When a New York Times investigation into the exploitation of Asian migrants working as manicurists in New York was published on the newspaper’s Chinese-language site recently, many readers in China asked on social media: What does Sister Feng think?
Sister Feng, whose real name is Luo Yufeng, is an Internet celebrity with more than 4.7 million followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform. In 2010, she moved to New York and worked there as a manicurist for four years.
Ms. Luo, 29, was born into a farming family in southwest China. She first attracted attention in 2009, when she handed out fliers in Shanghai seeking her Mr. Right: He must have an economics degree from Tsinghua or Peking University; his former girlfriends must not have had abortions; and he must not work for a state-owned company, though an exception might be made for a man employed with PetroChina, Sinopec or a top bank.
The confidence she exuded in television interviews only raised more eyebrows, especially her claim of unmatched intelligence. Although addressing a woman in China as “elder sister” is usually a show of respect, Internet users began calling Ms. Luo “Elder Sister Feng” or “Sister Feng” with a decidedly sarcastic intent.
Publicity did not translate into financial or marital success. In November 2010, she posted on Weibo: “I’ve arrived in the U.S. I’m going to go meet Obama.” Thousands of Weibo users commented, with many expressing sympathy for the American president.
She said she had gone to the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a Wall Street financier. But reality proved more difficult. Ms. Luo, who did not speak much English, had to make ends meet by working as a manicurist, first in cheap salons in Brooklyn and later, as she became more skilled, in higher-end ones run by Koreans in Manhattan. She said she quit in late 2014 to devote more time to studying English and applying to a university.
In an interview, conducted after she had read The Times’s investigation, Ms. Luo discusses why she believes Koreans make the best bosses and Chinese from Fujian Province the worst manicurists, and her take on the American Dream:
The Times reported that some immigrant manicurists said their bosses would withhold tips and verbally or physically abuse them. Did you ever experience this?
There were times when my tips were withheld. But as long as I thought my wages weren’t out of line with my labor, I wouldn’t go to my boss and ask for the tips. In nail salons run by Chinese, being verbally abused was commonplace, so I changed workplaces often. But it never happened in salons run by Koreans. I was never physically beaten.
The Times reported that some manicurists experience miscarriages, give birth to unhealthy babies or develop cancer. Have you seen such cases?
I’ve heard of miscarriages, but the women were not the veteran employees, but ones who were just starting out. Most manicurists are women of childbearing age. After they become pregnant, in order to make money, they keep working until a few days before giving birth and come back to work a month after. I’ve never heard of their children having health problems. I often saw manicurists bring their kids in on weekends, and they were as bubbly and cute as other kids.
The real health threat for manicurists is that the customers just come in one after another, and there’s no time to eat. Sometimes the bosses wouldn’t allow us time to eat. In summer, we could never eat lunch until 3 p.m. After a while I started having stomach problems. I couldn’t sleep at night because of the stomachaches.
When I started working in salons run by Koreans, the bosses would allow us to eat on time no matter how busy we were and would ask the customers to wait. After that, my stomach got better.
The main cause of miscarriages among manicurists is that workers have to work 12-hour days when nail salons get busiest in summer, and they have to rush around serving customers all day. If a pregnant woman works under such conditions, she is bound to have a miscarriage. I have a friend who works on Long Island, and she lost her child under such conditions.
The Times report says Korean manicurists enjoy the best conditions in New York’s manicure industry. Was that your experience?
Korean manicurists are first-class citizens in the manicure industry. Nail salons run by Koreans have better management and techniques, and Koreans are undoubtedly at the top of the industry. Young, beautiful Korean women can choose to work where they wish and enjoy higher incomes.
In fact, starting the year before last, I only worked in nail salons run by Koreans. Many licensed veteran manicurists like myself only work in nail salons run by Koreans. Customers in salons in Manhattan’s rich neighborhoods have better manners and tip more generously. The bosses there do not bully their workers, and the base pay is higher. Most nail salons in Manhattan are run by Koreans.
The preference for Korean manicurists is widespread among Korean salon owners. I think this is quite normal. People usually give a hand to their countrymen.
The reason Korean nail salons set the standard in the industry is because Koreans are harder workers. Korean bosses are warm and gracious. Most important, they run their small salons as real businesses. In my observations, the owners of the Korean salons I worked in kept records of everything. They were very organized in their management. So most manicurists, including Chinese ones, take pride in working in Korean-run nail salons. To the customers, Chinese and Koreans look alike, and we both speak to them in English. They can’t really tell who is Chinese and who is Korean. Customers don’t notice which salons are run by Koreans and which by Chinese. But for us manicurists, working for Korean and Chinese bosses is like night and day.
So even when my colleagues and I felt our Korean colleagues were favored by the bosses and got higher base pay, we still preferred working in salons run by Koreans than by Chinese. At least we wouldn’t be verbally abused or asked to work extra hours at the bosses’ whim.
Did you see an “ethnic caste system” as it was described in The Times?
Ethnic discrimination is quite serious. Mexicans, Hispanics, Nepalis, Vietnamese may receive lower base wages compared with other workers in the manicure industry. Usually their base pay is $5 a day lower, and they tend to experience more verbal abuse. They may be discriminated against in other ways, too. But based on my observations, people in these ethnic groups are also discriminated against when working in restaurants or trying to rent a place to live.
Also, salon owners who are not from [the southeastern Chinese province of] Fujian discriminate against Fujianese manicurists. When we look for jobs, we are always asked where we’re from. If a worker answers she is Fujianese, she will almost certainly not get the job.
Why do they dislike Fujianese people?
Actually even Fujianese people were unwilling to deal with Fujianese. The Fujianese who immigrated here illegally have to repay their “immigration fees,” so they make money their priority. Their lives in America are all about making money and winning glory for themselves back home in Fujian. Besides, they tend to keep to their own families. Compared with people from other parts of China, it’s harder for them to integrate into American society. Even when Fujianese have gotten a green card or become a citizen, they still identify themselves as Fujianese, while people from other places soon identify themselves as Americans.
Doing manicures is about techniques, and it requires workers to have a basic enthusiasm for creating beauty. If a manicurist makes money instead of beauty his or her sole mission, she’ll quickly be overtaken by others and find it harder to get good jobs in affluent neighborhoods.
More important, compared with people from other parts of China, Fujianese manicurists tend to have on average three years less education. Most Chinese manicurists or salon owners in Manhattan are at least high school graduates and speak relatively good English, with many even having college degrees. Most Fujianese manicurists are secondary school graduates and don’t have legal residency. They can only work in poorer neighborhoods like Brooklyn. Most of the Chinese manicurists I met in Manhattan were non-Fujianese.
When you worked in nail salons, were your colleagues living in the United States legally?
Most of my Fujianese colleagues immigrated here illegally. Most did not have a green card. Fewer than a third had legal residency, and only about a fourth had a manicurist license.
What are your thoughts on the New York manicure industry in general?
I think it’s fine. Many of my friends have been doing the work for more than 10 years, and they generally think it’s better than working in restaurants. The difference between a manicurist and her boss is not clear-cut. An ordinary worker can start in a nail salon to learn the techniques, and, after three or five years, she can pay around $30,000 to buy a salon and become a boss herself. I found this highly inspiring. Even when I was cursed or when my customers found fault with me, my heart was still full of hope, because one day I could become a boss, too.
What’s your definition of the American Dream?
The American Dream is that everyone is equal and free.
Did your experience working in the manicure industry change your perceptions of the United States?
My parents divorced when I was 7. After that, my father left and refused to pay child support or visit me. I lived with my mother and stepfather through my teenage years. I never experienced much family love and am not close to my parents, so I think of all Americans as my family. I have no prejudice against them.
I’ve worked in neighborhoods of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Indians in my time as a manicurist. I didn’t see any real differences. Black people are kind and beautiful. Hispanic people are likeable. Indian people are quite generous. White people always ask about our lives and show they care. America has always lived up to my ideal.
This article was adapted from an interview that first appeared on the Chinese-language site of The New York Times.