A few years ago, my mother was sawing the fingernails off her last client when a young woman pushed through the entrance of the nail salon. She was no older than 20, and instead of requesting a manicure or pedicure, she kindly asked to purchase a bottle of nail polish. My mother, who saw no reason not to, retrieved an unopened bottle of Essie “Bikini So Teeny” from the storage room. The woman only had a $100 bill, so my mother returned $95 in cash to her.

The bill, she later discovered, was fake.

My parents keep their struggles to themselves. I only learn about their daily hardships by listening — through the walls, from the crevices between floors and doors, in the backseat of dark cars while I pretend to sleep. Their stories haunt my dreams. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that their struggles are not unique.

In 2019, a 51-year-old nail salon owner — who was also a wife, mother and grandmother — chased after a fleeing customer because of a $35 manicure and was run over by the escaping woman. She died shortly after. Most recently, a hate crime targeted three massage parlors in Atlanta, killing six women of Asian descent. These incidents are not rare, nor are they random.

When I first met the staff at my mother’s salon, I was overwhelmed by their patience and persistence. A mother, struggling to raise two sons after fleeing from an exploitative husband; a wife, who, in between clients, studied recipes on her iPhone for her family; a sister, alone in an unfamiliar country, working to send money home at the end of each month. Despite these remarkable obstacles, they brought positivity to their stations every day — only to be met with constant microaggressions.

And most of the time, they don’t respond. Perhaps they don’t realize it, or perhaps they don’t want to cause trouble.

Being born and educated in America has granted me an advantage: being fluent in English. It has enabled me to recognize injustices, racism and forms of mistreatment. It has also protected me from frequent misunderstandings — misunderstandings that could easily escalate. Recent immigrants, on the other hand, may not be able to recognize the nuances of English, or the discrimination that exists in various forms. This lack of protection makes them, among other minorities, appear to be easy targets.

In many nail salons, workers are met with a barrage of subtle jabs, and their reaction, or lack thereof, permits customers to continue. I wonder how many belittling comments the workers file away, how many harsh words they scrub down and how much pain they paint over. Because in non-English speaking nail salons, demeaning remarks have nowhere to go. They drift in the air, settling into the cushions and floors, until someone hears them and understands. It is an undetectable tension, only palpable when I am there. Unawareness, then, is a double-edged sword, one that both prevents workers from the most personal effects of prejudice and also further entrenches the problem.

A few years ago, I was in the car when we were pulled over for speeding. My father, who doesn’t speak English, sat quietly as the police officer approached.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”

My father reached for his license.

“Do you understand me? Yes? Say yes. Say yes if you understand me!”

My father, sheltered by his inability to detect tone and hostility in words, smiled and handed the license over.

I listened to the way the officer, who was probably half as old as my father, talked down to him.

When my American accent interjected, the officer’s voice softened and became more understanding. It was as if my fluency changed the situation, as if it validated our presence there — on the freeway of America. My English protected us from his patronizing tone. But even though my father couldn’t understand and I was able to stop things from escalating, it still happened. And those incidents continue to happen. 

It was never about the $95. What that woman and the police officer stole from my parents was dignity. And it was not the first time. The group of boys who shattered the front window one week after the grand opening; the man who bought a certificate with a check that traced back to an empty bank account; those who never reappeared after leaving empty gift cards as a form of currency. Perhaps they all assumed that non-English speaking immigrants are vulnerable.

This assumption could not be more flawed.

The workers at these salons may not retaliate against microaggressions, but they are strong. They work long hours despite the monotony. They smile through sentences they can’t understand. Behind the acetone-saturated face masks and dust-filled lungs, these immigrants remain hopeful. They are here to work, to support — they are not given the voice to be victims, to cause trouble, and so they carry on.

Though my mother’s small salon on the corner of a quiet street may seem defenseless, it is actually a base of resilience. The way one is treated by others is hard to control — people will continue to scam, insult and attack. But my mother will continue to welcome new customers in, my father will continue to drive, the optimistic immigrants will continue to persevere and I will continue to be the voice they don’t yet know they have. It is how we carry on.

AMY REN is a junior in Morse College. Contact her at amy.ren@yale.edu