Blaming many of the problems in the nail industry in California on foreign immigrants who enter the market and undercut prices, run unlicensed salons, and shoddy work is easy. It’s true that there are people who do exactly that in California and elsewhere and they are hurting the reputation of the nail industry. I am not the first person to remind us that these generalizations about immigrants are neither fair nor necessarily accurate, and after hearing the story of a young Vietnamese nail technician, I felt more defensive about these persistent stereotypes and wanted to share the story of Connie, who’s been doing my nails for the past few months. Her prices are low, her work is nearly flawless, her disinfection practices are no better or worse than any other salon I’ve seen, and her personal story is an inspiration.
She goes by Connie, but among her sisters who work at the salon she uses her given Vietnamese name. When she left Vietnam 11 years ago in the middle of the night on a boat, she wasn’t dreaming of the cozy house and thriving business in Southern California that she now has, she was just trying to stay alive.
Connie left Vietnam at 16 with her two brothers. She paid $1,000 to earn a spot on a boat that was going to America. On the high seas, Connie says the boat was robbed by pirated three times and everyone on it was left with only clothes on their backs. The boat was misdirected and ended up in Indonesia instead of California, and Connie and her brothers lived there for a year in a refugee camp.
When Connie finally made it to California, she took advantage of the social services programs available and borrowed enough money to live on for a few months. She enrolled in high school and worked two part-time jobs. After graduation she earned her cosmetology license.
Last year Connie left the shop where she had worked for eight years and opened her own salon. She offers nail care, facials, and employs two part-time hairstylists. Business is growing slowly, and word of mouth had gotten around about the flawless polish job that Connie does.
Despite almost unfathomable hardship, Connie has reached a level of success that we all hope for. She has defied the odds and the stereotype.