The Vietnamese Nail Salon Workers

Photo by Adam Phan

Customers have their nails painted at Sky Nail Bar and Spa in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Adam Phan

Thu Mai Kim carefully clips her customer’s nails at Sky Nail Bar and Spa on a Friday afternoon. After she’s done, she puts on a surgical mask and begins to buff the woman’s nails with a drill pen. She doesn’t speak a word — she is focused on avoiding the skin surrounding the nails.

After the nails are buffed, polished and painted a bright orange — what the customer chose, in honor of Halloween — the customer pays at the front desk and waves goodbye to Kim.

“Thank you, Mia,” she said. “I’ll see you in three weeks!”

Kim, who goes by Mia because it’s easier for customers to pronounce, is one of many Vietnamese immigrants who have populated the predominantly Vietnamese-owned nail salon industry in America.

Kim and many immigrants like her ended up in the nail industry to escape the past, or as a means to achieve their goals. Regardless of why they are in this industry, stereotypes that Vietnamese people only work at nail salons and accusations of them gossiping in a foreign language, follow the nail technicians throughout their careers.

In 1993, Kim, 51, immigrated to America when she was 27 years old. While still in Vietnam, she worked as a cook in a restaurant her family owned in Vietnam. She had completed high school there, but dropped out of college after six months. Soon after, she got married and had two kids.

Although her family was financially stable in Vietnam, she wanted something more: freedom.

“I don’t like the government, especially after the Vietnam War,” Kim said. “The control over there was very awful, and the tax was high, so we shut down the business and came to the United States.”

After moving to North Carolina, where she had family, she began working as a cook in a Vietnamese restaurant because it was all she knew how to do. After two years, she began training to be a nail technician and has been in the nail industry ever since.

She said she likes doing nails because it’s mostly easy—but sometimes it’s not. It depends on how picky the customer is.

Even with the pickiest of customers, she doesn’t complain in front of them in Vietnamese.

“At a lot of nail salons, I know a lot of people who talk very bad behind their customers, but I can’t do that,” Kim said. “No matter how hard the customer makes it to do their nails, I don’t talk behind them. I just stay quiet when I work.”

A customer gets her nails painted. Photo by Adam Phan

A customer gets her nails painted. Photo by Adam Phan

On the left side of the salon, a woman with a Harris Teeter name tag reclines into the pedicure chair. She is relaxed and takes a sip from her can of Coca-Cola following a shift at work.

Beneath her, Lam Ban, 42, washes the woman’s feet. Dressed in a white nail salon jacket identical to the ones worn by the the other nail technicians in the salon, he files the calluses before massaging her entire foot with an exfoliating scrub.

In 1996, Ban moved from Vietnam to Massachusetts. He was 21 years old at the time. His mother immigrated a few years earlier and after becoming a U.S. citizen, she successfully petitioned for him to come to America. He graduated high school in Massachusetts and went to East Coast Aero Club in the same state to learn how to fix airplanes.

After 9/11, he became scared to work in the airplane industry and dropped out of school. Soon after, he went to nail school, got his license and was hired in Massachusetts. After moving to North Carolina in 2016, he was hired at Sky Nail Bar and Spa.

“I think in the nail industry, the job is secure — you can get the job everywhere you go,” Ban said. “That’s why I learned how to do nails and become a nail technician.”

Ban said he recognizes the stereotype that most Vietnamese immigrants work in nail salons, but said there is a good reason for working in one.

“I think Vietnamese people have a skill of working well with their hands, which is why they choose a career in the nail field,” Ban said. “In the nail industry, the longer you work, the more money you make.”

He said he also recognizes the stereotype of workers gossiping in Vietnamese in front of customers.

“I think we should limit the other languages when you serve your customers because it makes them feel uncomfortable when you speak in different languages they don’t understand,” Ban said. “So for me, when I work on a customer, sometimes I have to explain to them what I’m saying to my co-workers.”

In the backroom, Dam Thi Phuong is on her lunch break. She opens the fridge, grabs her container of rice and fish and microwaves it. She sits down and lets out a sigh. She has been working non-stop for the past four hours.

Phuong, 35, baked cakes back in Vietnam and loved it. However, knowing she’d be moving to America soon, she began nail technician training. With two children and minimal knowledge of the English language—she uses a co-worker as a translator—becoming a nail technician was her best option.

“It’s not easy to find a job after moving from Vietnam,” Phuong said. “My English is very bad, and I need to make money to support my children, so I decided to do nails.”

Phuong is taking classes at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, to learn English. She said she hopes to open a bakery once she can fully speak the language and make enough money.

“I fell in love with baking cakes, and I eventually want to do it again,” Phuong said. “Nails is boring sometimes, and picky customers make work very hard for me.”

At the front desk, Sabat Siu, 19, chats with the receptionist, waiting for her next customer.

Siu moved from Vietnam to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2006 when she was 8 years old. She went to West Charlotte High School and then CPCC. However, after giving birth to a child at 18, she dropped out.

Siu then enrolled in a 2-month program to get her nail technician license and began working at Sky Nail Bar and Spa almost a year ago. She said she plans on going back to school after she figures out what she wants to do with her life.

“I’m indecisive right now, and I’m here just because I want to get myself together,” Siu said. “Raising a 1-year-old child is hard, but doing nails is an easy job with flexible hours.”

That’s why the stereotype about Vietnamese people working in nail salons doesn’t bother her. She said it’s easy for Vietnamese people to work here if they have no skills and “money is money — no matter how you get it.”

Siu said she finds the gossiping in front of customers rude, especially in another language. Instead, she thinks transparency between the worker and customer is important.

“Me, personally, I’m going to be honest,” Siu said. “If I see your nails crooked, I’m going to tell you your nails are crooked. I’m not going to talk behind your back. I’m just going to tell you personally.”

Siu does offer advice to customers who think workers are talking behind their backs.

“People are always going to talk about you, and that’s life, period,” Siu said. “So whatever it is, you just got to let it be.”