I was very nervous on my first day of nail salon training. My mind couldn’t think clearly, my Vietnamese started to freeze up, and my voice became unnaturally stiff. But that’s to be expected from an 18-year-old girl who grew up in a middle-class, Vietnamese-American family in a relatively white community with little connection the Vietnamese language and culture. The unexpected part was that the nail school I chose was in Hà Nội.

The year was 2011 and I had just finished high school. Wanting to be more independent, I decided to go back to Vietnam by myself for 2.5 months. I had visited Vietnam several times before then when my family. It helped me stay connected to the culture and I even picked up the language well enough. But this time, I wanted to take a different approach and experience my trip not as a tourist but as a local. I tried looking for activities, such as volunteering, that would help me socialize with local Vietnamese but I could not find a steady position. I then remembered my interest in nail design and, through online searches and asking family members in Vietnam for ideas, I found my match with a salon in Hà Nội.

Working at a nail salon is often seen as the epitome of Vietnamese stereotypes for women. As in industry, it’s looked down upon as menial labor. But my experience at this Hà Nội salon taught me so much more than nails.

After the first few days, I started to ease up and settle into the rhythm of things. Waking up bright and early each morning, I walked over to the nail salon and stayed there until evening. Besides picking up skills on nail design, I also gained a new community and learned about the women around me. They earned barely enough, yet life for them seemed simple and happy. Not everything was perfect, but they adapted to be content and to enjoy every moment after long hours of work.

Through sharing stories with the ladies, I discovered their takes on life, marriage, gender inequality, and occasionally the government. It was an interesting and fresh perspective since my family in Vietnam largely come from college-educated backgrounds and has more modern and Western views. I learned about their hopes and dreams and how they sometimes wished to find a husband outside the country and being able to open their own salons. After work, we often ate out in the streets, gossiped over drinks, sang karaoke, wandered around on scooters, watched movies, and had hot pot parties at someone’s house. We talked about their husbands and chitchatted about other things like the murder case of a family on the outskirts of the city.

These ladies invited me to look into their lives and, as a result, I learned more about my culture than I ever did before. For the first time, I felt like a true local and would often forget that I was just a temporary visitor working a blue-collar job.

This trip was an eye-opening experience for me. It not only gave me the opportunity to learn more about the working people in Vietnam but it also pushed me closer to my culture and to feel a sense of independence and maturity. It also reminded me of future decisions to be made when I returned to the U.S. After the trip, I became mesmerized by the compass and lotus, prominent symbols of Buddhism and Vietnamese identity, ones that would encourage me to find my direction and identity.

These thoughts would follow me through the subsequent years and, in 2015, I came back to Vietnam to make one of the boldest decisions in my life. I transferred these symbols of identity, faith, love, and direction from my hear and mind onto my skin, permanently.

Victoria Bui was born and raised in Washington state. She loves to travel and hopes to make it to six out of the seven continents. Her passion is to continue learning about her family and cultural history so she can restore her family tree book one day.

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