Nguoi Viet, Youth Commentary, Nadia Nguyen, Aug 09, 2006
More than 51,000 nail salons, mostly owned and operated by Vietnamese immigrants, vie for customers in California, according to Nails magazine. The following is a story of one young woman whose family owns a nail salon.
When I was 9, I painted my nails blue. The polish was a shiny hue that my older sister bought at the drugstore, a little tempting container that I found in the bathroom drawer.
Ba, my father, noticed my nail color at dinner one evening and told me to wash it off. I did. Ironically, almost 10 years later, Ba would lend his fingertips to Bubble Bath pink, Apricotcha Cheatin’ orange, and I’m Really Not A Waitress red as my mother, Má, prepared for her manicurist license examination.
Our story begins like countless others: with my parents, on a boat in 1975, headed toward an American refugee camp. The United States, the land of opportunity, perhaps fully uncovered itself in 2003 with an open space behind In-N-Out Burger in a strip mall in Southern California’s posh Sherman Oaks.
Ba and Má certainly had forces working against them. Sherman Oaks already was teeming with nail salons. My mom had another full-time job. But it was their ambition that drove them.
Choosing a name for their nail venture was almost as difficult as naming their four daughters. When ideas came to us at random hours of the night, we browsed the Internet to make sure what we picked wasn’t taken. We played with words (shop or shoppe?) and concepts. In the end, we settled on Pink ‘N White Nails & Spa, a cute euphemism for a type of acrylic nails made with two different powders, something that I knew nothing about and for which my parents were still learning.
Paving Pink ‘N White’s image of “a pathway to serenity” was anything but serene. The months preceding the shop’s grand opening were a whirlwind of anticipation, anxiety and nonstop chaos. My sisters and I had school and work, so we couldn’t help out much. My father, the optimist, spent a lot of time sketching logos and imagining a peaceful haven where satisfied customers relaxed on Cloud Nine or lazy massage spa chairs. My mother, the realist, researched supplies and equipment and where to get the best deals. Dozens of trips to Ikea would be made.
I tagged along when I could. Arguments ensued over which chair would be the most comfortable to sit in while waiting for another more comfortable chair, which faucet handle would be easiest to use, and what should be worried about now or later, were highlights. Ba had appearance on the brain. Má had value on the brain. I was looking madly for the exit.
My father spent hours at the shop, driving all over town on errands, overseeing the assembly of spa chairs and tile flooring, and painting — a lot. The fluffy white clouds on baby blue backdrop would receive tons of compliments and only later would I learn Ba had designed them himself. My mother, who also works as a civil engineering drafting technician for the city of Van Nuys, would be at her office post until the afternoon. Ba would pick her up and drive her to the shop, where they toiled well into the evening. I hardly saw my parents anymore except for Ikea and dinner. We rarely talked “nail shop” at the dinner table. I liked it that way. Pink ‘N White Nails & Spa had its grand opening in June 2003, just in time for a slew of graduations, proms and the sandal season.
The months following the big day were nonstop chaos, too.
My sisters and I cleaned every time we visited the shop on the weekends, shaking our heads and laughing at the busy (and very corny) decor. Wild plants stood at every corner. American flags adorned the front door, magazine stand and reception desk. My sister burned CDs with songs Ba requested; the customers did enjoy the tunes, as they stirred to the Latin pulse in their freshly scrubbed skin.
One day, the pipes broke and started spewing dirty water into the hair salon next door. Needless to say, the owner was not very happy with his new neighbors.
Another day, not too long ago, the water heater broke and we resorted to heating water in the microwave. It was a slow process but necessary so that customers would have a basin with warm liquid to soak their feet in. This has happened twice.
Business was sluggish after our grand opening promotion ended. My parents continued to adapt to their new investment. They tried to hire tho, or nail technicians, that they felt had good work ethics and would be assets to Pink ‘N White. My aunt, who came to this country about a year ago, immediately found a place at the shop. She had to go to school to obtain her license again, even though she was a nail technician in Viet Nam. Mom heard from a relative that adding two tablets of aspirin when washing a load of towels would keep them whiter longer. They decided to move the lunch room to make space for another waxing room and painted it baby pink.
Holidays are big at Pink ‘N White. For religious observances, we try to be culturally sensitive as we decorate the shop. In winter months, a little Christmas tree stands in the front and silver Hershey’s kisses are offered. Halloween sees a superfluous amount of sweets and sours. For Mother’s Day, my mom likes to give roses to all women. We can’t forget about the men in our lives, either; fathers enjoy a special discount on their special day. Flowers are arranged almost daily, bringing coziness and charm to the salon.
We learn by trial and error, by ear. We often have different views about where things should go and how things should be done, but we compromise, and eventually, things fall into place.
And now, more than three years later, I’m proud to say that Pink N’ White Nails & Spa has found its niche on Ventura Boulevard., and in the nail salon world. In a sense, I’ve always been proud.
My parents have made cleanliness and customer service a top priority. Competition is fierce in this industry, especially with strict sanitation laws and new nail salons popping up everywhere. Just across the street, a luxurious, higher-priced salon has been there for years. In the other direction, yet another new salon just opened. At Pink ‘N White, a manicure is $10, a spa pedicure is $18. Many customers opt for a mani and pedi combination, costing $26.
It’s not just the nail gurus who are weary about sanitation standards. There is always fear of infection, and some customers even bring their own tools. When everything is said and done, it’s the comfort the client feels at the hands of the technician and how well they do their craft.
Debbie Mink of Pacific Palisades, Calif., is a first-time customer who decided to “stop and give it a try.”
“This might be a new place for me,” she says, admiring her freshly manicured fingers.
She adds, referring to her technician, “He was a true gentleman.”
Though we tried advertising and special promotions for a while, much of our business has been through first time walk-ins (who notice the salon after going to In-N-Out for a bite) and through word of mouth. Luckily, many are now loyal.
“My daughter came and she loved what you did,” says Anne Cohen, also a first-timer, popping in in July.
Though some of our customers from three years ago have now drifted, my parents continue to push forward and find ways to improve the salon. Ba has gotten used to his managerial role at Pink ‘N White, a role that at first seems non-traditional for a man. The staff is a diverse crowd, though they are all Vietnamese. Another one of my aunts, who used to have her own shop, works at ours now. A woman who my mom used to work for when she first got her manicurist license also joined our team. Then there’s a younger woman in her mid-20s, who speaks little English, and three male technicians as well. In all, we employ about 10.
Má jumps into her nail technician role when we get busy, usually on weekends. There’s a chart hanging in the back of the shop that divides the duties, like refilling supplies and folding towels, among the workers and my parents. My mom has found her staple supply store close to home, but still travels more than 100 miles round trip to Westminster once in a while for cooler deals in Little Saigon. I guess she doesn’t mind much. Th? come and go. We’re still learning.
For now, all we can do is keep adding to what we’ve built, keep updating our ever-changing nail polish collection. My sisters and I try to help out where we can: answering phones, assisting customers, scrubbing spa chair tubs. It’s hard to predict what will happen when Ba and Má retire.
All of us siblings have grown up with a strong sense of education, and it’s always been understood that the more schooling we receive, the better off we will be. We’ve done just that. My eldest sister just received her pharmacy degree and is gaining more experience at a hospital in San Diego. The second eldest finished her master’s degree in public policy from UCLA and is now living in Los Angeles. Tamara, who is two years my senior, is in her last year as an undergraduate, studying economics. As for me, I’ve just declared psychology as my major at the University of California, Irvine, though I’m trying my hand at marketing and journalism.
It’s nice when we can all gather at Pink ‘N White and catch up with each other and with our parents, which isn’t often. It is poignant though liberating that our elders do not expect us to take over the salon as we pursue our own niches in the professional world. I think it shows how far my family has come.
Pink ‘N White is more than just a family-run business, and more than what some call the American Dream. It is the epitome of progress with struggle and the fulfillment along the way.
To say that it is the end result, a destination fulfilled, would not do the American Dream, or perhaps the Vietnamese American Dream, justice. The truth is, this venture was an opportunity, a risk, and we took it. At the end of the day, business is business. It hasn’t been easy, and it may never be, but that’s the beauty, I suppose. My parents have taught me to work hard for the things that matter, and to always remember the things that matter, like family. And for that, I owe them so much.