Kathy Huynh – From Mother to Daughter, From Issue to Advocacy

At six in the morning, she wakes up to walk Lake Merritt. Fresh air to her is precious. Fresh air for her, to me, is necessary. She comes back home at eight and preps lunch. Once the clock hits ten, she is at the nail salon waiting for customers to feed their addiction for beauty. By 8pm, I get anxious and want her to come home soon.

Conversations with my mother also tend to run in circles. “My hands itch,” she says, as she scratches and massages them late at night. “What happened, mom?” Her response, as usual, is “Thì làm nail chớ gì. Làm nghề này cũng ngửi nhiều chắt độc dử lắm.”[1] She doesn’t need me to educate her about the toxicity to one’s health when working in nail salons. What my mother needs is the will to not succumb to her work environment as a nail salon worker. Like many stories though, there is irony.

Right after graduating from Bryn Mawr College, and just last week, my mom encouraged me to become a nail salon worker. “Every job has harm. For nails, at least you can make lots of money, and it doesn’t require much investment or skill.” To mom, the short-term benefits outweigh the long-term impact. Her lack of social capital as an immigrant also distorts her perception of low-wage and 10 hour work days as a good job and security. For the past eighteen years, my mother has been going back and forth between home and nail salons. Internally, she’s also been going back and forth—mentally debating with herself about how much longer she can compromise her health and feeling as though her work conditions, especially in this economy, are non-negotiable.

Having an accessible job trumps my mother’s life path, like many other nail salon workers, so groups like the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance (NHNBSA), co-led by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Health Forum (NAPAWF), California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, and Women’s Voices for the Earth are necessary. NHNBSA works to increase the health, safety, and rights of salon workers by reducing toxic chemical exposure through engaging in strategic movement building, policy advocacy, and media efforts nationwide. Last week, from July 24th-26th, NHNBSA led 40 salon workers on legislative visits in our nation’s capital to advocate for the passage of the Safe Cosmetics Act, which would phase-out toxins from personal care products. The passage of the Safe Cosmetics Act would be a great step forward in creating a safer work environment for my mother, and other nail salon workers. Having advocates like NHNBSA allows my mother to continue her daily routine while feeling comfort in knowing that others care and are representing that voice in her that has been marginalized.

As for me, the daughter of a nail salon worker, I look forward to a future where my mother can continue a job that has been vital to my mom’s life in America and my family’s ability to send both my sister and I to college. NAPAWF’s work gives me hope that one day this will be a reality.





[1] Translated from Vietnamese to English as: “What else? It’s because I do nails. You also inhale lots of toxic chemicals in this industry.”