By Nicholas Hirshon
Published May 14, 2012
The New York Times
From a stool barely a foot high, the Nepalese woman hunched over the wrinkled feet of an older woman, attending to them with care and proficiency. She immersed the customer’s feet in a small whirlpool, snipping and filing away.
“I didn’t even tell my friends what I did here because I felt so embarrassed,” the woman said, reaching for a pumice stone to remove dry skin from the bottom of the customer’s feet. “Now, no more.”
The Nepalese immigrant, Rambika KC, was eager for employment when she arrived in New York City about a decade ago. She was drawn to beauty salons, where many Asian immigrants had found jobs after acquiring the necessary licenses with only a few months of training.
She now owns a salon in Glendale, Queens, which bears a reminder of her homeland: a panoramic photograph of the Himalayas. But she still remembers her beginnings in New York, when having to perform pedicures was nearly a deal breaker.
Women in Nepal, especially Hindus, touch only their husbands’ or parents’ feet as a sign of respect, said Tara Niraula, an advocate of immigrants’ rights and a former administrator at the New School who was born in Nepal and is considered an expert on Nepalis in New York. To touch strangers’ feet is to show deference they have not earned, Dr. Niraula said, and to label oneself as low-class, or at least lower than the person whose feet are being handled.
Amrit Rai, minister counselor of the Nepalese mission to the United Nations, acknowledged that many traditional Nepalis would frown upon female pedicurists. “There are people who will say Nepali women should not do that job,” he said.
But Mr. Rai said community leaders in New York were encouraging the Nepalese women who overcame their culture’s aversion to touching strangers’ feet. “They are courageous women,” he said. “We are proud of them.”
Many Nepalese women who have thrived in New York’s salon industry credit their success to Mohan Gyawali, who was an engineer in Nepal and now runs two salons in western Queens. He estimated that he had trained about 400 Nepalis to perform pedicures, manicures and other beauty mainstays, and to navigate the licensing process.
“If immigrants come to a new place, they need a new skill,” Mr. Gyawali, 49, said between answering phone calls at C Spa on Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village, Queens. “This is the entry point.”
It is not an easy transition. One of Mr. Gyawali’s employees, Srijana Shrestha, broke down when she realized the requirements of her new job. “I’m crying the first time I saw everybody doing pedicures,” said Ms. Shrestha, 26. She recalled thinking, “Oh my God, it’s so scary. I don’t like it.”
But customers alleviated Ms. Shrestha’s fears. When she touched their feet, they did not look down on her as she had expected they would.
Mr. Gyawali said his students were running over two dozen of about 50 Nepalese salons in the city, most of them in Manhattan. He said he was not troubled by the competition, viewing the other stores as job outlets for other Nepalis trying to make a living in New York.
Samjhana Khanal hired several Nepalese women to work at her beauty salon in Astoria, Queens, when it opened last November. Ms. Khanal’s standing as a young, female business owner would make her a rarity in Nepal, but she said she enjoyed running the salon far more than baby-sitting, which her relatives had suggested after she arrived in New York in 2007.
Ms. Khanal, 26, is an exception in another sense as well: she insisted that she had never felt uneasy handling strangers’ feet. She chuckled as she said her profession had worried only her father-in-law, who fussed that a woman of slight build like herself would be unable to effectively clean the feet of someone much larger.
She is prepared, though, to calm new employees who dread giving pedicures. She tells them that the customers are genial and do not look down on women who touch strangers’ feet. Indeed, patrons welcome the employees.
“They invite me to their birthday parties,” Ms. Khanal said with a grin. “They want to add me on Facebook.”
On a recent afternoon at Ms. KC’s salon in Glendale, Jessica Lewis and her fiancé, Joe Green, rolled up their pants for pedicures a day before their wedding.
Ms. Lewis said she had become a regular because the employees treated her kindly. As if on cue, the workers insisted that they would not charge Ms. Lewis that day. They asked that she accept the free pedicure as a wedding present.
Ms. Lewis was surprised when she was told that many Nepalese pedicurists were initially hesitant to touch strangers’ feet. She gestured to the woman ministering to her toes, which were separated by cotton balls, and said, “You would think she was born to do this.”