At my parents’ nail salon, I’m not known as Tracy. I am beckoned by the names “Cash register,” “Two pedicures,” “Check the laundry” and “Clean the supplies.”
For the past 17 years, I’ve learned to treat the salon as my second home. As a toddler, I was relegated to playing with water in the pedicure chairs and dolls in the breakroom.
Then, when I perfected basic math in the third grade, my parents promoted me to cashier. It wasn’t long afterward that I was rushing around the salon, making sure the water wasn’t too hot for the customers’ pedicures and putting nail polish bottles back on the shelf, all the while ringing up customers at the cash register.
There is a joy that I experience when I spend time at the salon, even if I’m surrounded by the dusty air, stench of acetone, and lull of the TV. If it’s a slow Monday morning, I’ll rearrange the nail polish on the shelves so they’re color-coordinated. Maybe I’ll eavesdrop on the employees’ conversations and try to translate them to English to sharpen my subpar Vietnamese skills. If the salon is really barren, I’ll paint nail art. (My highest accomplishment is painting the Union Jack and Irish flag.) If it’s a busy Friday night, I’ll man the cash register and pit my wits against the customers in a game of “Jeopardy” with Alex Trebek.
But even answering the Daily Double correctly can’t undo the shame I’ve felt from having Vietnamese parents who own a nail salon. When I was a child, many people knew that my parents were manicurists, but I could never bring myself to say that they were. If I didn’t say it, then it wouldn’t be true.
I’ve always been the only Asian child in my class, and I couldn’t risk conforming to the stereotype while all the other kids’ parents were lawyers and teachers. In reality, no one cared that my parents painted nails for a living; the only person hard on me was me. Knowing this didn’t stop me from comparing my family to my friends’ families. I began to compare myself to what I saw on TV. My family was nothing like the Tanners on “Full House.” And while Tim Taylor was a self-made man on “Home Improvement,” I considered his success to be extensively better than that of my parents’.
My desire to fit in evoked a shame of my parents. Before I knew it, this shame evolved into hatred. I hated going to the salon. I hated rearranging the nail polishes. I hated playing “Jeopardy.” Why did I have to work while my friends were playing sports? Why did my parents choose to own a nail salon instead of a law firm?
I compared myself to what I saw on the screen, and I only saw white. While TV was a large part of my childhood, I rarely saw Asians represented. Because of this, I hadn’t developed a sense of pride in my heritage.
It wasn’t until the premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat” that I began to recognize the hard work and dedication that my parents put into the nail salon to improve their children’s lives. Through the Huangs, I saw a glimpse of my family and life on the TV screen. Seeing myself represented on the screen changed my shame into pride.
Before long, I was comparing my parents to Eddie Huang’s father, who on “Fresh Off the Boat” is also a self-made business owner. I transformed the salon into a TV set, where I, the main character, am tasked with being a model of Asian pride for other Asians. I learned to appreciate the nail salon — the dusty air, stench of acetone, and lull of the TV. It’s a place where I can find pride in the employees and customers. It’s a place where my name is “Two. Two pedicures, please.”
One of the most daunting tasks that I faced going into senior year was college applications, not because I didn’t have time to complete them or because there were so many to fill out. Rather, I simply didn’t know what I was doing. Preparing to become a first-generation college student, I had limited guidance in the college application process compared to many of my peers.
However, when I was asked to answer one of six essay prompts on my application, I knew exactly which one to choose: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
My experience as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who own a nail salon is something that defines me more than any other experience. It’s nearly impossible to understand who I am without knowing my cultural background, which is why it was necessary for me to convey my experience as an Asian-American to the colleges to which I was applying. Without knowing the challenges I faced and the hardships I overcame as an Asian-American, colleges wouldn’t understand who I truly am.
However, my essay not only depicts my experience as an Asian-American, but also the experience of many other Asian-Americans across the country. The desire to conform to the American lifestyle coupled with the desire to stay connected to one’s heritage creates an internal battle that creates an identity crisis for the individual. Just as I experienced this, many other Asian-Americans experience this, as well.
As I leave the Yakima Valley to start the next season of my life at Stanford University (as a member of the Stanford Vietnamese Student Association!), I’ll remember the internal hardships I endured. But I’ll also remember how I overcame those hardships and learned to welcome my culture back into my life. I understand how difficult it can be to accept one’s heritage while trying to integrate into the American lifestyle.
Therefore, I dedicate my farewell to the Asian-American community of the Yakima Valley. As a silent minority, it may seem difficult to voice your opinions and experiences, but I hope sharing my experience helps you to share yours as well. Don’t be afraid to express your heritage. Wear your hanbok, eat your pho, speak your language but, most important, embrace who you are.