Foot in the Door

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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."

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Lynh Bui