This story was published in 2008. My mother has now retired from the nail shop industry and is now cooking full time to her hearts desire

Everyone’s talking about Mom’s Nước Mắm, fish dipping sauce. Now that she’s hired 3 newbies all at one once, “it’s time”, Mom says to bring her beloved fish sauce that all the staff veterans have been raving about.

Like any initiation or hazing event to deem yourself worthy of entrance into an elite club, our nail shop has it’s own similar introductory ritual. Rather than proving yourself worthy by performing lame & humiliating acts , joining the nail shop club of Viet manicurist sisters involves the innocent task of devouring 2 gallons of fish sauce. Topped, of course, on a bed of bun rice noodles, bar-b-que pork and plethora of herbs.

The after-effects of eating this classic fish sauce and herb noodle dish just about ranks up there with all the college Sorority and Fraternity torments.

I scrutinize my mother’s so-called “fish sauce and noodle” parties for all the right reasons in defense of paying customers who have never had fish sauce, let along smell it from a mile away. “We are running a beauty business here , ma. Not a fish sauce factory. Could ya just cut back on some of the garlic in your sauce, just for the shop?”.

I tell her time and time again that customers comment on the “interesting smell” that is now dominating their familiar scents of nail polish and acrylic nails. Worse is when an employee works on a customers eyebrow waxing service.

Hovering over the customers face to rip out their brows is painful enough, without having to bear the smell of pungent fish sauce breath is bad enough. As long as the staff raves about the balance, flavor and perfect blend of her sauce, her pride and glory will stick to the tried and true recipe grandma passed on to her.

So our Viet sisters have now been officially bonded by the ties of fermented fish. The customers continue to smile and sniff straight from the nail polish bottles for relief and I attempt to maintain management poise during this ritual noodle party.

The staff calls my mom “the fish sauce goddess”. Mom calls me a “party pooper”.

I call myself a conscientious and customer conscious manager in this cut throat world of competing nail shops. Again, I am caught between two worlds and somehow talk the customers into empathizing with the staff’s cultural comforts.

After a while, I can’t stand the sight anymore. When it’s finally my time to eat, I slurp away just like they do. But at least I have a couple breath mints for dessert.

Just another day at the nail shop.


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