The Vietnamese nail ladies are chirping away, melodic words weaving back and forth through the scent of acetone and polish. I am reclined in a cream-colored spa chair, embraced in marshmallow cushions, feet soaking in warm water. A familiar phrase in Vietnamese lodges in my ear and I chuckle in amusement. The blonde two seats over leans toward me: "What are they saying?"
They are chatting about children and romance, about spending their tips and saving for college, about ladies with calloused hands clutching expensive purses. They talk about their hopes and dreams in this American life. They are mothers, wives, and daughters—a group of women who have experienced extraordinary loss and are trying to make ends meet, supporting family members still living in their homeland while giving the second generation of Vietnamese Americans the chance to pursue a higher education. They gave up more respectable careers in Vietnam to move to the United States. They had to start over with virtually nothing. For all the hardships, these women are making their own money and putting their children through school. They are improving their English and have earned or are in the process of earning American citizenship.
This is my story too. About 80 percent of licensed manicurists in California are of Vietnamese heritage. Many arrived in America after the fall of Saigon in 1975. My father, a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Navy, fled Saigon before South Vietnam's capital fell into North Vietnam's communist regime. My mother, with her two young sons, was among the second wave of boat people to flee Vietnam—staying at Songkhla refugee camp for nine months before arriving in the U.S. in 1979. In 1985, my mother opened up Lee's Nails in Compton, California, becoming a business owner with money saved through sewing and selling homemade goods: beef jerky, chili sauce, and pickled delights.
My monthly pilgrimage to the nail salon is a constant reminder of home. It's a place of comfort for me. It makes me think of my mother and the sacrifices she made for the protection and survival of our family. Because of her persistence and strength, we were able to thrive. The salon is a place where women can work toward ownership and independence. It is a place of freedom. Because of a little nail lady, I have the opportunity to shine.
Women around the world have experienced similar stories of disenfranchisement, diaspora, and the reclamation of hope for their and their family's future. For the second annual Pacific Standard photo issue, we partnered with Magnum Photos to bring you personal stories of family, land, and loss of livelihood within a historic context of women's land rights issues on a global scale. Women are often the backbone of their society, and we are pleased to be able to share glimpses of a movement that is uniting women across countries and cultures to defend, claim, and reclaim space.
A version of this story originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine. Explore our collaborative August 2018 photo issue here.