"I know they are talking smack about me."
More than half the nail salons in Los Angeles are Vietnamese owned; it is a business that doesn't require English and has a low overhead. The early Chinese immigrants that landed in the US opened laundries for the same reason, service with few words and a low overhead. Another reason is that the schooling is quick and the licensing relatively inexpensive. According to Nails magazine, 42 percent of the 349,370 manicurists in the United States are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 96 percent are women. In 2007, California counted Vietnamese-Americans making from 60 to 80 percent of nail salon workers. With a bag of tools and a license, a new immigrant can start earning money quickly by using their community to find a job.
Beauty at a Price
However, in the workplace, workers are exposed daily to a constant dose of toxins, every hour, for eight or more hours a day. From the most toxic chemical formaldehyde, which is classified as a carcinogen to toulene and dilbutyl phtalate, which can cause birth defects and miscarriages. All of this is inhaled by the nail technician, and the paper masks do not work as a proper filter from the gases. A paper mask will not protect a client or manicurist, because by breathing formaldehyde gas it is absorbed into the body.
"I also get uncomfortable when they speak in other languages that I don't understand. No offense, but to me it just seems rude to do it in front of customers."
If you have ever had your nails done in Los Angeles, you have experienced the quiet chatter between nail technicians; it's so common that it becomes just part of the background noise. It doesn't bother me: being Asian I am used to employee-side conversations which is common in Asia and in Asian American communities. However, some of my non-Asian friends have mentioned that they are at times uncomfortable with the women speaking in their native tongue. Why? Because they don't know what they are saying. It has nothing to do with what "they" are saying, it has more to do with not being in control.
"Are they talking about me?"
That this is how an immigrant feels everyday anywhere in the States. Outside the community, the world is indecipherable to a new immigrant.
"She's got big feet"
On the other hand, I have been places where I can understand what they are saying. Vietnam has a large Cantonese population that left during the war and immigrated to the States. I have heard some women mention that they didn't like doing pedicures, or this one has "big feet," but nothing that would be considered slanderous, more like observations we all make ourselves in public with our friends.
My advice is to sit back, read the gossip magazines and revel in voices that don't sound like yours. It's not often we are able to just enjoy not knowing.
Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog
Image: Ophelia Chong