Recently, my daughter and I went to a nail salon for manicures. I rarely spend the money on such a luxury – I’d rather eat at a favorite restaurant or get dessert, but at the expense of watching my waistline, we splurged on getting our nails done instead. We were met at the front desk by a young Vietnamese woman who asked us to select nail colors. My daughter and I were then met by two male manicurists, both Vietnamese. Sometimes I feel a bit awkward going into a nail salon to have my nails done by another person who is Asian, typically Vietnamese, and often wonder if the person giving the manicure thinks it’s weird. In any case, there are always questions – always.
After sitting down, my manicurist started up a conversation. After a few minutes, I thought, “my, he’s awful chatty,” but then I’m not one to be very talkative. Before long, I felt my chair moving ever so slightly backwards as we were conversing. I thought the wheels on my chair were really slippery, so I proceeded to scoot my chair back up. This happened a couple more times. Finally, I looked behind me only to discover that the other manicurist had been pulling my chair backwards. He and my manicurist laughed while I sat there thinking, wow, that was really annoying. Somehow, I missed the joke. Nevertheless, I smiled and blew it off.
My manicurist then asked if my daughter was getting a manicure for Homecoming. Her high school homecoming dance was that evening, and apparently, many teens had already come by to have manicures. I told him, no, she was not going. He couldn’t believe that she wasn’t going and asked why. I told him that she just didn’t want to go. He was still in disbelief and said, “Oh, she listens to her mom.” I started thinking, “what exactly does he mean by that?” I again told him that it was her choice, but he ignored what I said and kept replying, “oh she listens to mom.” My daughter jumped into the conversation and explained why she wasn’t interesting in going to Homecoming. He didn’t believe her. Really? I felt irritated. Nevertheless, I just kept smiling and let it go. It did kind of irk me though that this manicurist thought that I would not allow my daughter to go to Homecoming.
The conversation turned, and the manicurist then asked if my daughter was spoiled. I told him no, that she generally had to work hard and earn things if she wanted them. He replied, “oh, so you’re not like other American families?’ I assume he could tell from our Western accents that we weren’t a traditional Asian family. This line of questioning was just getting more and more annoying. I tried to be as polite as possible and told him that not all American families spoil their kids, but I guess this is a perceived idea, a stereotype of American families. The conversation turned again, and the manicurist then asked if I spoke any other languages. There it was. The question I am always asked by other Asians. I braced myself for what I knew would bring even more questions. “No, I don’t speak any other languages.” I then launched into why I don’t speak another language – that I was adopted by a White family, and thus, did not learn any other language other than English. Feeling that I had to justify why I’m not completely Asian even further, I told my manicurist that I took Mandarin lessons for a brief period and want to learn to speak it fluently. I told him that my husband was part Vietnamese and Japanese, and that he spoke fluent Vietnamese. “Oh,” the manicurist said. Big mistake. He then asked if my husband taught our daughter to speak Vietnamese. I said, “no.” He replied, “oh, he’s lazy!” Seriously?? I was completed annoyed at this point. As though more explanation was needed, I told the manicurist that my husband’s first language is French because he was born in France, and that he actually had to learn how to speak English and Vietnamese because they didn’t speak it in his household growing up, etc, etc. If that wasn’t enough, the manicurist then asked about our last name. “It’s Nguyen,” I told him. I heard my daughter’s manicurist ask her the same question. When she told him, he said that she was pronouncing it wrong. I kind of already knew that, but for the sake of making it easier for others to understand, I always pronounce our last name like, “Wen.” He demonstrated how to pronounce it the correct way, which was actually different than the pronunciation I’ve heard some of my Vietnamese friends use. Maybe he was just trying to emphasize the “Ng” part since neither my daughter nor I pronounce it correctly. Holy cow. Honestly, if I could just change my last name back to my maiden name, Buck, I would.
Anyway, I don’t think that our manicurists were trying to be malicious in any way, but our conversation made me uncomfortable. I think it was the assumptions about us that were most annoying, not to mention that I’m keenly aware when I’m around other Asians that clearly, I’m not “one of them.” I look Asian outwardly, and I’m proud of my Taiwanese heritage, yet I identify more with my American roots despite my desire to be more Taiwanese – that is to speak the language, to understand the customs, to stop craving American desserts, etc. It’s like the great divide.
So, the experience at the nail salon wasn’t quite what I was hoping for that afternoon. My daughter and I talked about the conversation we had there with the two manicurists. She was also irritated, but it was an opportunity to process what happened and to discuss stereotyping – that it occurs in different contexts and that it’s important to try to understand where others are coming from, even if you are completely annoyed by what someone says. I honestly wanted to try to help the manicurists understand where my daughter and I were coming from, but realized they probably wouldn’t get it nor care. They have their own story. I have no idea what it’s like to walk in their shoes, but I tried. I wonder how different the conversation would have been if we were White, or if we had been able to speak Vietnamese. I’m pretty sure it would have been quite different. Next time, maybe we’ll just go for the sweet treat and skip the manicures, especially because not long after we left the salon, I messed up one of my nails digging for the car keys at the bottom of my purse. I really hate when that happens.