Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

esp. LITR 4340 American Immigrant Literature
& LITR 5831 World / Multicultural Literature: American Immigrant

"What Color Would You Like, Ma’am?"

 by J. Christine Moon Ko

from her UHCL LITR MA Creative Project titled,


pp. 65-71

Author's note: Traditionally, new immigrants to the USA find either low-wage manual labor or start a niche personal business. Because immigrants' English is often minimal (regardless of education level), it may be difficult for them to have a professional, high-paying job. Instead, they find it easier to own or manage a nail salon, donut shop, or dry cleaners, as such businesses do not require advanced training or English  skills. Such work is the sacrifice that many immigrant parents make, in order to financially support their children. These immigrants’ children then feel pressure to go to college and become successful. Many immigrant children feel obligated to please their parents, because they are aware of the sacrifice and hardships. Asian stereotypes of the “Model Minority” are anchored in these pressures. Asian students excel in school and aim to overachieve because it is important to their parents.


“What Color Would You Like, Ma’am?”

[1] Thien had waited for months for summer break to begin. Even though all he could think about were his college plans, he figured this summer he would play basketball and Play Station games for months while he had the chance. As he walked home from school, he mentally planned late nights with friends and not thinking about anything else but having fun. As he reached his front door he grinned: soon he would be a high school senior, and seniors are cool.

[2] Thien began his usual after-school routine, throwing his backpack on the kitchen floor, grabbing some juice, and making himself comfortable on the couch. He flipped through channels as he began to relax. He felt ready to bask in the glories of summer break. He took off his socks and put them on the coffee table, then flipped open his phone to see if any of his friends had texted him about plans.

[3] As Thien dozed off, his afternoon nap was disrupted by his mother yelling, “Get up! Get up! Tanya not come to shop today. I need you come in.” Thien’s eyes shot open. Nooo. Going to the shop meant going to the family business: Lavish Nails. The thought of being in a place with nail polish and toe separators was embarrassing, and surely, as a man, he would feel completely out of place. He had been to the shop many times to help clean or put away supplies in the storage, but rarely to work as a nail technician. His father often did maintenance work there while his mother, aunts, and sisters would work with clients. Thien knew that many of their clients were picky; they wanted the same nail technician they were comfortable with, and rarely liked change. Often, the women liked to bring their friends and gossip and vent. To his female family members, such gossip was just a sideshow; but to Thien, it was too many women griping while getting their nails done.

[4] Thien admired his family for their hard work. The nail shop was open seven days a week, even on holidays since that’s when clients were off work and in need of a pedicure. But he preferred admiring their hard work at the shop from a distance. After all, he would be a college student soon, and every single member of family counted on his future successes. They would all dream and talk about him becoming Dr. Thien Nguyen.

[5] “Let’s go! Shop is busy. You help, and we get work done faster. Go!” his mother impatiently said to him, while grabbing his arm and dragging him off the couch.

[6] “Wait, no, I’m on summer break!” wailed Thien. He could just see it now—his summer plans of video games and basketball disappearing, replaced by the shop.

[7] He slumped in his mother’s car and looked out the window, playing scenarios in head. What would he say to his friends when they asked him what he’s doing? He never told them how he sometimes made his allowance. Sometimes when the shop got busy, he would help with pedicures—helping women soak their feet, turning on the back massager, stripping off their old nail polish with acetone. His friends would marvel at how gracefully he could paint toenails, but, of course that was something he would never admit. Thien often wondered what it would be like to do household chores for allowance like all the white kids at his school.

[8] Some of his friends received money for their grades. Even his friend Brandon, who wasn’t a bright kid and didn’t take one honors class, would make nearly $200 off B’s and C’s. Other kids took out the trash and washed dishes for $5. Amazing. Thien fantasized about telling his parents that he should get paid $500 for all the A’s received in his honors classes, not to mention taking out the trash, helping his dad in the yard, and painting toenails at the nail salon. But, of course, he never had the courage to tell his parents that. They always preached to him how difficult it was to escape Vietnam as refugees and come to the United States with nothing.

[9] Because of this fact, Thien often felt guilty for not helping more at the nail salon. Every penny his parents made meant so much to them. Even though they didn’t have much, Thien had always felt that his parents did their best to give him the things he needed without hesitation: new school clothes, an expensive graphing calculator for calculus, and a new baseball cap. Sometimes he felt envious of his friends’ families for living in large two-story homes with garages holding multiple cars. They went on family vacations for weeks at a time, simply because their parents were able to take off work—and able to afford the expense.

[10] Thien couldn’t imagine his family closing the nail salon for even one day. There were moments when he would catch himself fantasizing of what it would be like to have friends come over and eat pizza and watch a movie. He could never do that since his home barely had enough space for the people already living there, and their only TV was smaller than his computer screen. Still, Thien tried to be a good sport. His parents worked hard, and he knew it was all for him.

[11] Every member of the family worked at the nail salon, whether they were licensed nail technicians or not. Without knowing and understanding English, they would find it difficult to work even down the street at a restaurant or fast food chain. Without college education or even completing high school, they couldn’t be considered for corporate or professional positions.

[12] Even though Thien admired his parents for their constant hard work for the family, he felt ashamed around his American friends, whose parents were teachers, lawyers, dentists, and real estate agents. Many of them lived in two-storey houses with a pool in the backyard. Thien and his entire family, his parents, three sisters, two aunts, two uncles, and four cousins shared a two-story duplex with one bathroom in each.

[13] Thien was the only son of his parents, and as the eldest he should provide for family. Even though he wanted to get a job at the local grocery store when he was sixteen, his parents and sisters adamantly protested, assuring him that the he didn’t have to do that. It was Thien’s job to successfully finish high school in the top ten and get into his dream university. Afterwards, he would go to medical school and become a doctor. He knew that he would have his family’s full support, and he often imagined what it would be like to move everyone into a grand home, with bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs, just like everyone else. As a doctor, he could medically help his family as well. His parents had gone without medical insurance for nearly twenty years.

[14] As the family car pulled into the Lavish Nails parking lot, he could see all the women waiting with their toenail polish picked out. Putting his boyish pride aside, he got out of the car ready to work. As he walked in with his mother, the familiar ding from the door allowed everyone to welcome two extra pairs of helping hands. Everyone looked up from their working stations and started speaking in Vietnamese all at once. His aunt Thao pointed with her rubber gloves who was next for a pedicure, and who needed a French tip manicure. Thien went straight to his station and along the way motioned his usual client, Martha, to come over because it was her turn.

[15] He helped Martha into her pedicure seat and started the bubbles in the tub containing warm water and lavender bath salts. Snapping on his rubber gloves and face mask, he asked Martha, “Is the water okay? Too hot?” Martha looked up from Us Weekly magazine, shook her head and said, “No, it’s perfect. Thanks.”

[16] As Thien began to diligently work, he masterfully managed to quickly take off Martha’s old polish, and began to cut and snip away her cuticles, exfoliate her calves, and massage her feet and ankles firmly. In no time, Martha’s toes were perfectly painted. She smiled and thanked him again as he led her to a fanned area where her toes could dry undisturbed. He quickly went to the next waiting client, a young girl about his age. He instantly noticed her long, blonde hair swept back into a sleek ponytail, her blue eyes intense even behind the lightly tinted sunglasses she left on indoors.

[17] In the background, Thien could hear everyone chattering in Vietnamese. His aunts talked among themselves about what they should cook for dinner and whose turn it was to put gas in the car. His mother was quietly drilling away, blasting acrylic nails with a buffer. She skillfully maneuvered her wrists to shape and contour the nail perfectly, and even with all the excess white cloud of acrylic smoke in the air, he could see his mother’s intense concentration.  His father was working the front desk, greeting clients as they walked through the doors and asking them what services they needed and tending to paying clients at the same time. Every now and then, Thien heard his father loudly ask, “What color would you like, ma’am?” in a thick Vietnamese accent.

[18] After finishing with his last client, Thien looked up at the clock and saw it was 6:30pm. His phone said he missed three calls from friends; given the crazy work day, he had no chance to reply. Disappointed, he cleaned his work station and the scrubbing tools he used earlier. His mother and sister were heading home to get dinner started for the family, while his father would go down the street to the convenience store to work the evening shift. His mother said to him in Vietnamese that she was going to leave, but after finishing cleaning, he was told to come home with his aunts. It was nearly 8 p.m. when they arrived home. After dinner he went to his room, opened his AP study books, and rummaged through his backpack for his calculator and pencils.

[19] It was midnight when Thien’s mother gently tapped on his door. She poked her head in to see what he was doing, and told him, “Tanya sick. She not coming tomorrow either. You come work, right?” He nodded his head as he closed his books and put them on the book shelf. His mother came in and placed $60 on his desk and said “thank you” in Vietnamese as she began to walk out. Thien looked at the three twenty dollar bills sitting on his desk. Even though it had been a long day and he could use the $60 to buy a video game, he took it back to his mother’s room and set it on her dresser. His father had not returned from his shift at the convenience store, so he sat down at the kitchen table with an SAT study book and waited for him to come home.

[20] While waiting, Thien set the table for his father’s late dinner and looked over his sisters’ homework assignments, making sure they were grammatically correct and the math problems correctly solved. He yawned and stretched out on the couch. He could hear his sisters and mother sleeping, as they had a long day at work tomorrow. His small living room could barely hold all their furniture, but the pieces were all unique and separate from one another. He could remember like it was yesterday when his dad made him go to weekend garage sales looking for reliable and affordable furniture. He started to doze off until around 2am he heard his father’s keys in the lock. The lock worked on some days but on others not at all. Thien spent days attempting to fix it because the family didn’t want to call an expensive repairman. After Thien opened the door, he didn’t want his father to eat alone, so they sat together talking about school and when his college applications were due.

[21] As his father went to bed, Thien washed the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. He picked up his socks from the coffee table and his backpack from the kitchen floor, and went to his room to sleep. After all, tomorrow would be another long day. He reached for his phone on his desk, as the blinking red light indicated messages.

[22] His friend had texted him <hey man. bb tmrw? ill call u>.

[23] Thien responded <sry man got plans tmrw. maybe this wknd?>.

[24] He was disappointed that another game of basketball would be missed. But he knew that with Tanya out sick his parents needed him at the nail salon in the morning. She had been a loyal employee for many years. In fact, she was the most requested technician. Everyone loved Tanya because of her attention to detail, her constant politeness, and her ability to do everything right. Even though she was the only person at the nail salon who was not a relative—or Vietnamese— Thien often felt that she was like an older sister. Tanya was African-American, with caramel skin and short, cropped hair. Her vibrant smile and soft voice made her approachable. Instead of working at her own family’s hair salon, Tanya was more interested in nails and eating Vietnamese noodles, Pho.

[25] He rolled over and pulled his covers over his head. Maybe when Tanya comes back to work, he’ll be able to catch up with his friends and hang out with them. As Thien drifted off to sleep, images from his AP study book swarmed through his head, and he joyfully thought about fun ahead with basketball and video games.