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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
Today’s new book announcement is a little different from previous ones. The book I would like to profile is entitled The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work and it takes an individual- and institutional-level look at the recent proliferation of Korean American-owned nail salons in New York City and the interactions inside them between the owners, workers, and customers across racial, social class, and immigrant identities. The book’s description:
Two women, virtual strangers, sit hand-in-hand across a narrow table, both intent on the same thing-achieving the perfect manicure. Encounters like this occur thousands of times across the United States in nail salons increasingly owned and operated by Asian immigrants. This study looks closely for the first time at these intimate encounters, focusing on New York City, where such nail salons have become ubiquitous. Drawing from rich and compelling interviews, Miliann Kang takes us inside the nail industry, asking such questions as: Why have nail salons become so popular? Why do so many Asian women, and Korean women in particular, provide these services?
Kang discovers multiple motivations for the manicure-from the pampering of white middle class women to the artistic self-expression of working class African American women to the mass consumption of body-related services. Contrary to notions of beauty service establishments as spaces for building community among women, The Managed Hand finds that while tentative and fragile solidarities can emerge across the manicure table, they generally give way to even more powerful divisions of race, class, and immigration.
The book is written by Miliann Kang, recently-promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in the Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. As it turns out, Miliann also happens to be my wife. On a personal level, I am extremely thrilled and proud of my wife and the hard work that she’s put into her life and her career and this excellence is particularly evident in her book and so it deserves to be profiled here.
But this is more than her proud husband going on and on about his wife — Miliann’s book is published by the University of California Press (widely considered the most prestigious academic press in the social sciences). Secondly, The Managed Hand recently received the Sara Whaley Book Prize from the National Women’s Studies Association. Finally, her book has been acclaimed by nationally-recognized scholars around the country as “a must read for women’s studies and sociology classes on labor, migration and gender,” “a significant contribution to the existing literature on Asian-American women, gender relations, service workers, beauty and the body,” an “innovative and compelling ethnography,” and finally, “a wonderful example of what sociology does best.”
I was also fortunate to land an exclusive interview with Miliann and asked her the following questions about her work and her book:
What initially motivated you to start researching Korean-owned nail salons in New York City?
I was a graduate student in Sociology at New York University and I was interested in doing research on Asian immigrant women and work, and nail salons happened to be one of the largest niches in which they were employed. I was also working with an Asian American community organization at the time and we started offering English language workplace literacy classes in one salon. I quickly realized what a rich and revealing research site these salons were for exploring the microinteractions of service exchanges between women of diverse backgrounds. In addition, by exploring both the processes inside and outside of these salons, I could contextualize them within large social shifts such as the emergence of new kinds of services, especially those involving commercialized work on the body, and the influx of new immigrants into filling these jobs.
There’s been a lot of debate about the nature of Korean-Black relations in large cities such as NYC. What contributes to such tensions on both sides? Ultimately, are such tensions exaggerated by the media?
I think the media has at times misrepresented these tensions, framing them in racial terms rather than focusing on issues such as poverty, lack of jobs and cuts in government programs that have led to tensions in inner-city neighborhoods. At the same time, there is a history of tensions– including the Red Apple boycott in Brooklyn and the Los Angeles uprising following the Rodney King verdict – that has produced animosities between black communities and Korean small businesses. What struck me in the nail salons was that many of the very positive interactions between these groups go under the radar, as people for the most part negotiate smooth if not cordial relations despite language and cultural differences.
Your book goes into a lot of detail about the intersections of gender, social class, race/ethnicity, and immigrant status among the workers and customers. In a nutshell, which of these forms of identity would you say is the most significant in the interactions inside these nail salons?
Rather than trying to isolate forms of difference and their impacts, I was more interested in seeing how they operate simultaneously, and how they shift in different situations. So in upscale salons in mostly white, upper and middle class neighborhoods, I focused on how manicuring services mirrored racial and class privileges outside of the salons. In nail art salons servicing mostly black and Latino working class customers, the interactions revealed how minority groups negotiate hierarchies and differences among themselves. Discount nail salons serving a mixed racial and class clientele showed how women’s consumption of generic beauty services created a sense of equality, but also resulted in misunderstandings around rushed or botched exchanges.
It seems that in most other cities around the country, nail salons are most disproportionately owned and staffed by Vietnamese women. Is this true and if so, why is it that Koreans predominate in NYC?
This is a complicated question. The short answer is that immigrants tend to cluster in particular niches, and new immigrants follow their ethnic networks and end up in the same jobs. So in New York, Koreans went into the nail business because it required little capital or English language skills and at the time was not highly regulated. In other places like California and Texas, Vietnamese were the first to make inroads and they continued to dominate. The longer answer has to do with shifting patterns of service provision and consumption in the global economy and how Asian immigrant women fit into these.
This is how I sum it up in the book: “The lifestyle that many urban residents take for granted in cities such as New York is only possible because of the influx of new immigrants and their willingness to work long, arduous hours for minimal pay in jobs that many native-born Americans view as beneath them. Furthermore, the availability and skills of immigrant women to fill these feminized jobs is also a crucial component. While immigrant women from specific ethnic groups are not the sole creators of these jobs or the terms under which they perform them, they contribute to job creation in these specialized niches by capitalizing on the limited choices available to them within the opportunity structure of the global service economy.”
What’s your most significant or poignant memory when you were working, hanging out, and conducting research in these nail salons?
What stands out for me are the many mundane, daily occurrences in these sites where people from all walks of life find themselves thrown together in intimate physical and emotional contact, and they somehow manage to figure things out. While in the book I focus on the inequalities and differences between customers and manicurists, I also hold onto a sense of awe and hope in people’s ability to connect as human beings through the simplest of acts, such as sharing stories about their kids or work, or just treating each other with dignity.
If the Korean women in your study could tell your readers one thing about their work or their lives, what do you think it would be?
I think it would be very similar to what most of us would say – that we work hard to contribute something to society and to support ourselves and our families, and that we want to be treated with respect for the work we do. This quote from one manicurist I think says it well:
We have to get very close to the customers, like this (holding her hands together) so we try best to get along with them. If you don’t like someone and you have to do this – hold their hand and talk to them face to face – it can be very difficult. This is service work – so you know you have to act a certain way. Of course I don’t like doing the pedicures, having to kneel down, and the foot smell. But I just think of it as part of giving the service… I try very hard to ask them about their families and how they feel. It would be nice if once in a while they asked me, too.
In other words, manicurists may not be particularly enthralled with their work, but they adjust and find meaning and purpose in it, and the relations that they have with their customers can either enhance or undermine their sense of worth in performing this work.