Nobody’s Dream

The Nail Diaspora: How Manicures Transformed the Vietnamese Immigrant Experience in America

The Vietnamese have a term for moving to a small town here to find work where there’s less competition: Lam mong xuyen bang—‘Doing nails across states.’

You’d be forgiven for missing the unassuming storefront that occupies number 815 on the historic Main Street in downtown West Point, Virginia. There is no kitschy shingle or imposing awning, just a name stenciled in a corner of the window in small white lettering: “Simply Nails.” Inside, four Vietnamese manicurists labor over customers’ hands and feet.

They are among the only Asian residents in this sleepy town of 3,000, which sits between the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers 80 miles north of Virginia Beach.

“West Point is mostly white,” says Havy Nguyen, daughter of owner Huong Nguyen, who works part time at Simply Nails while she finishes college. Her family moved to the town in 1994. “One of [my parents’] friends knew about West Point, that they’ve always had great schools.” Plus, she says, there was no nail salon, which meant her mother would face little competition in opening her own.

Simply Nails is hardly unique. Over the past two decades, Vietnamese-owned and operated nail salons have become an ubiquitous part of the American retail landscape. As of 2015, there were around 130,000 nail salons in the U.S., according to Nails magazine, the leading industry publication. Over 50 percent of all manicurists working in those salons, according to Nails, are Vietnamese. In California, the center of the overseas Vietnamese community, the number is closer to 80 percent.

It’s a remarkable example of enterprising entrepreneurship, especially for a group that began arriving here as refugees after the end of the Vietnam War. As increased competition and oversaturation pushed more and more Vietnamese manicurists to find work in small towns, what resulted is a kind of nail diaspora—Vietnamese families scattered in the unlikeliest corners of America, places where they’re often the only Asian residents. Today, for example, you can get a manicure at a Vietnamese salon in Minot, North Dakota, Bastrop, Texas, or Beaufort, South Carolina.

“There are too many nail salons in California,” says Hoan Nguyen, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1989 with his wife Binh. After 22 years on the West Coast, the couple, who have three young girls and were worried about the high cost of living in California, decided to try their luck elsewhere. So they consulted the resource used by many Vietnamese manicurists looking for work—the back pages of Viet Bao, a newspaper published out of Westminster, California. It was there that Nguyen saw an ad seeking manicurists to work in a salon called Saigon Nails on the outskirts of Missoula, Montana.

“I didn’t choose Missoula, I know nothing about Missoula,” Nguyen says now. “But a cold state like this, they’re always hiring. So I look in the newspaper and this was the first number I called.”

Nguyen and his wife worked long hours at Saigon Nails, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week, sometimes longer in the summer when sandals and open-toed shoes usher in peak pedicure season.

“The Vietnamese people put more time in at work,” Nguyen says. “Americans, when they see people with really bad feet, they think, ‘Yuck!’ But the Vietnamese people, they are doing it.”

Nguyen says an average Vietnamese nail technician, even one recently arrived in the U.S. and with limited English, can easily make $40,000 a year, a figure supported by Nails magazine’s 2016 industry statistics.

This suggests a much different picture of the realities of working in a nail salon from that presented in a widely read 2015 New York Times investigative series on underpaid and exploited nail workers. (That series focused on salons in the New York/New Jersey region, the only two states where the Vietnamese don’t dominate the industry.) By a variety of accounts, Vietnamese entry into the nail business has been a financial boon for the overseas community, allowing both owners and workers to build significant wealth while climbing to the top of a $7.5 billion industry in the U.S., as of 2013. And nails continue to drive the spread of Vietnamese people all over the world.

Like Hoan and Binh Nguyen, Dr. Quan Manh Ha also moved to Missoula, Montana, for a job—an associate professorship in the English department at the University of Montana. But for Dr. Ha, who grew up in the small mountain city of Dalat in central Vietnam, his career path in academia makes him an outlier. Almost all of his Vietnamese friends who similarly emigrated from their home country work in the nail industry.

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“People say, ‘Why study in America? Do nails!’” Ha jokes. By his own estimate he has manicurist friends in four different states—Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Texas—and another in Holland. “They are everywhere.”

The phenomenon of moving to disparate towns in search of nail work and less competitive pricing is so common that it has even inspired a fixed term in the Vietnamese lexicon, Lam mong xuyen bang—“Doing nails across states.”

But the Vietnamese, says Ha, “don’t want to live in small towns. In [small towns] you feel like the only Asian. In big cities you don’t feel singled out. In a big city you just feel like you’re part of the rest of the world.” He adds that none of his manicurist friends plan on staying long term in the places where they currently do nails. “Nobody I talk to thinks they’ll be [there] for the rest of their life.”

Like Havy Nguyen, Nhung Tran is completing her college degree while doing nails part time. Tran grew up next to her family’s small rice-noodle factory in a busy section of Ho Chi Minh City. “We had a good business in Vietnam,” Tran says. “Everything was built from the ground up. My parents invested a lot of time, money, and effort into it.” Still, Tran’s grandfather, who first came to the U.S. under refugee status in 1995, eventually sponsored the rest of the family to come over as well. They settled first in Atlanta, which already had a fairly large Vietnamese immigrant community—and plenty of nail salons. Then an acquaintance told Tran’s grandmother to try the north: There were fewer salons up there, less competition. You could earn more money. Now almost all of Tran’s relatives here work in the nail industry in Ohio.

“Some people, like in my parents’ situation, they come here because they really want to experience what life is like living in the United States,” Tran says. But, she adds, “They would definitely want to go back to Vietnam when they get older, because they’re not going to live here forever. They miss home. It’s where they grew up.”

***

The Vietnamese nail connection dates back to 1975, when the first wave of immigrants began arriving in America after the fall of Saigon. It was around this time that Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, began volunteering at a refugee camp called Hope Village outside of Sacramento. When some of the Vietnamese women in the camp noticed Hedren’s beautiful nails, the actress decided to fly in her personal manicurist. “We were trying to find vocations for them,” Hedren told BBC magazine in 2015. “I brought in seamstresses and typists—any way for them to learn something. And they loved my fingernails.”

After classes with Hedren’s manicurist and a follow-up course at Citrus Beauty School in Sacramento, the initial group of 20 women went on to be the first Vietnamese manicurists to work in the beauty industry here. And a few would eventually open the first Vietnamese-owned salons in California.

The appeal of the job back then and now remains the same—low barriers to entry, good wages, and no requirement for English. “For nails,” Hoan Nguyen says, “five, six months you get a license, you go to work already. You don’t have to use English much.”

To pass the licensing test issued by state cosmetology boards and meet the minimum hours of instruction requirement, most manicurists enroll in courses at specialty beauty schools, many located in California and also Vietnamese-owned. These schools often teach in Vietnamese, a boon for new immigrants.

Tam Nguyen is the president of Advance Beauty College, one of the oldest Vietnamese-owned beauty schools in Orange County, California. Nguyen says there were times when it seemed like over half of his school’s Vietnamese students were moving to small towns after graduation. Some chose states where they already had family; others did research to determine which towns would be the most profitable.

But lam mong xuyen bang often comes at a price. “We know that the pros are the economics of it,” Nguyen says. “But the downsides are loneliness and culture shock.” While many of these Vietnamese manicurists may be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle and save money, Nguyen says they often feel bored and isolated, especially without the Vietnamese cultural outlets available in bigger cities.

And in some small towns, where the only entertainment seems to be the local casino, the effect has been devastating. “It’s really hurt families,” Nguyen says. “We hear these stories all the time. ‘We have beautiful homes, beautiful cars, but we’re being decimated by the gambling issue.’” Nguyen claims that a lot of manicurists now consider moving back to Vietnam. “They’re thinking about happiness,” he says, and asking themselves, “‘Is all this money that we’re making really worth it?’”

***

American history offers plenty of examples of enterprising immigrants who have clustered in particular lines of work, from the Chinese laundries of the 1920s to Korean-owned grocery stores and Latino workers in construction and landscaping jobs today.

But the experience of the Vietnamese in the nail industry is unique, starting with the sheer geographic scope of their industry dominance. There are Vietnamese-owned and -operated nail salons in every state—even Alaska, says Tam Nguyen.

According to Harvard Business School professor William Kerr, the closest comparison might be Gujarati Indians and the hotel management business. Indians own roughly 40 percent of all motels in the U.S. But their dominance of the industry doesn’t extend beyond America as it does with the Vietnamese. (Vietnamese nail salons can now increasingly be found in cities and towns all over Canada, England, and Australia.) “Achieving both spread and dominance,” explains Kerr, “requires a rare balance of ethnic group size, tight cohesion, and right industry conditions.”

All three of those elements certainly help explain the phenomenon of the Vietnamese community’s overwhelming dominance of the nail industry. But there’s another factor as well.

The Vietnamese actually created the market for nails and then expanded it, says Susan Eckstein, a sociologist at Boston College whose research focuses mostly on ethnic niche industries and is considering writing a book about the unique case of the Vietnamese and the nail industry. In her 2011 paper on the topic, published in International Migration Review, Eckstein argues that it was the “McNailing” of the industry in the ’80s and ’90s—the low prices and convenience offered by Vietnamese nail salons—that drove the increased demand for pedicures and manicures to the point where having your nails done became “de rigeur” for a much wider swath of the population, not only wealthy women.

“They changed beauty standards,” says Eckstein.

Tam Nguyen thinks the industry is poised to evolve beyond the often derogatory stereotypes associated with “chop shop” discount salons. “The stereotypical Vietnamese nail salon lady who doesn’t speak English—is that perception changing? Absolutely.” Nguyen says your average nail salon worker is becoming more of a “nail professional,” or even a “nail artist.” (Nail art is one of the most popular categories on Instagram.) And more and more of Advance Beauty College’s students these days, Nguyen says, are Latino and Caucasian, where the students were once almost exclusively Vietnamese.

For the time being, though, if you wander into your local nail salon, chances are you’ll see a traditional prayer altar near the door and the manicurist sitting behind the emery board will hail from a place like Nha Trang, Saigon, Binh Duong, or Vung Tau.

Back at Simply Nails on Main Street in West Point, Virginia, Havy Nguyen says business this year, like most years, has been up and down. “In the nail business you never know,” she says. Even in the summer the flow of customers can fluctuate. “Sometimes you just have to sit around and wait.”

It’s not an easy thing, Nguyen says, to be an immigrant business owner for 20 years in the same small American town. “That’s something to be really proud of.” But she thinks if her mom had a choice she would have preferred to work as a nurse instead of a manicurist because she loves taking care of people. “My mom’s always taking care of her clients, especially elderly ones.”

Nguyen, meanwhile, is already making plans once she finishes her degree in theater performance at Virginia Commonwealth University—auditions in New York and L.A. for nationally touring musicals.

“It’s nobody’s dream to scrub people’s feet,” she says.