By Colleen Brown
We’ve all seen it before. Manicure stations on the left, pedicure on the right, with light decor, posters and fake potted plants placed at seemingly random intervals. Sinks are located in the back and mirrors tacked on opposite walls reflect images back and forth smaller and smaller to a greenish-tinted infinity. There’s stereotypical easy listening music in the background and a rack of brightly colored nail polishes on one wall. A small room in the back of the salon has a stiff white table and bright lighting where customers lay down to have hair waxed off their eyebrows and upper lips.
The workers spend most of their time attending to customers who stubbornly keep trying to use their phones while their nails are drying.
Nail technicians peel old polish off fingers, clip cuticles and file down nails. Customers get to pick a new color from the wall, or if they want a gel manicure, from a little basket filled with rings of brightly painted plastic nails. For pedicures, customers get their feet and calves washed and smothered in lotion. Their callouses and bunions are scrubbed away using a loofah and elbow grease. Two to three coats of polish, then a quick dry under a UV or LED lamp and customers are out within an hour.
There are more than 17,000 nail salons in the U.S. according to census data. Manicures aren’t just for special occasions anymore.
I myself am a frequent visitor to Chapel Hill’s salon, Nail Trix, just off Franklin Street. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been going for almost two years and never even bothered to learn any of the workers’ names. Customers come in, get their nails done and leave. Never once have I seen any customer seriously engage with a technician. Even if customers wanted to, most of the workers are Vietnamese and the language barrier stymies conversations and prevents understanding.
In spite of these roadblocks, I found the workers at Nail Trix to be friendly and open. They were willing to speak with a young journalism student about their lives, despite the fact that they didn’t really understand why they deserve to be written about in the first place.
Making the adjustment
I spoke with two technicians, Toan Pham and Anhthu Ngo, as I was getting my nails painted.
Toan Pham is perhaps the smallest fully grown woman I have ever met. The 32-year-old comes to about my shoulder, if that. Pham has short, straight black hair and rocked Coach designer glasses with a chic yellow blazer. I let her talk me into painting my nails a bright poison green as I spoke with her and Ngo.
Pham moved from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, to North Carolina two years ago with her husband Hieu Nguyen and four-year-old daughter Han. Pham used to be a preschool teacher. She stopped sanding my nails with a square nail buffer in order to articulate, more through gestures than words, how she would teach the children drawing, music and writing.
“I want to be teacher again,” Pham said. But her daughter Han, Americanized as Hannah, knows more English than she does. And until Pham’s English improves exponentially, it’s unlikely she’ll be hired as a preschool teacher.
This demotion in careers, I soon came to realize, was a common theme among the workers. It seemed to be the price for a life in America.
When asked what she liked most about America, Pham said, “Americans nice people, very kind. And is so clean here.”
Ngo seemed more like a mother to me than any of the other workers. Ngo goes by the first name of Sophie, a name she picked after quitting her job as a realtor in Vietnam and moving to America. She’s 46 and is short with mid-length black hair, dark eyes and warm skin.
Her English is good, a result of living in the U.S. for 10 years. She married her husband, Jack Bui, 25 years ago in Vietnam.
“And you ask me if he handsome — yes,” Ngo said of her husband. We giggled like teenage girls. “I hope so, I keep him.”
I was struck by how comfortable and organic the conversation felt. The women were funny and open.
“You good person, with good heart,” Ngo said when I explained why I wanted to write about these women, and how their lives and stories were so interesting. “Good people with good heart do good things.”
Ngo said that while she still misses Vietnam, each year, she misses it less and less.
“The first year I come here, I learn little English,” Ngo said. “I was sad a lot. But now, 10 years, I better. And I understand a lot of English and now I love Chapel Hill. I love North Carolina. And the last year I be back in my country three weeks, but I missed here a lot.”
‘Vietnam is my family’s country’
Tina Ngo, who shares a last name with Anhthu but is not related, is small as well, with a well-lined face and heavily penciled in eyebrows. She wore chunky flip-flops with black socks. It was a slow afternoon, with just one customer in for a pedicure, as we sat and talked between the nail polishes and the register at the front of the salon.
Ngo moved to the U.S. in 2006 from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, with her son.
“When I came here I had no choice,” Ngo said. “I try to help my son in school by work.” Ngo gave up a managerial position at a company that sold kitchen equipment so her son could receive a better education.
Ngo is proud of her son, Kaiser, who is in his first year of medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill on a full scholarship. Kaiser was 13 when he picked his American name. Kaiser means “emperor” in German, which he picked because of his love for the German national soccer team.
Ngo was born in 1959. As she sat in the plastic waiting chair, bouncing a flip-flop off one foot, it hit me. She lived through the Vietnam War.
“My daddy was police officer,” she said. “My mom work for Marine.”
Ngo’s father was jailed for almost a decade following the war because of his allegiance to the South Vietnamese Army.
“Some people die in jail, or still in jail,” Ngo said. Her parents, in their eighties now, still live in Vietnam.
Ngo gained her American citizenship a few years ago. “I took a promise,” Ngo said as she looked directly into my eyes. “One country is my country. This is my country. Vietnam is my family’s country.”
Vy Nguyen wandered over to me in-between drying breaks for her customer’s nails. She breaks the streak of small women in the salon, clocking in at a towering five feet four inches. Nguyen wears her hair in a ponytail and has a habit of shuffling nervously from foot to foot and fiddling with her small wire-framed glasses.
Nguyen grew up in Danang, a major port city famous for its seafood and beaches. She told me about Vietnamese food, consisting mainly rice and noodles, as well as pork, chicken and goat.
Vincent Tran, the only male worker at Nail Trix, jokingly added “dogs and cats” to the list of foods from the opposite side of the room where he was painting a woman’s nails. We all laughed.
Nguyen’s mother and brother convinced her to live in the U.S. with them. She studied business and learned some English back in Vietnam, and I asked why she works at Nail Trix instead of going to school.
“You start again at zero when you come here, everything you start over,” Nguyen said. “I come to learn a lot. All the English and all the customs. I make good money. I want to go to school so it’s better for me. But I need to learn English first.”
Nguyen had to cut our conversation short when her customer’s UV light timer went off.
Finding the American dream
Working at Nail Trix pays a decent salary, especially on busier days when up to 60 people visit the salon.
The older women seemed content with their job. But the younger women see Nail Trix more as a stepping stone. It helps their English improve and pays enough for them to save up for school.
These women share similar stories, backgrounds and hopes for the future. They love and respect America and do not this country for granted. They gave up more respectable careers in Vietnam to move to the U.S. They had to start over with virtually nothing.
For all their hardships, these women are putting their children through school. They make their own money. They are improving their English and have earned or are in the process of earning American citizenship.
“I am American dream,” Tina Ngo said. I had to agree.
Edited by Hannah Smoot