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Training to Become Entrepreneurs: Vietnamese Migrants in the Nail Business in Southern California


Since the first group of refugees who fled Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 arrived in the United States, Vietnamese migrants have become significantly involved in the expansion of the ethnic business of professional nail care. As the numbers of new migrants from Vietnam who find employment in the nail industry continue to grow, this study seeks to understand the experiences of first-generation immigrant Vietnamese who went through a training program to become professional manicurists. This research draws on data collected from interviews with 22 manicurists-in-training and six months of ethnographic fieldwork at a major beauty college in Southern California. I argue that the manicurists-in-training understood their future work in the nail industry as a form of independent entrepreneurial labor rather than contracted labor, which allowed them to move freely within the ethnic business network of nail care around the United States for their entrepreneurial work as manicurists.

As these manicurists-in-training went through the program, they carved out new forms of entrepreneurial selves, which were discussed in terms of liberation from exploitation and compliance with the law. These two understandings of the self work in tandem within the state’s neoliberal project, which seeks to produce subjects capable of self-government and self-realization (Rose, 1999, p.142). The training program was designed to produce compliant entrepreneurial subjects while also promising freedom in the form of autonomy (Rose, 1999). The program’s training practices were not about beauty but about “rendering moral” (Leshkowich, 2012), or producing good, disciplined and compliant entrepreneurial migrants. The training site showed tension between the state’s neoliberal entrepreneurial project, (which aimed to produce self-sufficient and liberated individuals who also comply with the law) and the Vietnamese migrants’ cultural sensibilities (which are linked to socialist-oriented collectivist understandings of the self). Students mitigated this tension by realigning the neoliberal logics of individual self with the collectivist understandings of the self exemplified in Vietnamese moral parenthood. This research offers an understanding of the stakes for migrants in engaging in an “ethnic business” such as the nail care profession.

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