Some people remember childhood bike rides and ice-cream sundaes; I remember acetone and moon-slivers of nails. From a young age I learned what distinguishes a spa from a nail salon: the former is where you go to relax and be pampered, while the latter, with its buffing and filing and cleaning and cutting and the sound of a language that still reminds you of home, is somewhere you go to armor yourself against the world; somewhere you can lay your head back, close your eyes, and complain about how your half-Vietnamese daughter only wants to eat chicken tenders.
For my mother the nail salon was a meeting place, a setting for communal caretaking. It was the only Vietnamese-owned business in our suburban California town in the 2000s. (The name of this town doesn’t matter; we would leave it before long for another with fewer white people and more people of color, more farms, more dust.) The salon was also the only place where I felt fully Vietnamese, a part of my mother’s tribe. There were no prerequisites. I had done nothing to earn my spot other than tail behind her and pick out colors of polish.
My mother was always bringing food she had cooked at home the night before to share with the ladies at the salon. When I was younger, I would help her cook it.
“What’s that awful smell?” my Egyptian-born father would yell upon coming in the front door in the evenings.
“It’s Vietnamese food!” my mother and I would scream back in unison, ignoring his emphasis on the word awful. We were witches, concocting potions for use in a secret world unknown to him. We never gave any details on what it was exactly that was being brewed or boiled. We just kept stirring.
By the time I entered my teens, I’d lost interest in Vietnamese food. The ladies at the salon would share recipes and make hungry faces and lament about their cravings for coconut-milk desserts. There was no place in town where they might find the dishes they were looking for; they had to be cooked at home. They gossiped with my mother in Vietnamese and then asked me in English, “Why you don’t want to eat your momma’s cooking?” They pointed to the Tupperware in my mother’s hands, full of bánh canh: thick noodles and tender pork in a creamy sauce.
I’d make a face of disgust, then run to the sushi restaurant next door and order a cucumber roll.
But when I was at the nail salon, I felt protected, tucked away from the outside world, from the public school I attended, from the friends who asked me about my mother’s strange accent and the teachers who, upon learning my mother was Vietnamese, would immediately tell me about the first time they had tasted phở. It was a place where I would never hear, “Your eyes are too big to be Asian,” or, “I thought Asians don’t have body odor,” or, “Wait, Asians grow hair there, too?”
My mother prided herself on being different from other Vietnamese immigrants: “We could have lived in Little Saigon,” she always said. “I could have sent you to Vietnamese school and made you only hang out with Vietnamese kids, you know.” Later, as I grew older, I started to think she was really saying: Look at what I did for you, living here in this white town so you could have white friends.
I wanted to ask: If you are so different from your siblings, who stayed in their refugee bubble, why are we always at the damn salon? I couldn’t have understood it then, but I understand now it was because the salon was a place of familiarity for her in this strange world of soccer practices and Girl Scouts and PTA moms who wanted to know what our family was bringing to the cake walk.
“What is a cake walk?” my mother asked me. “Điêu đó thât kỳ la.” What an odd thing.
Like many first-generation kids, I was often playing the role of not only my mother’s daughter but also her cultural and language interpreter.
“It’s a charity thing,” I told her, “where people buy tickets and play games, and at the end someone wins a cake. And I guess the money goes to underprivileged kids.”
“Oh, OK, that sounds fun. Is there music? Is there dancing? Can we buy the cake, or do we have to make it?” She seemed genuinely excited. My mother was at her best when it came to food. “Also, what does underprivileged mean?”
When I remember this moment now, I picture my mother as a twelve-year-old girl in Saigon embarrassed by her early-developing breasts. Her family didn’t have enough money to buy her a bra — not if they wanted to feed their children. I picture her parents filled with anxiety because there was not enough food. I picture them instructing my mother and her nine siblings to sleep with sandbags surrounding the bedroom — to protect them from shrapnel and bomb debris.
I remember her telling me, when I was twenty-six years old, that, during the war, her sister and brother had tried multiple times to escape Vietnam. And, every time, they had been caught and sent back. She rolled down the car window and smoked a cigarette. “It was a hard time,” she said, and she laughed the way she always does when she is nervous.
I wonder if my mother was sad that all my friends growing up were Mexican. It didn’t happen that way on purpose. Her doctor really should have told her that when you mix Asian and Jewish and Middle Eastern, you might get a child who looks Latina. Don’t be alarmed, the doctor should have said. It’s a normal side effect. No, the one Asian boy in your daughter’s class won’t believe her when she says, “We’re alike, you and me.” And don’t get me started about the white kids. They’ll be too terrified by the smell in your house to come over and play with your daughter. She will fit in best at quinceañeras, where everyone will assume she speaks Spanish — a mistake she will grow to love. “Ella es China,” her friends’ parents will say, explaining your daughter to their relatives, “pero she looks like us.” And they will smile and mean it. She’ll never correct them about the Chinese part, of course, or tell them about how a lot of Vietnamese people actually hate China, because it colonized Vietnam for centuries. She won’t correct them, about any of it, because she will feel lucky just to fit in somewhere, even if she knows it’s not real.
The sushi restaurant next door to the salon was owned by Koreans. (Even as a ten-year-old, I could appreciate the irony of Koreans owning a sushi establishment.) The food there was soothing. The slivers of cucumber felt cool on my tongue. Dipping the seaweed-wrapped rolls in soy sauce turned an otherwise dull-tasting dish into something sharp and memorable, with a saltiness that I craved.
Out of curiosity I check Google to see if that sushi place still exists. It does, almost seventeen years later. Google’s description of the restaurant begins with the word unassuming. (Though I seem to hear this adjective all the time to describe “ethnic” and “exotic” restaurants, I don’t understand it. Who would be assuming what?) The first human review reads: “Authentic Asian hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Clean, well kept, and inviting — I felt very comfortable ordering despite the small language barrier (extra authentic!).”
There’s another word I don’t understand: authentic. I want to ask this person what authentic means to them. I want to ask whether they would think of the place as “extra authentic” if they knew the owners were not Japanese. I want to ask if a language barrier has ever prevented them from getting something they wanted.
The second review reads: “Ooohhhh so good. Mom-and-pop shop. Minimal English.”
I think about the time a customer at the restaurant where my mother works called her over with his finger and told her his chicken was undercooked, and he wasn’t going to pay for it. He had already half-finished his bowl of grilled-chicken vermicelli.
With a smile, she said to the customer, “Sir, what you see is lemongrass spices that make it look a little raw, but, trust me, I know, it’s not undercooked. I am more than happy to make it again for you, of course, if you are more comfortable that way.”
He said yes to the second dish, ate it all, and then, when the bill came, still insisted on a discount. My mother politely refused. “You ate the whole thing, sir,” she said. “I’m sorry, but you need to pay for your meal.”
The altercation escalated, and the man told my mother to go back to her own country. (We know this scene already, don’t we?) He left the restaurant without paying, trailing a stream of insults behind him. But my mother wasn’t going down without a fight. She chased him to his car and told him that he couldn’t leave until he paid. He grabbed her by the arms and made her twenty-dollar flip phone go flying and land underneath his car.
When my tiny mother told me this, in a tone so casual I would have thought she was recounting her morning grocery shopping, she shook her head, laughed, and said, “It didn’t really hurt so bad. It’s OK, baby.” Then: “Oh, I forgot! This is the best part: he asked me if I was even a citizen!”
By now my jaw was clenched so tight I was afraid my teeth were going to break. “Then what happened?” I asked.
“So then I said” — she let out a big chuckle — “ ‘I have an American passport, asshole. Go fuck yourself.’ ”
I didn’t know whether to bury my head in my hands and cry or tell her I was proud of her. So I did both.
I was on AOL Instant Messenger in my bedroom one day in 2008 when I looked up and saw gorgeous, blond-haired Shari standing over me. Shari was a year above me at school and hung out with a crowd of beautiful, toothpick-thin girls who wore thongs, which I knew because their tight Abercrombie jeans were always just low enough to reveal them. Thongs were yet another thing I didn’t understand about white girls, another thing I failed to be well versed in. Shari and her friends never looked in my direction, except when they made fun of my friend Sandra for her dandruff flakes.
At this point my father’s business was nearly bankrupt. A FOR SALE sign had gone up in our yard. Strangers were walking through our house every day to look at the property, their shoes still on (which drove my mother crazy), while the three of us packed up all our things in boxes, until the boxes grew so overstuffed that we just started throwing the contents of our home onto the curb for someone to take for free.
When Shari realized the house her family was considering belonged to the girl in choir who was friends with the dandruff girl, she said, “Oh,” and she smiled with those pretty white teeth of hers and walked out. From my bedroom window I watched Shari and her mother, carbon copies of each other, slide into their silver SUV, and I wondered what it was like to closely resemble your mother. To have people in the world look at you both the same.
Shari’s family didn’t make an offer on our house, though it would have been a good investment. Our house was just a pawn to be taken in the financial game of the mortgage crisis. In an effort to save his company — which he lost shortly thereafter anyway — my father sold our home, and we moved inland, to avoid the rising rents near the coast.
Recently I was checking my bank statements to make sure my accounts wouldn’t go into overdraft when I realized that I’d never googled that yellow house where I’d grown up, in that little California town.
That town looks completely different today. What was once a quiet suburb a few miles from the ocean (but also next to an oil refinery and the airport) is now an increasingly posh community filled with people who work at start-ups and tech companies. There are upscale shopping plazas and overpriced spin classes. I type in my old address and see our house looking plain and bland, the baby-blue hydrangeas my mother loved no longer filling the flower beds in front.
Zillow says that bland, hydrangea-less house is valued at more than $1.5 million: the same house my parents gave up so we could stay afloat — though that decision would be only the beginning of the sinking to come. We would move so many times after this, downsizing over and over. Places that my parents initially thought we could afford quickly proved to be beyond our means. Fights and screaming matches would fill the air. Money, or the lack thereof, was just the first of many reasons my parents began to hate each other.
I closed my screen, bit my lip, and tasted blood.
The nail salon once felt like it belonged to me, but by the time I was a teen, it didn’t anymore. It’s sad how quickly I went from being a child who loved glitter-shimmer polish on my fingers to being angry at my mother for making food that smelled “weird.” (It never smelled weird to me, though, just to everyone else around me.) I learned to become ashamed of my mother’s culture because it was “different.”
It wasn’t until a man assaulted my mother and told her to go back to her own country that I realized how little I had tried to learn about that country: the home she’d given up to raise a child in the United States.
As I have grown older, I have noticed how, when my white friends get their nails done, they want an experience. They want someplace that isn’t a spa, a place where only “minimal English” is spoken. A place that’s more authentic.
I have also noticed that I am becoming one of those people. And it makes me feel sick, like I have chugged a bottle of acetone.
Doing a dance between pride and self-hatred, I compulsively search out the cheapest salon I can find to get my nails done, because I’ve been taught to find a “good deal” and not pay too much for nails. But these flimsy things that I pick and bite and ruin on a daily basis know the history of my life. They know how often I’ve put off going to the salon, refusing to face my nails with their overgrown cuticles, embarrassed by what lingers underneath.
How, possibly, can I put a price on a ritual that has been with me since childhood? How could I cheapen it by looking for a two-for-one coupon or Yelp check-in offer?
But I do. I always do.
If I were to go to a fancy spa, it would somehow be too nice. It wouldn’t be what that asshole on Google meant by “extra authentic.” I wonder, as I refuse to spend money on my nails but will pay twenty-five dollars for a gourmet artisanal pizza without blinking an eye: Whose voice am I listening to? Even though I do everything I can to make that voice go away, it persists like a gel polish that hardens after it’s heated, that sets onto your nails, becoming almost permanent, reminding me of someone I am constantly trying to run away from.
When I was twenty-three, I moved to Vietnam, where, unless I made it a point to speak Vietnamese, most people assumed I was just an American expat. It was easy to pick and choose which people to tell I was Vietnamese, to continue to hide who I was, like I had always done. But for the first time in my life I also saw my resistance to looking honestly at myself, and how much I hated the person I’d become: the one who wanted so desperately to be white that she came to reject her mother’s love.
Walking into a salon today — the sawlike sound of electric nail tools, the face masks and bowls of water — reminds me of who I once was; who, underneath everything I’ve armored myself with, I still am. The nail salon forces me to come to terms with myself, all of me, down to the crusty heel skin that no amount of filing can scrape off.