It’s where Asian American women steal away to de-stress amid tensions; where elders get their perms and reminisce of their home countries between rinses.
For many Asian Americans, the shooting Wednesday at a Korean-owned hair salon in Dallas carried immense weight given the significance of Asian salons as spaces for community — far beyond just the realm of beauty.
Authorities are searching for the gunman, who police said opened fire and injured three women of Korean descent inside Hair World Salon before fleeing. While the motive is not yet known, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said during a news conference Friday that the shooting could be hate-motivated, after his department’s investigation indicated three recent shootings targeting Asian-run businesses may be connected.
The tragedy has been destabilizing for both the local and national communities. Many say Asian American neighborhood beauty salons are intimate spaces that often serve as a reprieve from the discrimination that immigrant women may encounter in society, as well as from the intense loneliness that’s often embedded in the immigrant experience.
Community experts say the shooting, and subsequent fear that has arisen, seeks to disrupt the peace often cultivated in Asian immigrant beauty establishments, particularly for older women whose visits to these businesses are an integral part of their routine.
“When I first heard about the shooting … the trauma of it — this is not going to be easy to overcome,” Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the advocacy group National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, told NBC Asian America. “These neighborhood spas and hair salons really are the places where women are able to find some solace and comfort and be with each other without worrying about who’s listening to them, who’s hearing them.”
This is also where a lot of our aunties talk about their struggles in a space where people understand.
Connie Wun, AAPI Women Lead
Hair World Salon, in what’s known as the city’s Asian Trade District, has a predominantly Korean American clientele. But parallels can be found in immigrant neighborhoods across the Asian American diaspora.
Unlike most beauty salons in the U.S., these establishments often cater to the local Asian American women, many of them older “aunties.” Business is frequently conducted in the community’s native language. Listings and flyers from fellow immigrant establishments, family businesses and personal services like tutoring are posted by the front desk. Many of the older patrons visit almost religiously, for perms, dye jobs and general upkeep. It’s not uncommon for stylists to keep an eye out for the kids in the neighborhood.
Connie Wun, co-founder of the organization AAPI Women Lead, said these settings are often sites where patrons feel pressure to conform to certain beauty standards. But the familiar culture and language, in addition to being a place with few men, make salons a unique environment for Asian immigrant women to discuss the racialized sexism, harassment and violence — both outside the home and within — they often face without having their emotions invalidated.
Stop AAPI Hate, a hate incident tracking forum, collected reports of 10,905 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from March 2020 to December 2021. More than 60 percent of incidents were reported by women.
“This is also where a lot of our aunties talk about their struggles in a space where people understand,” said Wun, whose mother frequents the neighborhood Vietnamese salon. “They’re not just spaces where we congregate, and laugh and joke and find community, but they’re actually spaces that help us survive in the United States.”
Others may even find hair salons to be among the few places they can safely discuss more serious issues, like abuse from partners, Wun said. She explained that she’s encountered stylists who will support survivors of domestic violence who come to their seats or help clients escape dangerous relationships.
Choimorrow, who grew up regularly visiting the Korean salon with her grandmother, said Asian-owned beauty parlors are refuges for Asian American women in ways that even other immigrant spaces are not.
Churches, for example, have become critical civic spaces for immigrant communities to organize. However, some don’t always provide the necessary support for women in difficult relationships. Helen Jin Kim, an assistant professor of American religious history at Emory University, previously told NBC Asian America much of the preaching in Christian immigrant churches assumes that sexual encounters, for example, will be positive, avoiding the “underside of the male-female dynamic” like domestic violence or marital rape.
Choimorrow said that domestic violence or partner abuse continues to be taboo to address publicly in the community.
“[Salons] are really rare spaces that women can actually get support if they need," she said. "I know organizations that outreach to women in these places because they know.”
In addition to being a space away from racism and violence, advocates say for many immigrant women, time spent in the ethnic hair salons can be a salve for the isolation they feel in the U.S. Scholars say that loss is integral to the immigration journey, and many, particularly those who left their countries due to turbulent environments, must grieve their homelands and the severance of their social networks.
Among the bottles of perming solution and shampoo, many women get the rare opportunity to mourn, Wun said. And new connections are forged as patrons and stylists swap lifestyle tips, recount stories or trade neighborhood gossip.
“People develop friendships in these places. They look out for each other,” Choimorrow added.
Wun mentioned that socializing in these spaces allows for more authentic interactions between women. There are quiet cultural customs and behaviors that they don’t need to explain to one another. And emotions, some of which can only be described in their native languages, can be comfortably expressed.
“The United States, generally speaking, has very, very limited language resources and access to immigrant communities. And so, it’s so important that they have these intimate ethnic spaces where they don’t have to defend themselves,” Wun said. “They don’t have to contextualize. They get to just be in community. … They get to be at home in a place that might make things very foreign for them.”
The United States, generally speaking, has very, very limited language resources and access to immigrant communities. And so, it’s so important that they have these intimate ethnic spaces.
CONNIE WUN, AAPI WOMEN LEAD
However, Miliann Kang, author of “The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work,” said that while bonds do form in salons, they’re still businesses that require a significant amount of “emotional labor” to cultivate the intimate atmosphere. Relationships between stylists and clients often take years to develop, and other gestures, like serving fruit in the salon or allowing patrons to drop off their kids while they’re running errands, are extra work that the business owners take on.
“I think there’s a stereotype where there’s all this bonding that automatically happens, and that takes away from the fact that it actually takes a lot of work by the business owner as well as the hairdressers to create that sense of welcome and care,” Kang said.
The sort of tenderness in the work itself, Kang said, is also critical in fostering special connections and a comforting space.
“There’s something about sitting in a chair — you’re having this very intimate exchange with someone, just the fact that they’re touching you gently,” Kang said. “It’s a form of care. They’re attentive to your physical and emotional needs.”