn allows them to refurbish immigrant trauma and to retain their identity. To build the physical space itself is to reclaim their lands that were taken away during the Vietnam War. To put up those neon “OPEN” signs is to learn from other service industries and adhere to the capitalist model of how to present a business. To throw in those special bubbly spa beads into a vat of crusty feet water is not to revolutionize pedi-health; it is a gimmick that entertains the Western obsession with empty aesthetics.

Beneath the service story is a story of suffering.

The first nail salon began in 1970, when a group of Vietnamese refugee-women decided to escape their refugee camp in Sacramento, California. They decided to pursue the industry after a visit from Hollywood star Tippi Hedren. It was then that they realized the American fascination with nail art, and the job made perfect pragmatic sense—the industry was in high demand, and most importantly it didn’t require that much English, just the hands of the nail artist and those of the customer. Nail artistry wasn’t fab nor glamorous; it just made sense to do. It derived from necessity, and such fact goes unsaid in contemporary discourse. It’s nobody’s dream to scrub dead matter and fungus off other people’s feet. It’s hungry work. For the Vietnamese, doing nails is the Western analog of taking care of their rice farms. The Vietnamese woman holds onto the nail polish handle with dear life, like how an artist grips onto her paintbrush. And the precision she exhibits when painting the canvas of the nail is the same delicate tenderness her mother exhibits when plucking her rice plant.

Thus, when articles like these seek to expose the life’s work of an entire demographic without mentioning the colonial history that brought said demographic here, such a move is complicit and reinforces those same white settler and assimilationist structures. This is manifest in the implicit racial power structures at play when a nail artist is doing her job—when a woman of color must scrub the dead skin cells off white clients’ feet while looking at and feigning smiles to them, who sit atop the pedicure throne while scrolling through their phone. Chris Buck gets at this in his experimental art piece, where he reverses the racial script and presents a vivid life-painting of white women giving Asian women pedicures. At first glance, the piece is fantastic. It is subversive in its clear illumination of the fundamentally unequal racial master-servant dynamics that pervade the nail industry. But upon closer consideration, Buck’s piece also fails because of this very fact in that it tries too hard to reveal the disparity. Because when a complex thing like race is brought up, it more than just “race”—a person’s skin color—because race entails other structures such as gender, queerness, income, and language. There is more to the story. In this picture, the white women are too clean; their backs are too straight, their ponytails are pinned too immaculately, and their pants are stainless from not testing nail colors for their customers’ toes. When the Vietnamese woman does a pedicure, she bends towards her client’s toes, ready to kiss them. When she massages feet, she goes into them—between every toe, around the heel, under the nail—not like the delicate handjob happening in the picture. 

Because when the Vietnamese woman does nails, i.e., has to serve, she serves, because it’s a matter of life. Paradoxically, she must inhale death—the dead skin particles of her wage payers—in order to live. And this ingestive process is toxic not only chemically, but in an identity sense too, because the Vietnamese woman must put her body out in the line to please the body of her white owner. So, when Kate Garber calls the nail salon a site of modern slavery, I don’t deny her statement, but I want to clarify it. Perhaps the “slavery” inside the nail salon is result of the slavery that happens from outside the salon—the centuries of colonial war, consumerism, capitalism. Though the articles are written under a benevolent progressive premise, there is an egregious level of cultural ignorance, and what this failure does is further submerge the Vietnamese into the subaltern by trying to contain the nail salon as a market and writing it out.

That is why I am torn about the site of my identity, like the hyphen in between Vietnamese-American.

When the nail salon closes—when the chandelier and buzzing neon “OPEN” sign are flicked off, and the steamed towel rack is opened to cool as minty vapors permeate the salon—moonlight shines in through the front glass windows, and all there is is settling dust. The dust is a combination of dead skin and nail matter after a long day of shaving foot callouses with pumice bars, filing nails, plucking cuticles, and sneezing. The dust settles slowly, like snow, and part of my job at day’s end was to brush it off the manicure desks and onto the floor as my grandma vacuumed. These sheets of dead skin were a winter I looked forward to daily while living in the saline sauna of Long Beach Island.

On average, the human being inhales 100 mg of dust, whereas the nail artist inhales 10 times as much. Nir in her piece follow-up NYT piece “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Worker,” laments the titular “poisoned worker” through exploring the “link between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful… and serious health problems.” She places the burden of the blame on the nail salon, condemning it for its gross abuse of workers through inadequate ventilation systems. But Nir arrives to a false conclusion in that the nail salon’s inattention towards nail dust and chemicals is not intentional but rather the consequence of ignorance or even complacency. Dust has been a part of Vietnamese blood even before the nail salon—the dirt dust from the rice farms, the ashes from the crumbles of their homes being burned in the war, the cigarettes they smoke to cope with the immigrant stress and trauma. Dust comes in non-physical forms, too—the fragmented memories of lost ancestors who exploded in war, the children the immigrants leave behind, the parents they leave to die. Dust is a part of Vietnamese condition. Vietnamese people readily breath in toxins, because that is life for them—toxic. Because in the end, dust is just snow, and they want it to settle so that they can vacuum it away to make money to feed their families the next day.

The rice plant is of the grass species Oryza sativa and is a monocot that can be grown on any terrain so long as there is sufficient water. Rice exhibits incredible resistance properties, and its morphogenesis and architecture play a huge role in facilitating its growth. Shrouded by a series of enveloping curved leaf blades, the rice plant builds of shield around itself to protect from invasive species contamination and climate duress. The rice plant over recent years has also grown resistant to bacterial leaf blight, a disease carried and transferred by beetles and various species of fungi. Furthermore, rice plants express snorkel genes, meaning that they are able to sustain rising sea levels and even complete submergence due to their tillers, which allow them to umbrella out in shape and maximize surface area to prevent from being crushed by the weight of water.

Rice plants require a lot of water to grow, though they are well-adapted to drought conditions, as their cupped leaf structure allows them to retain water as well as shield against blowing dust and intense temperatures during dry seasons. After these hot spells, the Vietnamese farmer can return to her plant, harvest it, and still sift out viable grains.

Like the Vietnamese rice farmer and her daughter the nail artist, the rice plant is impervious to dust. The plant can live in harsh contexts and thrive in it, starting as a seedling and blooming into a beautiful green stem of sustenance. Whether it blows into the rice farmer’s eyes, piles on the nail artist’s manicure desk, or covers the rice plant’s leaves—dust is Vietnam’s symbol that celebrates its women’s power and resilience.

Though miniscule, the most nefarious facet of Nir’s argument is her mislabeling of the Vietnamese woman as a “nail technician” and “manicurist.” Such are industrial terms that confine her labor as mere technical practice. In using these terms, Nir commoditizes the Vietnamese woman by further implicating her as a cog within the capitalist system. What the journalist fails to realize is that beneath all the wages and the chemicals—once all the nail dust is blown away—is a woman, an immigrant woman, an artist who gave up her life to build another one for her and her family.
The nail artist does more than manicures. There are “fill-ins,” “pink and whites,” “gen manicures,” “acrylic overlays,” and “silk wraps.” What the Vietnamese woman does is use her versatile skills to cater her art to a specific audience, each nail masterpiece dreamed up by the customer then brought into fruition by a personal ghost artist. Like tattoos.
In fact, over 25% of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American nail artists are uncertified, and a large majority of them are underage. My mom and aunt started doing people’s nails when they were 15. I started doing nails when I was 15. On our cork board of the necessary documents that all shops are legally obligated to show to the public were either 1. forged certificates or 2. ones photocopied from friends. That’s why sometimes, a customer won’t get to see their go-to nail artist for a couple of days, since word on the street is that a government inspector has been checking in on neighboring salons. Yet, certified or not, that customer is still going to get the sexiest, spiciest nails they asked for. Because that’s what doing nails means—it’s a hushed and intimate agreement between the artist and her client when they step foot into the salon, as if it were a guest walking into the nail artist’s home. And no piece of paper—neither a certificate nor Nir’s article—should try to contain this experience as a technical trade. Nails are more than nails. They are a genealogy. They are how to live.

After the cup ramen and Super Mario levels, my morning duties entailed twisting the red nozzles off the acetone bottles and refilling them with a funnel and the giant factory-sized jug. On it read “CAUTION: 100% PURE ISOPROPYL RUBBING ALCOHOL.”

Typically, the case of a seven-year old handling and inhaling quantities of toxic liquid would constitute some malignant form of child abuse. But for my family, it was perfectly normal and fine. I wore one of those “doctor’s masks” just like them, which can “block the smellies” as my grandma put it.

The science behind chemical inhalation is largely construed. When you sniff toxic chemicals, it’s not that the chemicals are entering your nose and into your brain as odor particles. It’s that the chemicals combine with the oxygen in the air to create asphyxiates that then enter your body and bind to the receptors of your lungs to further inhibit oxygen—kind of like a positive feedback loop of suffocation!

I research and say this because, frankly, I grew quite accustomed with the fumes of acetone; it was my adolescent equivalent of sniffing markers. It has a super complex smell composition—multilayered, starting with a sharp and punchy bitterness that then resolves with a long, sustained note of fruitiness. And part of its enjoyable flavor is how unexpected the sweetness is. I wasn’t a child addicted to inhaling acetone, but I was a child who interacted with it a lot due to financial necessity. Like my mom and her mom and all our Vietnamese ancestors, I became used to the smell because I had to—because I had to work. I had to help our home run so that we could let guests in to do their nails, because that’s how food came about.

And when you do something out of necessity, the painful truth is that—especially as an immigrant—you learn to love it, because it is the only thing keeping you alive so that you can even have the capacity to love anything. I don’t love rubbing alcohol. I love it. Because I love my family.

To pass the time during my childhood at the nail salon, I used to do really dumb stuff like dip my finger into the hot wax or fill up giant latex gloves with water and throw them across the room until they popped. Among the dumb stuff was a somewhat cruel hobby—when I would finish filling the bottles of acetone, I would secretly stow one away for later. And when my family wasn’t watching, I’d walk around the store and squirt it into the plants. After weeks passed, I would shrug in feigned innocence and smile as my grandma pondered over her plants’ deaths.

Except there was only one that never died, and that was the rice plant in the tiny cracked teapot packed with dirt and chipped dried rice, sitting beside the Buddha statue.

Works Cited
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