In late 2007 I started my first adventure as an expat. I remember one of the last things I did before leaving home was to get a haircut. Ignorant me thought “What do the Chinese know about cutting white people’s hair?” So I put it off for far far too long. Some coworkers told me about a place they used that was less than a 5 minute walk from our apartments.
They all had stories, and it almost sounded like they were trying to top each other with crazy just to have me thing something completely crazy was going to happen when I went, and then it be just a normal hair cut.
I went into the shop one evening after work and they greeted me in Mandarin and I made the scissor gesture with my hand near my head as I said in English I needed a hair cut. You really never know just by looking at someone the first time if they’ll understand your native language so I find it best to use gestures whenever possible. I don’t even care if it looks stupid, it works more than it doesn’t.
The man gestured for me to follow the woman who was behind him. She was a small woman, maybe 5 feet (152cm) and at best 80 pounds (36kg). She motions for me to sit in the chair, the same type of chair you would find in any other place in the US or Europe. As soon as I sit down she immediately gives me this VERY aggressive head, neck and upper back massage. Had I not heard my coworkers talking about this I would have found it even more strange. This went on for at least 10 minutes, and she was relentless, just as aggressive and viscous at the end as when she started this.
After the 10 or 15 minutes that this went on for she asked if I wanted more, or full massage. To be honest I didn’t even really want the one she gave me, and I was hurting from the one she had just given me. It felt like she used my body as the meat from the Rocky movie trying to train for something. I had no desire to have her do that to the rest of me when I really only wanted a hair cut.
The second I declined she slapped the top of my head. I heard both the slap and felt it. Then I realized my head was wet. She had shampoo that she was working into my hair. Again very aggressively as if she was trying to grind the hair off the top of my head. This went on for at least 5 minutes before she lead me over to the chair by the sink to rinse my hair. She did a quick 2 minute rinse and then she walked me back to the chair I was in just before.
I was ready to have my hair cut and then SMACK, her hand was slapping my head again with another handful of shampoo. Again she ground that into my head for another 5 minutes. I started to wonder that maybe if they wore the hair off my head that maybe they wouldn’t need to cut it? After was another quick 2 minute rinse, and then we started walking back near the other chair.
I kept her in front of me this time. I wasn’t letting her get a 3rd chance to hit me with the shampoo. This time however she walked me over to another man near who had scissors in his hand. He gestured for me to sit. He spoke a little English, enough to understand that I wanted the same cut but shorter. He was fairly quick and good at what he did. I don’t know how often he’s cut foreigners hair before, but at this point I felt stupid for waiting so long to get my hair cut.
After he finished he held a mirror behind me so that I could see how everything looked. I gave him a smile and a thumbs up. The second my hand went up is when I was again struck in the head with a SMACK! It was that woman from before with ANOTHER handful of shampoo! Normally when I go to get my hair cut I wash it before I go, and then if I need it, I will wash it after. Part of it is that I don’t think they need to do it, and another is that I don’t want to pay for something I can do myself.
So she’s grinding the shampoo into my head, and I’m starting to wonder how much this is all going to cost me. 3 shampoos, a 10 – 15 minute torture session, aka massage, and a haircut. We rinse my hair for the 3rd time, and I’m completely on my guard now. I will not let her wash my hair a 4th time. She walked me to the front where the register was. She said some things to the woman who ran the register and the price came up.
The haircut I had before I came to Beijing had cost me $12 with a coupon. That was just 1 person going quickly over my head with a clippers and then a few minutes with a scissors, 15 to 20 minutes in and out. This was all at least 40 minutes. I looked at the price on the register, it was in Latin numbers, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. The woman said to me as best she could 15. I counted out 15 RMB and handed it to her. I gave her the questioning gesture of, is this it? She nodded at me. 15 RMB was what it cost me. At the exchange rate in 2007 that came out to be about $2 USD.
Later as the new year came around they closed the shop to make it look a little nicer. Some places did this to prepare for extra traffic from foreigners that they hoped would visit during the 2008 Olympic games. After they re-opened their prices went up by 50% and I had to pay a full $3 for a haircut.
It was a pretty good experience overall and helped me to greatly raise my expectations of other people. Its 1 of many reasons why I think if you want to grow as a person you need to get out and see the world and experience new cultures.