Courtesy of Thu Nguyen
Have you ever wondered why Vietnamese people are the proprietors of most nail salons that you visit in the United States? When American actress Tippi Hedren came to visit a refugee camp in Northern California, a group of Vietnamese women there became fascinated with her long, polished nails. In hopes of finding vocations for the newly arrived Vietnamese refugees, Hedren flew in her personal manicurist to teach them how to do manicures. From then until now, the nail industry has exploded, and I am quite certain that at least one of the nail salons in your local neighborhood is Vietnamese-owned and run. As the daughter of two Vietnamese boat people, nail salons are an important part of my identity. 1952 Montrose Boulevard holds a special place in my heart, and it’s ultimately one of my homes away from home.
My mom was pregnant with me in the first year that she opened her nail salon, Montrose Nails, at the end of 2003. If ever asked how long the salon has been open, I simply add a year to my age. Convenient, right?
Over the course of my past 18 years and the past 19 years that the salon has been open, I’ve come to learn a few lessons. So in the spirit of Pan-Asian American Heritage Month at Yale, I’ll share a few:
- There is such a thing as the perfect red.
What’s the difference between “OPI Red,” “Big Apple Red,” “Got The Mean Reds,” and “Candied Kingdom”? The first two are classic reds, the OG’s if you will. You’re either an OPI Red or a Big Apple Red girlie. If you’re feeling a bit more grunge, you’ll go for “Got the Mean Reds.” If you’re looking for the perfect holiday red, “Candied Kingdom” is the one.
Only my fellow nail salon babies would know the craft that is distinguishing between red nail polishes, or even between pinks. You might say they’re the same color, but no, no. One is certainly a tad more purple than the other.
I personally attribute my grasp of color and vague knowledge of color theory to the hours I’ve spent doing inventory on nail polish and finding the perfect shades for customers.
- You learn to put up with a lot.
I don’t think I have to explain this one. Karens. Annoying little kids. The occasional drunk person. A client loudly talking sh*t about her ex while said ex is in the room across getting waxed. Not like that ever happened… (The walls are very thin, and they subsequently had a shouting match in the nail salon.)
- Manicures can go a long way in forming family and community.
There’s something unique about growing up in a nail salon around the same regular clientele. I’ve known some of our customers my entire life — literally. I’m extremely close with them — as in one of them attended my 4th grade spelling bee and once took me to yoga class with her. They were some of the first people to teach me bits of English, as I ran around as a young child gibbering in Vietnamese.They saw me through my talkative, shy, and self-assured phases.You’d expect comments like “Oh you’ve grown so much!” to come from extended family, but for me, it comes from both of the aunts I see at Christmas and the women who frequent the nail salon each holiday season. You could say they are a part of my extended family — every time I come back to the salon for December break, it feels like I’m having a reunion as I talk about what I’ve been up to at Yale.
But even beyond regular clientele, the community that my mom has created around Montrose Nails is a bit like family. Through the weekly mani or pedi, she’s created a tribe, as my older sister put it, that surpasses the biases or prejudices that I thought were unchangeable about my parents’ characters. While homophobia and anti-Blackness manifest themselves within our Asian American communities, my mother and aunties overcame that. We simply gossip harmlessly about the community, bond over picking the right polish color and nail art, debate the best burger spot in Houston (FYI it’s currently Burger Bodega), and discuss how to cook up the fresh fish one of my clients brings in for my mom (food exchange has become a big phenomenon in the salon).
- Little things go a long way.
One of the things I’ve always admired about my mom is the way she remembers everything about her clients (seriously, I think she’s the paragon of peak client relations). She’ll recognize their voice over the phone, know exactly what services they want to make appointments for and remember the name or number of the polish that they like to wear. For the clients she’s especially close with, she’ll bring the occasional container of fish sauce or fried egg rolls. My mom’s attention to detail and care for each of her customers is what keeps them coming back, and the way she goes about running her salon has informed the way in which I care for my own community here.