The sociolinguistics of nail care

Have you recently had a manicure or a pedicure? I haven’t. In fact, I’ve never been to a nail salon in my life. Until about a decade ago that would not have been unusual among my friends and acquaintances. Today, however, this fact makes me an exception. Most of the women I know nowadays visit nail salons and here in Sydney little girls have ‘nail parties’ for their birthdays where they and their friends get their nails ‘done.’ If you haven’t bucked the trend and have been to a ‘nail bar’ recently, chances are you were served by a Vietnamese nail technician and/or the store was Vietnamese-owned. In the USA, for instance, less than 1% of the population are Vietnamese but 80% of nail technicians in California and 43% nationwide are Vietnamese. No surprise then that this 2008 Los Angeles Times article claims “it’s hard to meet a manicurist who isn’t Vietnamese.” Vietnamese nail technicians also dominate the market in the UK and most of continental Europe, in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of Asia including, unsurprisingly, Vietnam.

I was curious to find out whether the emergence of a new industry (nail care) and the transnational domination of that industry by a specific ethnic group (Vietnamese) had anything to do with language? Sure has, as I’ve learnt from a 2011 article in the International Migration Review (Eckstein & Nguyen, 2011).

Migrants often find that lack of proficiency in the local language is a barrier to workplace entry in their field and/or at the level at which they are qualified. They also often find that they can’t wait around till their language has improved sufficiently before having to make a living. The Vietnamese leaving Vietnam in the 1970s were no exception to this.

Linguistic barriers to employment are highest in the professions, where usually (part of) the qualifications and training process needs to be re-done and/or certifying and registration exams need to be undertaken in the local language. That’s why migrant lawyers are rare. Linguistic barriers to employment are lowest for self-employment in areas with little state regulation. That’s why migrant-owned corner stores are frequent.

Within a particular industry, the same rules apply. Let’s take the beauty industry: if you are a cosmetic surgeon and want to move to another country, chances are you’ll never work as a cosmetic surgeon again. Depending on where you are from and how your previous qualifications are assessed, you are facing years of re-training, qualifying exams in the new language and other hurdles to re-gain your license to practice in the new country. At the other end of the beauty industry, you’ll find nail technicians: to practice as a nail technician in Australia, for instance, you don’t need any formal qualifications whatsoever. Limited proficiency in English thus poses no or only a minor obstacle to workplace entry as a nail technician. However, speaking Vietnamese might confer an advantage, as I’ll explain now.

In the 1970s, the family of a former commander in the South Vietnamese Navy found that there were few opportunities for them and fellow Vietnamese refugees in California. Like many others in a similar position, they tried their luck in all kinds of ways and opened a beauty school, the Advance Beauty College (ABC) in Garden Grove, CA, an area aka ‘Little Saigon.’ They taught in Vietnamese and after a short course, students could go and start their own nail salon. Many of them did because in addition to the lack of linguistic barriers, the financial investment was low, too.

At that time, nail salons hardly existed and manicures and pedicures were a preserve of the rich and famous. However, the emergent supply of Vietnamese nail technicians and nail salons meant that manicures and pedicures suddenly came into the reach of Californian women of lesser means.

Vietnamese nails-only shops revolutionized manicuring in much the same manner that McDonalds revolutionized inexpensive, fast food service. Like McDonalds, the nails-only shops appealed to busy Americans who wanted quick, dependable service, when convenient to their schedules, and who were content with the provisioning of the service in an impersonal manner. (p. 654)

Vietnamese entrepreneurs thus did not fill an existing market but created a new one. Once established, this market spread easily through franchises. Regal Nails, located within Walmarts, for instance, was founded by a first-generation Vietnamese, as was the Australian market leader, Professionails.

Once established, linguistic necessity became a virtue for Vietnamese nail entrepreneurs, as ethnic networks ensured a continuing supply of first-generation workers with few other options. As such the continuation of the business model depends on continuing emigration from Vietnam because with better education and bilingualism, the second-generation does not need to rely on their ethnic ties and have many other employment options.

As I’ve explained it was the absence of regulation combined with the availability of training in Vietnamese that made California that birthplace of the Vietnamese creation and subsequent domination of the nail care industry. Furthermore, when the State of California introduced licensing exams for nail technicians in the 1990s, there was the option to take the certifying exams in Vietnamese. Thus, the Californian state chose, in this instance, not to erect a linguistic barrier to employment for its Vietnamese-speaking citizens.

Once established, and as the nail care industry expanded beyond California, across the USA and, later, went global, Vietnamese domination had the effect of excluding non-Vietnamese from the industry so that today lack of proficiency in English is rarely a barrier to becoming a nail technician but lack of Vietnamese does constitute such a barrier. As the industry transnationalized, it moved back to Vietnam and many nail technicians now train there before emigrating and have jobs already lined up before they even leave the country.

In case any of our non-Vietnamese readers are inclined to feel jealous, consider that it is only the continued ‘Vietnamization’ of the supply chain that makes your cheap manicures and pedicures possible.

[…] they work in the least skilled, least revenue-generating segment of the beauty industry. Most typically, when Vietnamese entrepreneurs expand their business involvements they do so by opening additional salons of the same sort, not by diversifying their beauty care offerings to include those that are most profitable. Similarly, nail technicians do not invest in additional training to qualify for the better paying jobs in the beauty industry. Vietnamese, accordingly, are creating conditions that work against their own longer-term interests. They are fueling intra-ethnic competition that is likely to drive down their earnings, unless they further increase demand for their services. (p. 666)

ResearchBlogging.org Eckstein S, & Nguyen TN (2011). The making and transnationalization of an ethnic niche: Vietnamese manicurists. The International migration review, 45 (3), 639-74 PMID: 22171362

About Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Over the course of her international career, she has also held appointments at universities in Germany, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and USA. Ingrid’s research expertise is in Intercultural Communication, the Sociolinguistics of Language Learning and Multilingualism, and Bilingual Education. She is particularly interested in the ways in which linguistic diversity as it arises in the contexts of globalization and migration intersects with social inclusion and global justice.
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13 Responses to The sociolinguistics of nail care

  1. vahid says:

    A very illuminating and interesting post, indeed. Many thanks, Ingrid.

  2. Lachlan Jackson says:

    great post!

  3. Kerry Taylor-Leech says:

    I have often admired the elegantly painted toenails of many women and you see a lot of them in Queensland! Until recently I too had never had a pedicure in my life, let alone a manicure and still less visited a nail salon; but I have often passed them in my local shopping centre and wondered how much nail artistes get paid per hour, especially since the cost of treatments does not seem to have risen significantly in last few years. The whole scenario looks highly exploitative, with white women leaning back in vibrating chairs, reading trashy magazines and ignoring the underpaid Asian workers who are pampering their hands and feet. In my shopping centre the workers in the salons are all seem to be Thai.
    Eventually, after my daughter bought me a pedicure for my birthday, I worked up the courage to drop in. After all, I had to use the gift voucher! I found it a rather tense experience. It felt rude and unnatural not to speak to the young woman kneeling below me attending to my feet but she spoke no more than few words of English, relying on gesture and nudging to communicate to me what she needed me to do. By the end of the pedicure my feet and toenails felt fabulous but inside myself I felt uneasy. The nail artist works hard, bent over for long periods, and she must pay close attention to what she is doing. The skill involved in applying nail lacquer quickly and neatly is considerable. This is not a good context in which to start a conversation. Consequently, it seems the workers get almost no opportunity for verbal interaction with their English speaking customers. It is invariably the male salon manager who engages verbally with the clients.
    Another part of me wonders if this kind of work is worth it for the workers, who must want to be in Australia badly enough or lack alternative options to be willing to do it. The nail salon experience backs up what we found as researchers on the ‘Language Training and Settlement Success’ project in which we interviewed recent migrants who had succeed in gaining paid employment. We found that most of the unskilled migrants we interviewed ended up in service jobs that involve little or no verbal interaction with anyone. Their English does not develop as a result of entering the workforce. A woman could spend years working in a nail salon and not improve her English by more than a few passively acquired words and phrases.
    Yes, reader, I have been back – because the nail artistes do a lovely job with my troublesome feet and I love how my toenails look after a pedicure. But each time I visit I ask myself the same question: Do I contribute to their social, economic and linguistic marginalisation by patronising these salons or would the workers have even fewer options if women like me did not visit? Would these workers be any better off if white women did not patronise their salons?

  4. Dariush Izadi says:

    Great post!

    I think this might be true in some other industries as well, one of which is “Industrial painting”. I’ve recently discovered that the commercial Industrial Painting Services here in Sydney have been entirely dominated by Iranians. This self-employment industry usually recruits workers with some having very limited knowledge of English, although some of them are Iranian students who have to make a living. It is also interesting to mention that the Iranian entrepreneurs themselves have difficulty communicating in English, some of whom have been living here in Sydney for more than two or three decades! In order to fill this gap, they usually recruit English native speakers to work in the office as a receptionist to entice customers.

  5. loy says:

    Hi Ingrid,

    Thanks for touching on an issue I have always been fascinated with.

    I usually visit the nail salons, especially in summer time. And each time, I have always attempted to do a bit of “data gathering” to try to find out from my nail technician (1) “why” the business is dominated by Vietnamese and (2) is it necessary for them to speak English to land the job. In most occasions, I get the revealing reply to #2 with a non-reply coupled with a quick chat in Vietnamese to a fellow nail technician sitting nearby. In more successful albeit limited cases, I’d get a very curt – “it is what we do.”

    Unlike Kerry, I do not quite feel guilty going into the salon. This is perhaps because I also go to another local salon where the nail technician is caucasian. I do wonder now whether I should given the issue raised by Kerry on “wage” i.e. are the Vietnamese nail technicians paid less than what the law requires.

    The thoughts that play in my mind related to this are: (1) given that there seems to be very little English necessary for these Vietnamese nail technicians in landing this kind of job, what would their prospects be for permanent residency especially now that the IELTS requirement has been raised to 7 across all bands (to gain 10 points in their application) and 8 (to get 20 points) and (2) while it is obviously unfair to require a considerably high proficiency in English for such a job, surely some level of proficiency is necessary so that the nail technicians can navigate through a conversation with client not just on nail polish colour preferences but also on general health and safety issue.

    loy

    • Thanks, all. @Kerry &@Loy: I, too, am intrigued by the race dimension of all this – not so much of the industry itself but of its representation in the media. In 2006 in the USA and in 2011 in Australia, there was a huge media focus on the alleged lack of hygiene in nail bars resulting in fungal infections and health risks related to their alleged use of illegal chemicals (particularly MMA in concentrations exceeding legal limits). When I researched this blog post, I viewed these two reports: Nail Salon Warning and Toxic Nails. What struck me was how incredibly Orientalist the narrative was: Asian women (nail technicians) appeared as speechless victims exploited as workers. Their exploiters were male Asian store owners, who were portrayed as evil, greedy and devious. White women were presented as articulate victims (customers whose health had been affected) – clearly the focus of the show. White men were represented as knights in shining armour who either helped the Asian female victims (white husband of an Asian woman exposing her labor exploitation in a nail bar) or White female victims (podiatrist restoring healthy feet) …

  6. Pingback: WLR: Chinese birth tourism and Vietnamese nail technicians « The Plaid Bag Connection

  7. Grace says:

    Thank you, Ingrid, for the very informative post.

    After coming to Sydney, I often observed certain ethnic students working for centain shops. Taiwanese students working at bubble tea shops and Asian grocery stores, for example. From my talking with many Taiwanese students studying in Australia, surprisingly, finding a part-time job seems not easy at all. They are often rejected with the excuses such as assumed insufficient English and also inexperience due to their student status. I do wonder how different the linguistic demands would be working as a beverage maker, goods loader, or cashier at stores owned by different ethnic owners. However, that is what happens to them. Due to the high financial pressure of studying and living here, they have no better choice but take the job by whoever is willing to hire them, and often times they are Taiwanese or Chinese owners and the wages are lower.

  8. Grace says:

    Another thought came to me: how different would people think and feel when they go to proctologist for their hemorrhoids problem? They may feel embarassed to show the not so good looking part to the doctor and they hope the doctor fix their problem. If you ask the doctor why he/she is specialized in this area, they might tell you: that’s what we do.
    The image through the shop window gave us a hierarchical sense: the customers are sitting on high sofas and the Vietnamese nail technician are sitting around their feet. However, as it’s said in the post, they could even enjoy more transnational mobility than a surgeon.

  9. Sumaiya says:

    Dear Ingrid

    Thanks for the amazing post. Yeah its true that now a days language is playing a very important role in many of the industries. As you mentioned in your post about Vietnamese nail technicians, they are spread world wide and their art of decorating nails so beautifully is now known in the whole world. As if I talk about Pakistan, this nail painting now became a trend here in allied people. The allied people spend a lot of money for this nail painting. But the main thing is, the technicians are the local people (Pakistanis). But to connect to those allied people, these technicians should know the language (English). For communication, English is required. Even if I talk about the local markets of Karachi, the shopkeepers tend to speak some of the English words to communicate with the buyers. Bilingualism is spread all around the world, in all the industries of the world.

  10. Sheila Pham says:

    Great post about a very interesting phenomenon – from my travels around the world lately, I’ve certainly observed all the Vietnamese nail salons around. When I was living in the UK in 2005-2006, I’m sure there weren’t nearly as many in Europe and it was rare for me to hear Vietnamese spoken — but now it’s much more likely. In recent years I’ve also become friends with two Vietnamese-Americans whose families have done very well from having beauty salons – one in California, another in Texas. Both of those girls had enterprising first-generation mothers. By the way, before nail salons, in Australia it was the hot bread shops that the Vietnamese slowly took over and started to dominate – but the dynamics in terms of language don’t apply since in those cases they would have largely been family businesses. Nail salons seem to have grown beyond the confines of families and hire staff straight from Vietnam.

  11. Pingback: Variety show celebrities and Vietnamese diasporic advertisements « The Plaid Bag Connection

  12. Mostly women look for good nail technicians for beautiful look of their nails. There are many good nail salon in Las Vegas providing good services. Thanks for sharing this blog.

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