Foot in the Door

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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.

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Lynh Bui