China in Photos

China in Photos: Day No. 40 in which I horribly embarrass myself…

for your viewing errmmm pleasure…and education.  I can’t believe I’m about to do this but…

Yes, the photo of the day is of me, I’m cringing as I hit publish, but what can I say?  I already put up all of my photos of walnuts, and I’m all out of photos for the day. Something about sitting in a coffee shop all afternoon enjoying a rare day-time friend date before school starts and a desire to avoid melting into a puddle of sweat in the middle of a Chengdu sidewalk.

Anyways this photo isn’t about me per se, it’s about my hair.  (even more embarrassing right?  It’s a post about freakin’ hair!)

And it’s not just about my hair, but your hair too and how to get it cut if you happen to be in China with a head-full of split ends and a longing to mimic the cute bangs you see on every lovely Chinese girl around you.

When we first got to Chengdu, I asked around to find out the scoop on getting a not-awful-haircut.

Horrors of horrors.  The word among consulate people was that a good haircut was only as far away as a ticket to Europe.  And, under no circumstances, should I try to dye, perm, or highlight my hair in China.  Never. Ever.  Not unless I wanted to shave my head afterwards and be monitored for cancer every 3-5 years.

I was intrigued.  Really?  Someone with hair as straight and fine as mine wouldn’t be able to find a good cut in a city full of straight-haired brunettes, albeit ones with shinier, thicker, darker and more beautiful hair than mine in every way?

But I bid my time.  I buckled down and started learning the language, I took note of the salons around the neighborhood and what the hair looked like on the people within them.

And then today, I finally took the plunge, confident that my Chinese had improved enough to avoid any buzz-cut level miscommunications, and armed with a picture of Mandy Moore, I walked into a salon and asked for a hair cut. (I have a theory that Mandy Moore, while a hundred times prettier than me, probably has hair almost as lame as mine-she’s just plus 1 stylist and a great cut I think).

(said picture of Mandy Moore, tell me her gorgeous face isn’t framed by some mousey-brown limp hair chock-full of products!)

Of course, even a hair cut in China can not be as simple as saying “I want a hair cut and I have a picture” in Mandarin.

At the salon I tried to ask for just a simple cut and I found out that there are levels of hair-cuttery here–ranging from prima-donna worthy 500 kaui cuts (nearly $100 US) all the way down to the butchers charging 38 kuai for a shampoo, head massage and a hack job.

I wanted to err on the side of caution, given all of the warnings I’d heard and I said I’d try the “skilled director” cut level for 98 kuai.  Oh yea, I was all set to splurge on a $16 US haircut.

But as I walked over to the hair-cutting chair, all blissed out from my very thorough shampoo and mini head massage, I heard the dreaded words: “Bu hao y si.” Bu hao y si is a bit of a catch all phrase implying embarrassment on the part of the speaker, it’s a “I’m sorry” rather than an “Excuse me” (It also works as a fine “thank you” when someone buys you dinner).

They had no one available at the 98 kuai level, but would I be interested in either a 58 kuai or 158 kuai level?  Again, I thought I’d err on the side of caution and I asked for the 158 kaui cut.

It reminded me a bit of a Public Television Pledge Drive.  I half-expected a mug or an organic tote bag for making the upgrade..

Very good, the scheduler said and brought me some nice hot lemon water (no tote bag in sight, sigh)

A minute or two later, after sweating through a few sips of my hot lemon water, the scheduler came back again looking “very bu hao y si” indeed.  There was no 158 level “Director of Style” available, but would I mind a 58 kuai cut?

And what you see above, is the result of my $9USD hair cut.

It’s not perfect, it’s not quite stylish, but it’s loads better than the mess I was running around town with.  And, it was 9 dollars.  That was what the tip was for a decent hair cut in D.C.

And I got bangs, which was exciting.  Bangs have always held a certain amount of allure for me, though I’ve only had them twice in my life.

I trace the allure back to the first (and last) time my mother ever let my father take me for my haircut.

I was 3 years old, my father let them give me bangs, my mother cried.

My father was relegated back to ponytail duty and forced relinquished all style decisions to my mother (he was quite good at ponytails though, in his defense).

Anyways, the cut was not bad and the experience was quite lovely.  Something about hair salons in China seems to attract the more counter-culturally inclined.  The salons are sort of places of sanctuary from the real world-places where girls can be abrasive and tough and gay men can dress and act however they want and be whoever they want.

Which makes them feel, to me at least, like a breath of fresh air.  A scene that’s reminiscent of a society far more diverse than the one that actually exists here.   At the hair salon, I feel like I’ve tumbled into a rabbit hole where things make sense again and not everyone seems to look and act exactly like everyone else.

And at $9 a cut, I’ll be returning every 6 weeks, for a trim and a little antidote to mainstream, Main Street, China.

And to review, should you need a hair cut in China:

1. Look for gay men doing the cutting

2. Spend some extra money

3. Bring a picture or two

4. Low expectations are critical to China hair cut satisfaction.  They are also helpful when one is looking for good Thai food in Chengdu, but that’s a story for another day…


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