By Andrea Sachs
There are more than 4,000 nail salons in New York City. Most of them are on my block. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but there are nine nail emporia on West 72nd Street between Columbus and West End Avenues alone, with more opening all the time. Why have the number of nail salons in the city more than doubled in the past decade? Obviously, someone is making a buck. This year, the worldwide nail salon industry has taken in an estimated $12 billion, according to Statista, a global data firm. Clearly, we are living through a mani-pedi boomlet on the Upper West Side. Manicures and pedicures, once reserved for the privileged few on special occasions, have become a standard grooming ritual for the many. It would take a Ph.D. in chemistry to understand all of the different methods — gel, acrylic, dip powder, and the like — one can now use to gussy up their nails. (7% of customers are male.)
At their best, nail salons are a place for customers to kick back and relax. At their worst, manicure shops have been nailed for exploiting or underpaying employees. During the holiday season, they are sure to be mobbed.
When it comes to manicures, I follow Connie. I’m not talking about following her on Twitter (or whatever it’s called this week). For more than 15 years, I’ve literally traveled around the UWS, following Connie as she moved to different nail salons. As is typical, “Connie” is her nom de manicure. Her real name is Rosaline Kim and she is originally from South Korea. She has worked for the past four years at Dashing Diva, a lovely spa-like nail salon on West 72nd Street.
It’s hardly novel to form a strong bond with the people in the beauty industry who help you. I know people who would sooner dump their significant other than their hairstylist. In a stressful, often anonymous city, it is a luxury to sit in a shop that is tailored to your sybaritic pleasure, with talented aestheticians focused on you with laser-beam intensity.
Still, there is a tendency in a fast-paced urban setting like NYC to treat service people as fungible, as interchangeable, as appliances. I’ve been guilty of that myself at times — I want it NOW! This is particularly true in high-volume settings like nail salons.
Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist by training and a yenta by personality, but I’m too curious to sit there for 15 years and not find out who is sitting on the other side of the table. After all, during a manicure, you’re holding hands, right? So over the years that I have been going to Connie, I have learned how hard she works, what a perfectionist she is, how shy she can be. (I have decided to use “Connie,” rather than Rosaline, because it is the name she uses with me.) And little by little, despite language and background differences, I’d like to think she has gotten to know me, too. Over those years, we’ve both gotten older, lost parents, had significant ups and downs.
But it wasn’t until I interviewed Connie for this story, with some translation help from her daughter Priscilla Kim, that I realized the journey Connie had made as a first-generation immigrant and the sacrifices she and her husband made to send Priscilla and her sister Gloria to college, allowing the girls to achieve a very different lifestyle.
“Without their sacrifice, love and support, we would not be where we are today, especially in both our personal and professional lives,” Priscilla told me with emotion. “My dad’s name is Thomas Kim and he was employed at 7-Eleven for close to 30 years. He’s always worked the night shift six days a week, so we barely saw him, but knew he was working hard for his family.”
Her parents’ efforts have paid off. Priscilla has worked in the banking and financial services industry for almost 17 years; she previously worked for a top investment bank and now is a sales director at a leading data and technology company. Her younger sister Gloria is a pharmacist, who worked for CVS Pharmacy for almost 20 years and now works at a local hospital in Paramus, N.J. Both are married and mothers themselves.
And their mother’s story? If it were a movie, it might be called Connie’s Choice:
“I was born in the countryside of Gyeonggi-do, South Korea, approximately 30 minutes from Seoul. I was an average student, a very shy and timid girl, but I always loved to learn.
“Growing up, I was considered a tomboy because I loved to be outdoors playing with my three brothers and their friends as opposed to staying indoors and doing girly things with my girlfriends. Being with the boys was much more fun and adventurous!
“Unfortunately, those times were limited. It was frowned upon because in those days, girls were expected to stay indoors and help with chores around the home. My mom was the sole breadwinner and being the only daughter, I had to stay home and help with household chores and preparing meals for the family. As I got older, I wanted to become a nurse and help people, so my plan after high school was to go to nursing school.
“Back then, arranged marriages were very common. My husband and I were arranged by our mothers, who were friends. We got married in 1983. Shortly thereafter we were presented with the opportunity to immigrate to America through my husband’s brother who was in the U.S Army. He was allowed to bring family members to the States at that time who would gain U.S. citizenship.
“After many conversations we decided that it was best to immigrate for a better future in pursuit of the American dream. It was obviously a very difficult decision for me, since I would have to leave my entire family, friends and everything I had known and move to a foreign country at such a young age. This decision also meant that I would have to put my dreams of becoming a nurse on hold, because of the language barrier, limited finances, and the immediate priority of finding a job.
“My husband first came to the States in 1983 to prepare for my arrival, look for a job and a new home and I followed him a year later. We lived in Jackson Heights, Queens, in a very small studio for about a year.
“The first job I was able to get was at a clothing factory. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I had no other choice at the time. I was pretty good working with my hands, so I was mainly tasked with working on the sewing machine, sewing clothes. Then one day a friend told me there was an opportunity to work at a nail salon in Manhattan and I immediately signed up for the classes and eventually got licensed in NY.
“I’ve worked at three nail salons on the UWS in the past 20 years. I have worked in midtown and downtown as well. I really love UWS for its charm and character. To me, compared with any other neighborhood, it’s very lively, dynamic and intimate. Some parts of it reminds me of home back in Korea. There is always something to see, eat and do.
“UWS residents range from all ages and come from many different backgrounds. Folks here are incredibly friendly and down to earth. I also love the proximity it has to Central Park, which is a place I enjoy going to and taking short walks right before I go to work.
“I took some English classes at a private school after work during the ‘90s and tried my best to practice conversational English when I worked in the salons. It was very difficult; to be honest, it is still very difficult today. I am grateful that many of my customers are very friendly, patient and polite when I try to speak with them, since I genuinely love meeting new people and getting to know them even if my English is still very limited.
“I have been blessed with three grandchildren in the last two years and being their grandma has been such an honor. They make me feel like everything I have sacrificed and done was all worth it. Every day I make time to call my daughters and see my grandbabies and I am always on my phone looking at their photos. I feel like I have a new sense of purpose and motivation now. They are always on my mind and I pray that I can live long, stay healthy and active so I can watch them grow. One of my hopes is that when my little granddaughter is old enough, I can do her nails and also take her out to a nail salon where we can enjoy getting a mani and pedi done together.”
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