I grew up in my mother's nail salon — here's how I feel about my childhood today
Last weekend was both April 30 (a day of remembrance for many in the Vietnamese diaspora who left the country after the Vietnam War) and May 1 (International Worker’s Day). Today is Mother’s Day, and the convergence of these three events has prompted me to revisit one of the places I grew up in: my mother’s nail salon.
My mom, like many other Vietnamese Americans who came to the United States as war refugees, does nails for a living. This was never her “dream job,” nor was it the result of some kind of aptitude for buffing fingertips, but rather a product of history: over half of nail salon workers in the United States today are Vietnamese, most of them women, according to a report by the BBC.
On my second birthday, a massive earthquake hit Los Angeles. This same year, my mom opened a nail salon a mile away from the epicenter and named it after me, her first child, who she and my dad then presented to the English-speaking world as “Cathy.” Because of it, I’ve always felt my fate disastrously entwined with that of Cathy’s Nails Salon, which so symbolically represented my parents’ quest for the American Dream.
In my formative years, I spent countless after school hours and summer breaks in the nail salon, absorbing messages about beauty from the women’s magazines in the waiting area, while concurrently seeing the reality of what it took to upkeep that standard of beauty. While it was somewhat comforting to see people from all walks of life — housewives, nurses, construction workers, teachers — share in the common beauty routine, I really hated that place.
In high school, I stopped calling myself “Cathy,” for various reasons that had to do with my gender and cultural identity, but I also did it to stop sharing an identity with my mom’s nail salon, and perhaps by extension, to get away from the pressure of being the embodiment of my parents’ American Dream. On one level, I hated the salon because it was, at that point in my life, a symbol of the kind of superficial hyper-femininity associated with being a “girl” that I was rebelling against. On another level, I was desperately trying to escape a kind of racism that at the time I couldn’t quite describe, but gave me a constant feeling of discomfort and dread.
I became the receptionist (and de facto English-speaking bridge between customers and the immigrant salon workers) for my mom’s salon when I was a teen, and the judgmental stares each time a worker struggled with English burned into me. I desperately hoped that my mother would never find out that she was the butt of jokes like these. Was the nastiness lost in translation for them, or did they simply ignore it as a survival tactic?
At the very root of it, I truly hated the nail salon because it was a constant reminder of how unfair life is. How cruel was it that my mom, who had survived a war that had orphaned her, was now spending the majority of her day scrubbing people’s feet? How could someone go through so much and spend the rest of their life doing something so… pointless?
This was my mother’s sacrifice in my name — literally. And bearing witness to it filled me with a sense of guilt that I still, to this day, cannot quite shake.
Growing up, the nail salon served a symbol of oppression for me — the kind that slowly seeped into my lungs for so long that it just became a part of how I breathed. I didn’t even realize what it was until I’d somehow escaped to breathe clean air, and finally realized that I had toxins in my bloodstream all along. I wanted was to get as far away from that place as I could.
Nowadays I have more complicated feelings about femininity, low-wage labor, and what my mom’s nail salon means to me. In many ways, it has become a symbol of my mother’s continued resilience as a Vietnamese immigrant worker. She and my dad came to this country after having survived the bloodiest war in U.S. history and started their own business as young refugees in a new country. The nail salon is my mother’s creation; it is what she has built on top of the rubble of an earthquake, and it is one of the ways my family has survived in the United States.
But it’s important for me to not idealize this struggle. Children of immigrants are often taught to reduce our parents’ struggles into some altruistic tragedy. We selfishly center their existence on ourselves: “They came to this country so that I could have a better life,” we say. “They sacrificed their lives so that we can do what we want.” And while this can be true, it’s not an excuse for complicitly allowing others in our community to suffer for the sake of feeling like we deserve our own mobility.
It’s no secret that working in nail salons suffocates people (sometimes literally): salon workers suffer from egregious health issues resulting from heavy exposure to toxic chemicals in poorly regulated beauty products, not to mention also being susceptible to a slew of cheap labor practices. But I don’t see boycotting nail salons as an alternative that benefits nail salon workers like my mom, the majority of whom are immigrant women with limited job opportunities, who would have to somehow learn whole new skill sets and build new networks to survive economically. Disengaging does nothing to improve the situation of people who live in this reality.
The communities that raised us should not solely be appreciated on holidays like these, nor should they be doomed to tragedy without hope of a better life for themselves, too. We have a responsibility in the present, to our mothers and our communities, to continue to engage and fight to make things better for all of us.