The Usual Nail Salon Narrative by Ocean Vuong
In towns all over the United States, customers delight with manicures and pedicures available at exorbitantly low costs at nail salons. What is often uncared for in this flourishing sector, however, is its shadowy side.
Through the collection of his poem, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds”, Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese American poet, reflects on the never-ending toils of his mother who works as a nail technician at a salon. In one particular piece, “Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): 2003”, he brings our attention to the precarious predicament of these workers, capturing their struggles within its verses:
My beloved mother never had the fortunate opportunity to experience a full life.
In the realm of my memory, I lovingly keep possession of it; her presence remains here, suspended in the atmosphere.
Above my bed, I keep a delicate carving made by her, nestled in New York.
An individual concealed by a mask acted as they often do
Plucking teeth from a coffined cadaver.
Vuong’s mother worked long hours in an atmosphere of hazardous chemicals, putting her health at risk without protective equipment. Acetone, acrylics, and UV lamps were emitted daily at the nail salon, producing a gaping “hole in her ozone,” as Vuong put it. This damaging cocktail of airborne particles had the potential to bring on headaches, respiratory issues, and even cancer.
In his poem, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds”, Vuong sheds light on the inequality experienced by immigrant workers in nail salons, particularly in respect to their wages. He writes:
With that, I speak of a tale of how I endured as a tribute to all those who still remain stuck in their monochrome pictures, fixated on a nation that will never reciprocate their admiration. I can still envision my mother’s dusty pink home footwear and my acdad’s sunburned forehead. Their able hands, often deployed for labour, noticed the ticking seconds unfold as if they were dark silhouettes on a wall.
Many nail technicians come from immigrant and POC backgrounds, and their labor often goes unrecognized or harshly undervalued. Vuong’s words shine a much-needed light on the true fortitude of these individuals, who work tirelessly and unstintingly to provide for their families and localities, in spite of an often difficult financial situation.
Although it can be tempting to prioritize convenience and affordability, we must consider the cost on individuals when choosing a service. Nail salons are no exception; it is necessary to support establishments that respect and guarantee the safety of their employees. Moreover, we must strive to strengthen laws and regulations that safeguard the rights of all workers, for they are an integral part of our communities.
Through poignantly crafted narratives in “Night Sky with Exit Wounds”, Vuong brings attention to the overlooked burden of those working in the nail salon industry. It is essential that we are conscientious of their plight and endeavoring to create and preserve working conditions that are equitable and secure, so that the workers can accept the respect and honor they merit.