Foot in the Door

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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 arizonaspagirls.com, 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.

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Lynh Bui