MIRABELLA
A HAND UP
July 1991
Michael Shapiro reports
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


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Kim Jeong Hwa, above, in the small salon she's owned for three years

She is called Lisa because Lisa is a name Americans can say. It's hard for Americans to remember the name Yi Ju Hee, hard to remember that with Korean names the first name is the family name and that the latter two names constitute what in the West would be the first.

Kim Young Ja, who owns the nail salon where Lisa works, gives her employees American names for the customers to use. Mimi is teaching Lisa the finer points of manicuring. Mimi does not call Lisa by her new name. She says onnae, or "older sister," because Lisa, though her junior in experience, is her senior in years. That is the way it has been for thousands of years in Korea. And that is the way it is here, too.

In the newest incarnation of the immigrant version of the American Dream ‑the Korean nail salon‑ two worlds exist in close proximity. There is the transient world where the customers sit, in relative silence, occasionally complimenting the technician on her hair or a bracelet‑the niceties acknowledged with a nod and a smile. On the other side of the row of small Formica tables is the world of the manicurists, who work quickly and efficiently and seldom talk except with one another.

In the late 1970s there were only a handful of Korean‑owned nail salons in New York City, now there are 1300. These salons employ 7000 people, almost all of them Korean women, who each week manicure the nails on some 350,000 pairs of hands. Los Angeles and Chicago have experienced similar expansion.

The story of the Korean nail salons is a story of immigrant enterprise, but also of women kept in the shadows in their own society, who come to America and blossom.

Ju Hee is thirty‑seven and has been in America for a year. Her mother, brother and cousin preceded her to America, but she would have preferred to remain in Korea. She and her husband, who works in a dry cleaning shop on Long Island, came for the sake of their sons, ages sixteen and thirteen, to remove them from the relentless competitive pressure of school in Korea.

Ju Hee isn't sure which town her husband works in; Long Island is not yet a familiar place. Her knowledge of America is limited to Scarsdale, the wealthy suburb where she works, and Gun Hill Road, the street in the Bronx where she lives. She doesn't speak English because she has no time for classes. There is time only to make breakfast for her husband and children and then to work and, when she comes home, to prepare dinner. Work runs from 9:30 in the morning to 7:00 at night, and in a six-day week of manicuring perhaps fifty pairs of hands she will make three hundred dollars with tips. The job requires the dexterity to manicure two hands in thirty minutes, as well as an acceptance of the premise that the neophyte is remanded to that least pleasant task: the pedicure.

For thousands of Korean women who come to this country each year‑most especially to New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago‑the nail salon is the entry point. It is a job secured within weeks while their husbands are still looking for work.

In the pecking order of these newest immigrants, one in which the most recent arrivals carry with them all the reminders of home in clothes and bearing, Ju Hee represents that category pejoratively called "FOB"‑Fresh Off the Boat. Ju Hee wears dark‑blue pants and a blue blouse. She holds herself in the manner of a woman who is terrified of sudden loud noises. Ju Hee is at the beginning of the dream of one day opening a shop of her own and becoming a confident woman in America, like Kim Young Ja.

Ju Hee sits in a one‑table coffeeshop next door to the salon. Beside her sits Kim Young Ja. Ten years and a seeming lifetime of experience in America separate them. Young Ja wears a flowing white skirt, pink blouse, pink earrings and silver slippers. Her hair is pulled back from her forehead into an opulent wave. "Korean women have a strong sense of family," says Young Ja. "They say, 'I have to do it.'"

Young Ja's climb started in a building on the corner of Fifty‑ninth Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan‑a monument of uninspiring proportions. It is a long room carpeted in torn and faded institutional red and lit by naked fluorescent bulbs. The signs, in yellow and neon, read AAA Nails, but Korean women have their own name for it. They call it nonsan hullyon so, which translates roughly as "boot camp." It is where Young Ja and scores of other Korean women who now own their own shops started, doing pedicures.

Young Ja came to New York City in 1980 because her husband, a theatrical director in Seoul, wanted to study at New York University. "But he needed money," she says. "So I said, 'I'll support you.'

Young Ja had been an actress. For a month after she arrived, she worked in a clothing store, but she liked neither the work nor the money she made. Then, through the wife of one of her husband's college classmates‑school ties are eternal bonds in Korea‑Young Ja was introduced to AAA Nails.

The job is regarded as suitable for a woman, at least in the narrow definition that Korean men and tradition‑bound women apply in assessing the propriety of female employment. The work is not arduous; women have time to feed their families and clean up after them; and it is an environment populated almost exclusively by other women and therefore free from the temptations of men. Young Ja was told, "If your husband permits it, you can work late." She started the next day.

Seven other women worked in the shop. Young Ja's customers included fashion models who were impressed with her manicuring ability and her head for business. They persuaded her to open her own shop, recommending the city's garment district as a site, in the belief that the neighborhood's models would clamor to have their nails done for five dollars a throw, to say nothing of paying reasonable prices for nail tips, silk wraps and pedicures.

Young Ja hesitated at first but then she leaped. She opened a shop on Thirty‑eighth Street and Seventh Avenue. When she left she was one of five women with whom she had worked who also opened their own salons. Hence AAA Nails's boot camp nickname.

But rentals do not come cheaply in New York City and Young Ja needed cash. Had she not been able to get it from her brother she could have turned to a traditional source. For centuries Korean women have practiced a form of mutual lending called kkye. A kkye is a group of women, say twenty‑five, who meet each month, ostensibly for lunch and the requisite boasting about their children and their husbands. (Korean women, though traditionally woefully ill‑treated, nonetheless regard their husbands as little more then strutting mamas' boys who would die of starvation if their wives or mothers were not there to fix their rice and pickled cabbage.) After the talk and laughter, the women each hand the group's designated leader an agreed upon sum.

Every month one member of the group gets to draw all the money in the pool. In Korea this might mean having the cash for a daughter's wedding or one of Seoul's notoriously expensive apartment down payments. In America, after two or three turns at drawing the kitty, it means having the forty thousand dollars or so necessary for going into business.

And so Young Ja opened her first shop. In time she opened two more. Then she sold her shop on Thirty‑eighth Street and relocated to Scarsdale. In the suburbs, she reasoned, more women would want to have their nails done and would be willing to pay extra for the service. Eight years after she came to America, Young Ja had divested herself of her city locations and now owns salons in Rye, Scarsdale, White Plains and Greenwich, Connecticut.

She and her family live in the expensive Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. Her daughter attends Smith College and her son, Hamilton College. Her husband, who came to New York City thinking he would return to Korea after completing his studies, has had to settle for periodic trips home. "His mind is in Korea," Young Ja says of her husband, who directs theatrical projects in Seoul and drives to the train station each morning to pick up the women who work for his wife.

It is no illusion that certain streets in Manhattan and Queens look as if they're lined with competing nail salons that have reproduced themselves like so many splitting amoebas. The congestion is an unfortunate by‑product of a slavish work ethic. Because so many manicurists work long hours and six‑day weeks, they know only those neighborhoods in which they work and live. When they sense, after years of waiting, that their turn to draw money from the kkye is approaching, they will scour the only neighborhoods they know for vacant shops‑often choosing storefronts down the block or across the street from their current employer.

Kim Jeong Hwa, who worked for Young Ja for a time, is the rare Korean woman who does not trust kkyes, having seen her savings disappear in Korea when the group leader absconded with everyone's cash.

Jeong Hwa opened her shop three years ago with money accumulated over five thrifty years. She and the women who work for her share their meals. They share gossip, chitchat, family problems and details of each others' lives. Removed from the intimacy of neighbors and relatives back home, they rely upon one another for the affection Koreans call jong. Jong is love filled with obligations. It is as embracing as it can be suffocating. Jong, Koreans say, is a "sticky" emotion.

When Jeong Hwa left Young Ja's salon, it was, in a sense, an assault upon the jong that existed between them. On the day of Jeong Hwa's departure, Young Ja would not talk to her.

Yet without jong, life seems emptier, especially life outside Korea. "In New York,” Jeong Hwa says, “you are closest when you are working together.” It is a closeness, she says, made cozier by the absence of men. Korean men, say Korean women, are happiest when they are giving orders. But in the nail salon it is women who are almost always in charge, save for the occasional husband whose wife has delegated to him the task of managing her shop. "The driving‑that's all they can do," says Jeong Hwa, who is married to an American songwriter she met years ago at church.

Jeong Hwa's salon is small, brightly lit and wallpapered in pink. The seat cushions are bright blue‑and‑red satin‑bold, splashy Korean colors. On one wall hangs a blown‑up photograph of Jeong Hwa performing a folk dance in traditional dress. It is a shop that, but for the disc jockey's voice on the radio, might just as easily be found in the Myong‑dong shopping district in central Seoul.

The language spoken is Korean, except by customers who arrive and greet Jeong Hwa with, "Hi, Kim, I'm going out tonight." Jeong Hwa says it is easier not to disabuse them of their notion of her name. Other American women come to Jeong Hwa looking for work. They present their beauty school credentials and ask if anything part‑time might be available. Their applications do not interest Jeong Hwa, who can find all the experienced manicurists she needs by advertising in the classified section of the Korean language newspaper the Korea Times.

"I like Korean women. They're harder workers," she says. "These American girls want short working hours."



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In the company of women: salon-owner Kim Young Ja, left, gave Yi Ju Hoe her first job in the United States.

Yi Ju Hee, her husband and two sons live in a one bedroom apartment decorated with plants and Korean brush paintings which remind her of home. Their rent is five hundred dollars a month.

In Seoul, Ju Hee and her family lived in a house with three bedrooms, which meant that her sons had their own rooms. Now the boys sleep in the living room where, in the evenings, they play video games and watch television. Ju Hee misses her house in Seoul. There was so much room. She misses her life in Seoul because there was so much time. In the afternoon, before her husband returned from work at Kia Motors and her sons from school, Ju Hee had time to shop with her friends.

Ju Hee almost never shops for herself in America. "Here, I feel like I'm spending a lot of money," she says. "When I spend money I hesitate. I ask myself, 'Should I spend or save?' ' People tell her that after a few years in America she will lose her immigrant's fear of spending too freely. Now Ju Hee saves. The last present she bought herself was a T‑shirt and a pair of twenty‑seven dollar pants.

Ju Hee cannot remember when she had an hour to herself. She sleeps past 6:40 only one day a week, Sunday, when she rises at 7:30 for church. After church, the family gathers. The women cook and the men sit in the living room, watching baseball‑a popular game in Korea, too‑or playing GoStop, a card game that Korean men play passionately.

On weekdays, Ju Hee's husband gets home from work' first and sometimes helps with dinner by putting the rice in the rice cooker and pouring in the water. Dinner is the time to talk with her family. But now Ju Hee is hearing words from her sons that worry her.

"I tell them something and they say, 'Mom, this is America, not Korea,' " she says of her newly disobedient sons. "Their minds have changed. They make friends with American boys and girls and follow the American ways."

Still, this is where Ju Hee and her husband want their sons to be. They will go to college in America to study engineering and com­puters ‑perhaps, she says, they will even marry American girls.

Ju Hee and her husband will work. She may suffer headaches from breathing in nail polish remover‑its harsh smell as endemic to a nail salon as muscle balm is to a boxing gym‑but her sons, she says, did not come to America to work in a dry cleaning shop like their father.

Ju Hee has joined a kkye. But she is not saving to open her own nail salon. "I've thought of it but I don't have much hope," she says. "There are too many salons already to have that kind of dream."

Michael Shapiro's The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow, was published recently by Atlantic Monthly Press.

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