For me, nail salons are practically my second home. When I was young, my mother would pick me up after school and drive me back to the salon she worked at to resume her shift. Most of the time, I entertained myself playing Pinball on the computer in the supply room until it was time to leave. Sometimes, I’d pop out to complain to my mother about being bored, and she would shoo me away as she continued to meticulously clip her customer’s nails.
For the typical customer, nail salons aren’t particularly exciting. There’s the front desk accompanied by a bowl of cheap candy, the stack of magazines piled in shelves, and a line of Asian women hunched over a foot bath trimming, filing, massaging, washing, and painting their clients' feet. The Asian employees are typically dreary-eyed and stooped, almost robotic in their painstaking brushes.
However, it’s during the downtimes, after the business women and soccer moms leave with their fancy nails, that nail salons truly come to life. I remember my mother and her friends gathering in the kitchen, eating their rice with kimchi, tteokbokki, kimbap, and steamed eggs after a particularly busy shift. They would gossip about the new couple that started coming to church, or complain about their overbearing husbands. They would share their favorite memories of growing up in Korea and crack jokes about pretentious customers (by the way, if you ever wondered if the Korean nail salon ladies are talking about you in front of you—yes, they are).
I saw these magical moments from the sidelines, when my mother and her coworkers could experience each other and share their joy and pain, free from the judgment of white women literally sitting over them, and free from the ignorance of Asian men who consider their work and struggles less valuable. The nail salon became a rare place where Asian-American women could have a space to call their own.
The concept of space is something often overlooked when talking about race, racism, and diversity. Because white spaces are ubiquitous in America, spaces of color are othered and ghettoized. “Bad neighborhoods” typically just mean communities of black and brown people. Chinatowns and Koreatowns are treated as seedy, exotic, funky enclaves where white liberals can live out their Oriental fetishes of eating authentic dim sum and bibimbap. I remember a bewildering moment when a white classmate of mine called our family’s (perfectly fine) condo “the projects,” as it is considered low-income housing. White people have constantly dictated what spaces of color are and are not, and what they should or should not be. Coupled with the patriarchal systems that run deep in every facet of society, what room does that leave women of color like my mother?
I would think about these concepts of space at the nail salon, even if I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to fully articulate them. When my mother was laughing with her coworkers, she was Eunkyung, which is her real name and her true self. But as soon as the clients starting coming in, Eunkyung transformed into “Kate,” a name she assigned herself to be pronounceable to clients.
When lunch was over, Eunkyung quickly assumed“Kate," as my mother zoomed back to her client to start washing her feet. If she was lucky, the client would ignore her. Most of the time, however, her white clients would comment on my mother for having rare Asian double-eyelids, telling her that she’s "pretty for an Asian." They would run their fingers across her head without her permission to feel the black, silky-smoothness of her hair. They would ask how “Kate’s” skin is so clear, and when she would say, “I don’t know,” they would respond by asking her if it was because she ate kimchi.
In one haunting moment, one of the clients forcefully grabbed my mother’s hand and asked her why she, a nail technician, had chipped, unpainted nails. My immigrant mother stared in confusion. She spent 12 hours a day painting other people’s nails and washing other people’s feet for minimum wage. She clocked hours dropping and picking me up from school and helping me with my homework. She cooked meals for my whole family because my father and I blithely expected her to. What time and luxury would she have to get her own nails done?
It’s in these instances, when my mother’s clients exotify and condemn her and her coworkers, that one of the few safe spaces for Asian-American women is destroyed.
Nowadays, my mother is a registered nurse and is out of the nail salon. She was reluctant about me writing this article because memories of the salon bring up her painful past of being outcasted and othered by women. She stiffens when she walks into Korean beauty stores and sees white women trying on Korean products that seem to be all the rage in America, the same women who obsess over Korean beauty products yet mock Korean eyes, faces, and features. But this narrative, the obscured stories of Asian-American women, needs to be told.
When my mother comes to help me move out of Walsh this Mother’s Day, I want to sit down with her and tell her how much I love her. I want to massage her worn hands, which have crafted so many others, and be not with Kate, or “Mom,” but Eunkyung, a person whose identity has been constantly devalued by both white women and Asian men. If nail salons can’t be the safe space for Asian-American women, then I at least want that one moment with her to be.