Foot in the Door

Emery bored: Doing people's nails is smelly and undignified. It's also pretty decent pay for newcomers to the U.S.
Mark Andresen

Ever been to one of those Vietnamese nail salons and wondered if the woman pumicing your heel is talking about you to the other nail techs? She probably is, and she's probably not complimenting your dainty, fragrant feet.

Life imitated Seinfeld on a recent Monday morning at K Desert Nail Spa, near Rural and Broadway roads in Tempe.

K Desert is like so many other low-end nail salons tucked into Valley strip malls, with buzzing neon signs, trashy magazines in the waiting area, and fumes so thick you need a gas mask. But you can't get a $20 pedicure at a fancy spa.

Today, a middle-aged woman -- blonde, bone thin, with tattoos running up and down her arms -- is the latest Elaine Benes.

The store is full, with all five workers busy giving clients pedicures or manicures. Above the sounds of whirring foot spas and whizzing nail drills, two women working on opposite sides of the shop chatter loudly as the blonde's fingers soak in nail polish remover. The nail techs are clones, both wearing light-colored Capri pants with spaghetti-strap tank tops and bellowing through surgical masks. The tattooed lady straightens up in her seat and swivels her head to follow the ping-pong of the conversation. She can't understand, but she's clearly concerned.

And with good reason.

"This woman always looks so sick. She scares me to death," says Hoa, the manicurist working on the tattooed woman. Wearing rubber gloves, Hoa files away at her client's fingernails and says through a white surgical mask, "I'm always so careful when she comes in. If she bleeds or I touch her, I might get sick."

Hoa, who is in her 30s, has chin-length hair and stands about five feet without her kitten heel shoes. She didn't give her last name. Hoa normally wears gloves when giving clients manicures, but says she takes extra care not to forget when she's working on the tattooed client.

She stops talking when a male co-worker warns against gossiping. But before he can finish, the younger worker on the other side of the busy store shouts a warning over her customer's head: "Remember when the Chinese girl with the hair that looked like a chicken's tail came in? We didn't know she could understand Vietnamese and then she yelled at us. Her hair was so ugly." The workers chuckle at the memory.

When they're certain no one can understand, the nail techs at K Desert make fun of "elephant" feet, call men who come in for pedicures "fancy boys" or complain about cheap customers who leave meager tips.

It's one of the perks of working with people who are like you and of working on people who aren't.

But a little ridicule should be the least of a pedicure lover's worries.

Nearly 40 percent of licensed nail techs in Arizona are Vietnamese. Many work 70-hour weeks inhaling dangerous chemicals and swallowing the shame of scrubbing strangers' feet to make a living. They've escaped the Vietcong. They've lived in refugee camps, and now many paint nails to find a piece of the American dream they've heard so much about.

Statistically speaking, you're not in any more danger at a Vietnamese nail salon than at a fancy spa. But that might just be pure luck, because Vietnamese nail techs don't always know enough English to grasp safety standards that would prevent clients from sprouting pus-oozing boils. And although the industry recognizes that Vietnamese dominate the business, only 10 states offer interpreters, translated exams or translated manuals for an extra measure of consumer safety. Arizona is not one of them, making some Vietnamese nail techs a hazard to their customers and their own dreams.

Those dreams are hard fought. When she came to the U.S. from Vietnam, Diane Scully lied to her family, told them she worked in an electronics factory. She didn't dare mention that she would spend part of her days scrubbing crusty, dead skin off customers' feet.

"In Vietnam, we have the level," Scully says about her native country's loose cultural caste system. People who dump garbage make up the bottommost level, and people who do hard manual labor or work with feet are near the bottom.

"Our culture don't like work by hand," Scully adds. "It is embarrassing to rub other people feet. But in the United States, they don't separate; they don't care. Number one over here is freedom."

Actually, in the United States, freedom is balanced against regulations -- and the nail industry is heavily regulated. Not enough, however, to protect Susan Campbell, who went into a Vietnamese nail salon for a pedicure and wound up with a nasty infection.

"I have never known pain like it, and I have given birth to twins," Campbell, 44, says about the toe infection she contracted from a spa pedicure at Club Nails on 39th Drive and Pinnacle Peak Road in Glendale.  

Campbell went into Club Nails two years ago for a manicure and pedicure. Her pedicurist, a Vietnamese woman, dug into and cut Campbell's skin to supposedly fix an ingrown toenail -- procedures forbidden by the Arizona Cosmetology Board. The pedicure gave Campbell an infection that created an oozy, dime-size lump on her big right toe.

"You watch the TV programs that tell you do not go to Vietnamese salons, and you think it won't happen to you," Campbell says, "but I was in absolute agony after my pedicure. It was like someone sticking a knife in my toe."

The "great huge bubble" that formed on her toe kept her from wearing shoes for a month -- a problem for the aerobics instructor and ice skating trainer. Campbell missed 51 of her ice skating sessions that month and ended up losing her job along with more than $1,500 in wages.

It took almost a year before Campbell's toe, which doctors initially thought would never look the same, returned to its normal appearance. If left untreated, infections such as Campbell's could create ulcers on the foot that eat away at soft tissue. In extreme cases, the ulcers spread into the bone where doctors might have to remove a part of the foot or even the entire foot to prevent death.

Campbell was scared out of her regular visits to the nail salon and has only gotten two pedicures (both at Super Wal-Mart) since her injury.

"I didn't know a toe could hurt so much," she says.

For Marjorie Malarkey, it wasn't about pain -- and that's how her problem began. Malarkey is diabetic and has little sensation in her feet. Diabetics are warned against getting pedicures -- and nail techs are taught and tested to be extra cautious when giving them since the risks can be deadly. But Malarkey's nail tech, Kristine Nguyen, came from Florida, where, as in Arizona, there are no interpreters or translated exams. She took her nail tech classes and licensing exam in English, and when she moved to Arizona, she had her Florida license transferred, according to court records. Nguyen declined comment, but court records tell the story.

Malarkey walked into KN Nail Salon on April 4, 2003, looking for a manicure. While Nguyen did Malarkey's nails, she asked Malarkey if she wanted a pedicure. Malarkey initially didn't understand the question because of Nguyen's accent. When she got the message, Malarkey turned down the offer and told Nguyen she was diabetic, but Nguyen persisted and asked two more times if Malarkey wanted a pedicure. Malarkey gave in and thought it would be nice to have her calluses softened. Before the pedicure, Malarkey warned Nguyen about her diabetes more than once, she says, but Nguyen didn't fully understand what that could mean for her and her client. To someone like Nguyen, whose first language isn't English, such details are not always easy to comprehend.

According to documents and an interview with Malarkey's lawyer, Nguyen broke two pedicure scrubbers on the bottom of Malarkey's left foot, cutting her skin and giving her a bacterial infection.

Malarkey has neuropathy, a condition of her diabetes that leaves her feet practically numb to feeling. As a result, she didn't feel the break in her skin that allowed bacteria to fester long after she left the salon. Two days passed before Malarkey noticed a bright purple patch on her foot and headed to the doctor and then the emergency room, where she learned bacteria had spent days rotting the skin on her foot.

Ultimately, doctors removed so much dead skin on her foot they exposed a tendon. Malarkey had to have a skin graft and physical therapy. She spent almost a month in the hospital.

Minimal English fluency and newcomer status make it hard for immigrants to find jobs, but nail technology has become the Vietnamese ticket to success. The draw is simple: a small investment for a quick return. As long as you have proof of a high school education, you can be on your way to making an average of $430 per week doing pedicures and manicures after training 400 to 600 hours and taking a few exams. Not too shabby for knowing barely any English.

But there's the problem.

The number of licensed nail technicians in Arizona jumped from about 7,000 five years ago to 13,000 this year and continues to rise. California has more than twice as many nail spas per square mile as Arizona, and Vietnamese nail salons have saturated the market. The growth in California has been forcing nail techs to find more lucrative places to set up shop, and Arizona has become a prime destination with its low cost of living and empty strip malls. Arizona officials acknowledge that Vietnamese people dominate the business. And even though lawsuits and complaints against nail salon workers have increased, lawmakers have never formally considered legislation to provide interpreters or translated tests during nail tech licensing exams.  

State Senator Jorge Luis Garcia, a Tucson Democrat, is a member of the Senate Health Committee, which oversees the state cosmetology board. Garcia says he has never been asked about offering translated exams for Vietnamese nail techs.

Garcia's staff contacted the cosmetology board to investigate whether there were substantial problems after New Times called, but he says because the board doesn't track numbers on the problem, he didn't see a "real issue."

"From what we understand, there is no tracking done in terms of failure rates or people filing any complaints that they are not being able to take the exam. Other than the fact that some other states are doing it, right now that [introducing such legislation] would not be the rational thing to do in Arizona with all this anti-immigration sentiment right now."

Garcia concludes, "The reality is that people are passing an exam, which in my mind tends to replicate practice. Whether they're doing it correctly is a business practice, not a legislative practice."

According to Russ Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, it does not cost the state any additional funds to provide translated exams since applicants pay to take the exams. Brown says the state only had to pay the initial cost of translating the test, which can run from $25,000 to $40,000.

Sue Sansom, executive director of the Arizona Board of Cosmetology, says it would be too expensive and unfair to provide translated exams.

"The most important thing is that you want to treat every candidate exactly the same so that each one has exactly the same opportunity for the examination as the last one."

This means, Sansom says, that if the state administers translated exams for one language, it would also have to provide exams in all languages.

"Arizona has been an English-speaking state, and it has worked well. Students trained in Arizona are trained in English and understand the technical terms to take the exam in English."

But Kristine Nguyen was trained in English and took her licensing exam in English, and as a result, both she and Marjorie Malarkey's left foot paid the price. Malarkey sued the owners of KN Nail Salon and Nguyen, and they settled the case out of court. Nguyen and the salon owners paid about $1,000 in fines and restitution and had their licenses suspended for six months.

Sometimes, the pain involved with the Vietnamese nail business is more subtle.

Instead of enjoying the crisp spring air outside on a recent breezy morning, Timmy is cooped up breathing the polish-pungent air inside K Desert Nail Spa in Tempe. Working in the far back corner of the nail salon, the 31-year-old Vietnamese man, who didn't want to give his last name, squirts some cleanser into a foot spa and gets down on his knees to wipe it down with a small white towel. He has just finished giving a woman a pedicure, and now the store is empty with only the five workers in the shop passing time until the next wave of customers comes in.

While the other four workers in the salon, including his younger sister, usually pass the days by gossiping about clients or telling each other stories, Timmy keeps to himself, working quietly and attentively. He spends seven days a week, almost 10 hours each day, enclosed by the store's beige walls, listening to Vietnamese guitar music that pumps through a speaker system.

Timmy combs his hair to the side, but when he pumices someone's heel, a stray strand sometimes falls to his forehead and swings back and forth with the rhythm of his scrubbing. He averts his eyes when speaking, staring off into the distance or at his feet.

He leans against a chair in front of a nail station, holding the damp towel he used to dry off the foot bath, and, switching back and forth between Vietnamese and broken English, talks about his experience in the nail tech business. Doing nails might seem like a route to fast money, he says, but not always the route for an easy life.

Timmy has worked as a nail technician for about four years, almost as long as he has lived in the United States. But Timmy says if he had his way, he wouldn't spend his days breathing dizzying paint fumes. He wouldn't have to blink out irritating fingernail filings or acrylic powder from his eyes. Timmy says his life is not glamorous and he would much rather go to school, working toward a "real future" with a "real job."  

Ask him why he doesn't find another job, and he'll tell you. But he won't look you in the eye.

"I do nails because it makes good money," he says, wringing the damp towel in his hands.

Much of which he doesn't see or spend himself. Timmy has to send most of his money home to Vietnam, which means after paying rent and bills and shipping off part of his paycheck, there's little left for savings toward an education.

"I want to go to school. I want a future," he says, shaking his head.

Timmy speaks quietly to keep his co-workers from hearing him. He says he wants to work for a "real company," and looks down at his feet. And, before he says anything else, he shakes his head in embarrassment and runs into the back room of the nail salon.

Joe Q. Vu had a box of dirty nail files. Dustin Le didn't have a first aid kit or disinfectant.

Lai T. Tran paid a $250 fine.

The state does not keep numbers on the ethnicity of its licensees, but almost half the names on the Arizona Board of Cosmetology's agenda for an April meeting were Vietnamese. The agenda listed the names of people who had complaints against them, unsatisfactory inspections, or paid fines for violating the board's safety regulations. Vietnamese names also made up a good part of the March agenda, the February agenda and many of the agendas for the year before.

In the past decade, Vietnam-born Americans and Vietnamese immigrants reshaped the nail care industry in the United States, driving down prices and making it a multibillion-dollar business.

But paying more money for a manicure doesn't mean more safety.

Although Vietnamese people generally work for and own the discount shops, Sue Sansom of the state's cosmetology board says the state sees no more complaints against neighborhood salons than high-end ones. (There are no official statistics kept.)

Lisa Kasanicky, owner and creator of, a directory that reviews spas and salons in the Valley, agrees that many women look to discount nail salons for convenience. But as far as cleanliness in the Vietnamese-run salons, she says it is "hit or miss."

"I hear people say the small Vietnamese places are dirty or awful, but I don't think I could have nice nails if it weren't for those places," Kasanicky says.

Donna Aune, the compliance department manager for the state cosmetology board, says, "It doesn't matter to us as long as they are disinfecting."

"There's a lot of nail techs that are Vietnamese, and there's good and bad in all of them," Aune adds. "We have Vietnamese salons that are the cleanest places you can go."

To celebrate the Vietnamese Lunar New Year this past February, Tom Vo gave a special offering to the potbellied Buddha that watches over his nail shop. Instead of presenting a plate of noodles or a few oranges to the spirit of the golden statue, Vo treated him to a true American feast: a sausage and egg McMuffin, still in the wrapper, and a mug of coffee, with cream, of course.

"They call that the ông Ðế," Vo says, pointing to the statue that greets customers who walk into his Chandler salon, Forever 21. "In Vietnamese it mean the one who watches over the land. Wherever you are, you have to respect the Earth God."

Since immigrating to the United States 24 years ago, Vo has accumulated four nail salons, two in Arizona and two in California. (He recently sold Forever 21 and opened a new store, Smiley Nails, on McQueen and Elliot roads in Chandler. Vo says it was time to "move up" and do bigger things by opening his new store, which is in a better location.)

Vo attributes respect as one of the reasons for his success in the nail business and in America -- respect for Buddha, respect for God, respect for rules, cleanliness, style, and, of course, respect for his customers. It seems to have paid off. His salon is decorated with chandeliers and a flat-screen television, his wrist with a diamond watch. And while the state cosmetology board cited workers in his old shop a few times -- not an uncommonly high number -- it was never hit with lawsuits or any major complaints.  

He points to some of the women working in Forever 21 on a cool Wednesday evening and says that some of the ladies used to be lawyers, teachers or pharmacists in Vietnam, but couldn't adapt to the American requirements of those professions in the United States. "It is tough to start all over again," he says. "They had no time to go to school and become a lawyer again; they had to feed their family."

Six women (five of them Vietnamese) worked at Vo's Forever 21 store, where they waxed, pampered, pumiced and painted about 275 customers a week -- impressive traffic for stand-alone nail shops, which usually see half that number if they are lucky.

Until recently, Diane Scully was one of Tom Vo's employees, and sat down to talk about her experience as a nail tech. She left Vietnam for the United States 18 years ago. To fit into her new home, Scully went from wearing "house clothes" or pajamas when visiting neighbors or going to the store to creating matching outfits with color-coordinated shirts and pants. She married an American and changed her last name. She comes from a country where husbands and wives rarely hold hands or kiss to a world where she had to shake hands with strangers and receive casual hugs.

Most challenging of all, she had to learn English and find a job.

When Scully first started looking for jobs in her new home, she wanted to become a secretary or receptionist, but she gave up after realizing her thick accent and broken English would keep her from securing a job in that "level" of society. So she started looking for jobs in factories and assembly lines -- places where she could "work by hands" instead of tongue.

"When we work by hands," Scully says, "it easy for us to make money." But she complains that many manual labor jobs involve too much heavy lifting. That is one of the reasons she became a nail technician and why, she says, many Vietnamese enter the nail tech business.

Scully is petite. Her thin arms make some customers' legs look like tree trunks when she gives them pedicures.

"When I have to lift a big fat leg from a big fat woman, I so tired, I sweat!" Scully says, mimicking how she would do the job by raising an invisible beam of leg over her head and stretching her arms up.

When Scully was in nail tech school, there was no one to help her translate, so the dictionary became her companion. When the class talked about something she didn't understand or textbooks had a word she didn't know, she pulled out a highlighter. When she went home, she translated the foreign words into Vietnamese and then translated them back into English to make sure she fully understood the concepts.

"It was like they wanted me to be a doctor," Scully says about the amount of work she had to do. Nail techs must learn about anatomy and physiology, such as how the heart, bones and muscles react when clients get massages. The cosmetology board never received complaints against Scully.

"I work hard for it," she says of her license. "I hold it tight."

Her "double learning" has paid off. Scully has had her license for four years now, and she speaks English loudly and confidently. Inside, she's ashamed.

"We make money doing nails, but we not happy. We feel embarrassing inside," Scully says, patting her chest.

A few weeks after the interview, Scully leaves the nail business. She finally got that job she always wanted as a receptionist, now that her English is good. But even though Scully still doesn't want the family she left in Vietnam to know what she used to do for a living, she says she would be happy and even proud to scrub as many feet as she can for the family she is now raising in the United States.

Tom Vo sits at a nail station, watching over his store. He sips from a mug of coffee in the same kind of inky blue mug left out for the Buddha with the McMuffin. "Every day, we ask whoever up there to give us a good day," Vo says, pointing out the window to the invisible deities in the sky. "At night before we go home, we say, 'Thanks, we have a good day today.' Thank God. Thank Buddha. Thank whoever up over. Whoever up there, you know?"

And while Vo is singing the praises for whatever fates gave him the success he's found today, don't expect the same gentle manner from all Vietnamese nail techs.  

Back at K Desert Nail Spa in Tempe, the workers in the shop continue to chatter while kneading their customers' feet or applying a coat of polish to their fingernails.

One worker is wearing a ponytail on the back of her head and a pink curler to hold up her bangs. She has just finished giving a woman with frizzy brown hair a pedicure and leads her to a fan on the floor to dry her toes. The customer came in with her son, a skinny college student with sunglasses on top of his head and beat-up flip-flops. Seeing the son who got a pedicure with his mom makes the girl in the pink curler wonder about a different male client. She asks her co-workers in Vietnamese: "What happened to the man who used to come in every month?"

"Which one? The guy who owns the Mercedes?" asks Hoa, still working on the tattooed blonde woman.

The worker with the pink curler says he's the one, and again wonders out loud why he hasn't come in for his regular visits. Then another girl in the back of the store throws her voice so her co-workers can hear above sounds of running water and scrubbing feet. Projecting through her hot pink mask, she asks, "Why would someone with a Mercedes be such a cheap tipper? He'd only give me $2."

Just then, the mother who was drying her toes tells her son she's about ready to leave. He heads to the register pulling out his wallet and tells his mom he'll treat her to the pampering. The workers notice the gesture and comment. They come to the conclusion that the son is only paying to earn extra Brownie points with his mom; he's a suck-up. The girl in the pink curler meets the son at the register. As she runs the man's card through a machine, she says to her friends that the son may be winning mom's favor, but "he's probably just good at spending his dad's money."

With a hint of envy, the girl in the pink curler finishes her thought: "It must be a nice life."

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