The woman rubbed the cracked skin of a man's foot, smoothing on almond cream. She massaged his leg, cradling his rough ankle as she muttered in Vietnamese.
"Choi dat oi!" she said, turning to a co-worker. "Oh my God! This guy is so dirty. I thought he looked clean. But he takes off the shoe and he is different."
The manicurists kept their heads bowed and whispered, although there is no way the customer could understand their chatter. One polished his toes, the other did his fingers.
Inside the Derma Spa & Nails salon in Newport Beach, manicures started at $16, and the women worked away as afternoon grew into evening.
The customer wore a sleeveless tank top and jeans. He had a sparkling stud in his left ear and held a phone to his right, oblivious to the talk.
I sat two chairs away, tapping the keys of my BlackBerry, taking it all down. I didn't let on that I understood their conversations; everyone working here was from Vietnam, as am I.
The murmuring of manicurists in Vietnamese is as much a part of the mani-pedi world as the scent of acetone and fingernail polish. I've been asked over and over by those who don't speak the language: What do they talk about at nail salons?
In reality, it's not so different from other places where people toil at tedious work. Gossip breaks the routine.
They chat about children and romance, about spending their tips and saving for college, about ladies with calloused hands holding expensive purses. They compare the best airfare for a visit to Vietnam. They share their longing for tropical fruits found only in their homeland. They size up their clients.
"She drives a Mercedes, but she's so cheap," one technician said about a grandmother who tried to get the salon to lower its price for a French mani-pedi.
"Look how beautiful her hair is," said another, nodding toward a middle-age blond with a fleur-de-lis tattoo on her ankle. "Her makeup looks nice. But her hands need a lot of work."
My feet soaked in warm water as I tuned into the chatter around me: Is he married? Why doesn't he wear a ring? Is the young companion with him really his daughter?
The conversation stopped when the client they had been gossiping about dropped his cellphone near a water-filled basin. An employee picked it up and wiped it on her sweater.
"What's your name?" the grateful customer asked. "Where are you from?"
In 1975, according to Nails magazine, a trade publication, film star Tippi Hedren persuaded 20 refugees from war-ravaged Vietnam to train with her personal manicurist. It provided an easy way to earn a living compared to other professions.
Jumping into the business required only a small cash investment, little English and a short series of cosmetology classes. Thousands of nail salons sprang up across the country, run by Vietnamese Americans who hired friends and relatives. They charged less than the going rates — and what once was a luxury suddenly became affordable.
Of the 8,000 salons in California, about 75% are owned or operated by Vietnamese Americans, according to Nails magazine.
I rarely paint my nails. Mine, like those of many of the workers in this salon, are trimmed short and left unadorned.
They know what I need before I know it myself."
— Carol Nue, customer
A few weeks after visiting Derma Spa, I returned and told some of the women I had eavesdropped. Some were amused. Others were puzzled.
Still, manager Lynn Nguyen and her staff welcomed me. Nguyen's family in Vietnam farmed the countryside near the Dong Thap province in the Mekong Delta. She arrived in the U.S. in the 1990s, and sold banh mi sandwiches by day as she studied to become a manicurist by night.
Her co-worker, Anh Tran, attended law school in the homeland. She and her husband, a pharmacist, arrived in America in 1975, after the fall of Saigon.
At first, she worked at drafting. In 1983, Tran tagged along with her niece to classes to learn how to become a nail technician. They earned their licenses and then, drawn by the booming beauty services industry, "we decided we should be a part of it," Tran recalled.
Tran spoke English well, having picked up the language from conversations with customers. She used to own a salon in Costa Mesa but now prefers working for someone else, especially when that person is Nguyen. The two clipped and filed in rhythm, gently attending to Carol Nue, a regular customer who favored shades of pink.
Tran spends eight hours a day at Derma Spa, usually starting at 10 a.m. Mornings unfold slowly but after 1 p.m., business is brisk. She serves seven to eight clients daily and can make $100 to $150.
Nue, a real estate agent from Newport Beach, called Tran and Nguyen "smart women who reinvented themselves. They have good instincts. They know what I need before I know it myself. I don't care what the conversation's about, it's none of my business. I come in, sit back and relax."
Customers don't always understand how unrelenting the pace can be. At Sun Nails in Silver Lake on a recent Saturday, people paraded in and out. In one 10-minute span, six women and one man arrived, ready to be pampered.
Signs on the wall reminded clients to feed their parking meters. Cuong Tran opened the business three years ago with his wife. He barked a warning to an employee.
"Be careful not to graze that lady's skin," he said.
"I'm not," the technician responded.
"Then why is she yelling?"
A customer spoke up: "Buff my nails again, please.… It's not shiny enough."
In the next few seconds, three teenagers entered, followed by one of their mothers. There was a rush to finish bikini waxes and pedicures. Every technician had clients waiting to get served.
"You think we sit around and gossip about people?" manicurist Tuyet Nguyen asked me.
In fact, her fellow workers did.
"Not her again. Her mom is so polite. I don't know why the daughter is so demanding," said one employee.
Another manicurist piped up: "Didn't she learn how to act nice?"
"Pay more attention," one employee warned as a co-worker echoed the order. "We don't want to send them to Happy Nails" — a rival salon.
You think we sit around and gossip about people?"
— Tuyet Nguyen, manicurist
Folks wandered into the De Lacey Beauty Shoppe in Pasadena, fresh from shopping at Tiffany's around the corner, or sipping a cup of chamomile at Bird Pick Tea & Herb next door.
On this Sunday, the manicurists sat at cramped stations as they shouted to one another across the room in Chinese and Vietnamese.
"You don't need to ask her what color. She always chooses green."
"Be careful. That girl's ticklish."
"Sell the facial. She could use a facial."
"She looks like a model," one technician says. "I wonder if she's fake anywhere. She is beautiful."
When customers asked employees for their names, a few were reluctant to reply. They worried that a complaint was on the way. Some thought their names were too hard to pronounce so they responded with Americanized versions.
The manicurist at Tip Top Nails in Westminster released my left hand to start scraping the cuticles on my right.
She touched my roughened palm. "Look at her hands," she said, unaware that I understood Vietnamese.
"She must play a lot of cards," the woman said, adding that I have "ban tay cua nguoi danh bai" — gambler's hands."
As sunlight faded outside the Westminster salon, the women debated careers and the choices facing their sons and daughters. The young people "can get a successful job and don't have to smile for tips."
"If they want to be a doctor, they can perform every family's dream. But they can work at the post office and make more money in 10 years than we will in our whole life."
As they imagined their children's bright futures, the women watched the world pass in front of the shop window, waiting for the next client.