In the United States, it is customary for young girls and women to attend nail salons routinely with their friends, mother, aunt or grandmother. Regulars start to feel a part of the Vietnamese culture when they attend the nail salons. For the last twenty years, I have routinely gone to nail salons and there are things about my nail technicians’ culture that I have observed and felt curious about. The thing that always intrigues me is why are all my nail technicians Vietnamese? I have become a part of my nail technicians’ lives, but I want to know so much more about their culture and how they live their everyday lives. I am lucky enough to be a regular at a nail salon and the owner, Mrs. H, is a friend of mine. Mrs. H has agreed to let me dig deeper into the Vietnamese culture and interview herself and her employees.
When interviewing Mrs. H her point of view of how Vietnamese people started taking over the nail industry in the United States and Mrs. H told me a very interesting story.
“Forty years ago, Tippi Hedren, an American actress, traveled to a Vietnamese refugee camp in Sacramento, California to meet a group of women who fled from South Vietnam. Mrs. Hedren wanted to help these women learn a trade or skill to be able to support themselves in America. Mrs. Hedren brought in seamstresses and typing instructors, but the women weren’t catching on, but she did notice that the women absolutely loved her manicure. Mrs. Hedren enrolled 20 of the refugee women into a local beauty school to receive a license to do nails services. Within the next couple months, the refugee women were offering nail services cheaper than the American salons, it quickly changed the face of nail salons immediately in California, and later the nail salons all over the United States”.
I found articles online that support Mrs. H’s story. Ms. Tran wrote a whole article for the Chicago Tribune about Vietnamese people coming over to the United States to become nail technicians called “Vietnamese Nail Niche Business”. Muy-Thuan Tran’s article about the nail business argues that Vietnamese refugees started doing nails because of Tippi Hedren. Mrs. Hedren did in fact help a group of women refugees who left South Vietnam with nothing after they had lost their families in the fall of little Saigon. Mrs. Hedren helped these women enter beauty school to become nail technicians, so they could financially support themselves and build new lives in America.
In some nail salons, I have observed the interaction between the nail technicians with their parents, grandparents, and their children. The nail technicians work long very long hours and that results in them bringing their culture and family life into their salons. I had the same question for all the nail technicians, and that was “What is most important to Vietnamese way of life?” Mrs. H told me that Vietnamese culture believes that in life it is not about a person’s accomplishments but, the importance of their duty to their family and society. The nail technicians explained to me that in their households the man is the patriarch and the wife is the caretaker of her husband, children, home and of their elderly parents. Now that the women work in nail salons, they still are expected to complete all those jobs at home along with their nail technician job. They also believe that when parents grow old, their children are expected to take care of them to compensate the gift of birth and upbringing. While the parents are working, their children are encouraged to study and excel in education. Vietnamese value education over material success. Linda, a nail technician I interviewed, told me that her parents are still over in Vietnam. Since she cannot physically take care of them, she sends money to take care of their needs.
Vietnamese parents put a lot of pressure on their children to do well and make their family proud. A writer for the Washington Post, Anne Hull, wrote an article about a Vietnamese immigrant teen named Amy Nguyen. At a young age Amy and her family moved from Vietnam to America. Amy’s mom, Lisa, works as a nail technician for 400 dollars a week and her dad, Tony, fixes windshields for a living. Amy’s parents push her very hard to do good in school. She is expected to get good grades and it’s not a celebration when she does. Her family is a very traditional Vietnamese family. The Nguyens expect their children to work hard in their education and to become doctors. There is no time for Amy to date. In fact, her dad said, “She’s not allowed to date until she is 26” (Hull). Vietnamese also have a strong belief in honoring family, and Amy does not want to be an embarrassment to them; she does as she is told and works her hardest. Amy’s parents insist that Vietnamese is to be spoken in their home and on Saturdays they have a traditional Vietnamese dinner. Amy’s parents try to keep Vietnamese tradition and expectations in their family life.
In every nail salon I have ever been to there is always an altar with fresh food offerings. I always thought it was strange, but I’ve learned that it is to honor their family that has passed away. Tam Giáo, the three teachings, is the majority religion of Vietnamese culture. It is a combination of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Every nail shop I have been to has an altar. Mrs. H told me that the altar is used to pray for their ancestors. Mrs. H says that if they fail to perform rituals for their ancestors, it will cause the ancestors to become a hungry ghost. A “hungry ghost” is believed to do evil deeds and cause bad fortune. Each of the nail technicians told me that they all have altars to honor their ancestors in their homes too. Vietnamese people believe in life after death. They place their altar in the most solemn location in their house with a photo of their ancestor and daily replace fresh fruit, traditional Vietnamese food, candies, and gifts.
At the end of January, I had come in to get my nails done and the salon was covered in beautiful flowers, red paper decorations everywhere, and the ladies were wearing beautiful dresses I have not ever seen them wear before. The nail technicians were celebrating Tet Nguyen Dan, also known as Tet and the Vietnamese New Year. It is the most important holiday the Vietnamese celebrate. Tet falls on a different day every year, but is usually around the end of January and beginning of February. The Vietnamese families get together, have large meals, decorate Tet trees, and eat Tet food and forget their troubles from the past year and hope for a better new year. The nail technicians were wearing their traditional dress called Ao Dai, a nationally recognized attire that women wear during special occasions and holidays. In an article from the Los Angeles Times reporter Tran Mai states that “Tet is a special family gathering and it’s a rare occasion, because in America, families are too busy working to survive to celebrate anything else” (Tran).
The second major holiday is called Tet Trung Thu, which is also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is celebrated in late September to early October with a full moon at night. Family and friends gather together to make meals, give thanks, and they pray for good fortune, babies, a spouse, or longevity.
Pho with basil, jalapeño, bean sprouts, cilantro, and green onions
In the salons I have visited, I observed the nail technicians cooking and eating all the time. Their food did not look like normal American food that we eat. I always have wondered what it is that they were eating and why they did not eat every day American food. Brenda told me that she has lived in the United States for nine years, but she still eats the Vietnamese diet she grew up on, she says American food is very fatty and causes her to gain weight (Le). The Vietnamese ladies visit the grocery daily for fresh fruits and vegetables. In an article written by Deidre Betancourt for the Family and Consumer Sciences she states “ In their home country, Vietnamese either grow food or purchase it daily. There are few refrigerators” (Betancourt). They usually have Pho for breakfast, which is a broth-based soup with rice noodles and thin sliced meat. Rice and boiled eggs are incorporated in their daily diets as bread would be to Americans. Brenda also stated “we rarely eat anything that is heavy in dairy or cheese because most Vietnamese are lactose intolerant” (Le).
From the many conversations I have had with nail technicians through the years, I have learned that they all live a few blocks from downtown Houston in an area called Little Saigon. Houston’s Little Saigon is full of Vietnamese families, stores, restaurants, and culture. I asked all the nail technicians why they choose to commute from such a long way, driving 60 miles one way in Houston on highway 45, is nothing to joke about. Brenda told me that she wants her children to grow up around other Vietnamese people and enjoys the locally owned Vietnamese shops and restaurants in the area. Linda said that she wants her children to grow up around other Vietnamese children because they have the same core values and American children are raised differently. The rest of the nail technicians also feel the drive is worth it, so that their children are being raised around Vietnam culture standards; and it is as close as they can be to living in Vietnam culture. It is a norm for Houston’s Vietnamese nail technicians to travel to nail salons far from their homes. Through my extensive research, I have learned that there are Little Saigons in many large cities across the United States. In Orange county, California the largest Little Saigon community in the United States exists. Ms. Tran reports in the Los Angeles Times “Orange County’s Little Saigon remains the hottest spot in America for the Vietnamese to congregate for Tet. The business and cultural hub is home to more than 3,000 shops and the epicenter of the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam” (Tran). This supports my point that Vietnamese people want to stay surrounded by Vietnamese culture in the United States.
The nail technicians at the salon know very little English. Usually, the boss is the one to translate what a customer wants to the nail technician. I have always had small and limited conversations with my nail technicians. Linda stated that they speak their native language in the nail salons because they like to talk about the news, their kids, music, customers, and romance during their long shiftsThey also only surround themselves with other Vietnamese people, so they don’t feel the need to learn English. Ms. Tran states in her article “Vietnamese immigrants come to America with intentions to do nails because it is fast and easy to receive a nail technician license, and they don’t have to speak much English to be able to do nails” (Tran). I do not understand why you would come to an English-speaking country and not learn the language. In an article on the Migration Policy Organization website, writer Ms. Zong states
“in 2014, about 67 percent of Vietnamese immigrants (ages 5 and over) reported limited English proficiency, compared to the 50 percent of Vietnamese immigrants spoke only English at home, compared to the 16 percent of overall foreign-born population. Approximately 8 percent of Vietnamese immigrants spoke only English at home, compared to the 16 percent average for all immigrants” (Zong).
Mrs. H also told me that the Vietnamese Nail Technicians feel like their traditional Vietnamese names are too hard for their customers to pronounce, so they have chosen Americanized versions of their name for the salon. Ms. Hull supports this fact in her article “the Nyguyen family changed their names to easy traditional American names when they moved from Vietnam” (Hull).
Americans put a prominence on being pleasant in interpersonal relationships, while Vietnamese focus on respect. In Vietnamese neighborhoods, almost everybody knows everybody by their names, whereas in American neighborhoods we often do not even know what our neighbors’ name are. Mrs. H told me that Vietnamese have four major values in their lives. First is their commitment to their family, second is to have a “good name” for themselves, third is the love of learning, and fourth is the concept of respect. All the nail technicians have repeatedly stated that their culture isn’t about material possessions. It is about honoring and respecting your family, ancestors, and yourself.
Why are the Vietnamese people leaving Vietnam for the United States? In my interview with Brenda she states, “It’s because of corrupt government, low standard of living, poor education, and unable to provide for their loved ones.” Mrs. H states, “Vietnamese have come to the United States to make a better life for their family and chose to become nail technicians, so they can quickly start earning money. The women that I interviewed revealed that they have brought their family over from Vietnam, or that they are planning to bring them to the United States. The nail technicians don’t dream of painting finger nails and scrubbing feet when they are children, but they do what they have to, to provide for family.
Vietnamese citizens have a great respect for their culture. Even though they do not live in Vietnam anymore, they are preserving their way of life and teaching their children the importance of their heritage. The nail technicians that I spend a couple hours with every two weeks, when getting my nails done, have so much knowledge to offer. I am very grateful for their ability to be transparent about their daily lives.
Betancourt, Deidre. “Cultural Diversity: Eating in America- Vietnamese,” Family and Consumer Sciences, 8 June 2010, https://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/HYG-5258
Hull, Anne. “The Weight of a Family’s Hopes; Parents Dream Leaves Little Room for Being Average American Teen.” The Washington Post, 10 Dec 2002, https://searchproquestcom.lscsproxy2.lonestar.edu/docview/409465499/43D9E42EE4F24D13PQ/9?accountid=7054
Tran, M. “Vietnamese Nail Niche Business.” Chicago Tribune, 2008 May 12, Newspaper Source, http://lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.lscsproxy2.lonestar.edu/docview/420692478?accountid=7054
Tran, Mai. “Lunar New Year is Time to Bond: Vietnamese community prepares to usher in the Year of the Snake with festivities to celebrate Tet.” Los Angeles Times, 21 Jan 2001, Newspaper Source, https://search-proquest-com.lscsproxy2.lonestar.edu/usmajordailies/docview/421757632/3F0A6318FC4F4FD9PQ/7?accountid=7054
Zong, Jie. “Vietnamese Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Organization, 8 June 2016, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/vietnamese-immigrants-united-states/#English%20Proficiency