For going on two years now, I’ve gotten my hair cut at a fancy place across the street. It used to be called Hair 1981, but they updated the name recently to the more modern Hair, and in a sign of supreme styling self-confidence here in Asia, put up signage translated into Korean. It’s staffed by 6 or 8 young men at a time, all from small villages out in the hills of Zhejiang Province, all of whom compete with each other to have the biggest, cutest hair in the place. When not shampooing or styling the well-maintained locks of their discerning customers, they sit in the chairs and work the blow dryers on themselves with a vigor and attention to detail unknown in other sectors of the Chinese economy. Each resembles a different sort of lovely, rare bird of the K-Pop Amazon, their piles of hair dyed orange or light orange and tufting beautifully every which way. It’s really something to inspire confidence in a flat-haired American like myself.
When I arrive, I’m shown a menu. There are three choices for a haircut: haircut from a trained stylist ($7 US), haircut from a professionally-trained stylist ($16 US), or haircut from a foreign-trained stylist ($32 US). I go with the cheap option (actually not cheap by local standards), and the girl behind the counter screams the name of the lowliest hair cutter to prepare himself. But first, I am taken into the knowledgeable hands of the shampooer, whose motto may in fact be, “Massage twice, shampoo thrice, rinse five times.” It takes fifteen minutes to get my hair clean, and my scalp is tingling with chemicals and possibly bruised from the massage as I make my way to the cutting chair. The floor is covered in hair, not unlike the floor of a Chinese business hotel, and I sit. The trained hairdresser shows me a grubby magazine of mostly Chinese celebrities and also Taylor Swift and Faith Hill, and asks me to pick my haircut. I go for the Faith Hill, minus the curl. He nods knowingly, and proceeds to cut my hair, then blow dry, then cut it again, then blow dry it again, then cut it again, and finally blow dry it for the third time. Then he works it around in his fingers, trying to force volume and wave, I suppose, where there is little. He is very serious during this time, pausing only to check his phone and to ask me, after some light chatter, “Why did you come to China? America is way more fun.”
I start to get fidgety towards the end of the third blow-dry (my haircut is approaching the hour mark and there are other things I’d like to be doing), but I wait, reminding myself that it would be preposterously rude to tell this man that enough is enough with the styling. Coming from his small village and trying to make it in the big city, he’s clearly worked hard to cultivate the practice of what is thought of as a worldly (Korean) style of hair dressing. Part of that, it appears, is a luxuriously-long time spent by the customer in the barber’s chair. (That and walking out with hair three times as puffy as it’s ever been in your life.)
Finally, he’s satisfied. I smile and try not to touch my ‘do as I pay, afraid I’ll offend his stylistic choices. And I strut home, seven dollars poorer and ready to say: that was my last Chinese haircut. Thanks, Hair, for keeping me voluminous these past two years.