When one thinks of Lunar New Years, words that come to mind include: prosperity, health, good fortune, and longevity. Growing up in a Vietnamese household, Lunar New Years was always about festivals, lion dances, special foods, beautiful flowers, wearing traditional clothes, cleaning the house, visiting your relatives, wishing new year’s blessings, and of course, the little red envelopes! Ever since I was little, I remember wishing my parents 100 years of life, health, love, and happiness.
However, as the years go by and as I grow up, the red envelopes eventually disappear and along with it, the fairy-tale like wishes for my parents’ long life, good health and good fortune. Although we wish our parents good health and longevity out of tradition, respect, and wholehearted goodwill, as Asian American immigrants, many of us already know these wishes do not always reflect the reality of the upcoming year. To what extent do we act on these wishes and can they even be achieved with the current state of America and especially in the case of Asian American immigrants?
My mother, who just turned 60 last year, has been working multiple jobs to make ends meet throughout all of her life. One main job that particularly detriments her health is working in the nail salon industry where she constantly interacts with unsafe chemicals. In this industry, toxic chemicals such as Formaldehyde, Toluene, and DBP—the toxic trio—are continuously released at much higher levels than what is determined to be “safe” by the FDA. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and all of the chemicals have been shown to cause many hazardous health problems. Although this is the reality, there is currently no pre-market safety regulation of toxic chemicals in general.
This is particularly bothersome, because the Vietnamese American community faces these health burdens disproportionately: up to 80% of the nail salon workforce is Vietnamese. I’ve grown up with this industry and every Vietnamese person I know is connected to this industry in one way or another—either by being a worker themselves or having an immediate family member who is a nail salon worker. I see the toxic work environment affecting my mother every day as I helplessly witness new aches and pains as well as other neurological effects, such as headaches and dizziness. Through her myriad of health problems, her most recent complaint is not being able to extend her right hand at times. Is there something that can be done for her health?
With this New Year, if health is something we believe in, a step we can take to ensure our New Year wishes are not made in vain is to advocate for safer products. We can do a few things: 1) At your favorite nail salon, ask for toxic trio free products! 2) Support the Safe Cosmetics Act, which will require pre-market safety assessments for personal care products like nail salon products! 3) Join efforts with organizations like the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (www.cahealthynailsalons.org) to advocate for the health of our communities. I will be working with the CA Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative to fight for policy changes in the cosmetics industry to produce safer products and I hope you will join too. Without these efforts, my mother, and countless other low-income Asian American families, would not be able to support their family in an economic, safe, and sustainable way. I hope that we will all challenge what it means to be ‘healthy’ and ‘prosperous’ today, as we make our New Lunar Year wishes to our family and friends.