Huizhou, China: Haircuts in Translation

Whenever I travel to a new country, I always endeavor to visit a hair salon.  The mystique of the adventure and the potential hazardous outcome intrigues me to no end.  Will they use hairspray?  What type of shears will be employed?  Who will cut my hair?  These are the questions that keep me up at night.

So, when I found myself in the small city of Huizhou, China (that is, of course, small by Chinese standards, which amounts to a humble population 3.2 million), I quickly located a hair salon and booked an appointment.  Entering with limited Mandarin and a non-English speaking audience, I cast aside such frivolities of speech (who needs words when you have the vocabulary of hairstyle?) and employed mime skills well-honed from years of travel: I smacked my hands together in the universal sign for blow-dryer and let loose a loud “whooshing” noise.

But apparently, my mime skills did not translate for instead of a dawning look of recognition, I was greeted with bewilderment, and perhaps a trace amount of fear.  After recovering from the shock of my introduction, the receptionist presented me with a small placard listing in English the types of services offered, and the types of hair dressers available: Senior stylist, executive stylist, or artistic director.  I quickly selected “wash and dry” with a senior stylist.

A diminutive girl with a botched or perhaps trendy dye job that colored her hair carrot orange led me to the shampooing station where she massaged my head, and washed my hair for 20 minutes.  She examined my scalp, fascinated it seemed, by the blond hairs poking out from my pink scalp, and pointed at my freckled forehead in bewilderment.  “Freckles,” I said, “From the sun.”  I pointed to the ceiling, but explaining freckles in mime Mandarin is infinitely more difficult than pretending hand is a blow-dryer.  She stared blankly at me for a few moments and then ushered me to a chair and began to dry my hair with a large blow-dryer, a look of boredom painted across her face.

Before my hair was fully dry, she summoned the senior stylist to finish the look.  The hair stylists in this salon were all male, and discernible within the company by their artistic, some might say off-kilter appearance.  Angular styles (e.g., hair beginning at eyebrow level on the left side and ending at shoulder length on the right), Mohawks of varying shades, and half-shaved heads were the popular looks du jour.  My particular hair stylist, let us call him Enrique, sported a black beret, large black framed glasses with no lenses, and a thin black line of hair above his lip.

Enrique looked at my slightly damp tresses and tousled them with his hand.  He wrinkled his face in a look that any model would identify as “fierce,” and stroked his chin.  I expected him to clip my hair out of his way while he went to work styling and designing my look.  But instead, he summoned his assistant – the short orange haired girl – and instructed her to hold segments of hair out of his way.  Then while he plied my hair into curls using 6 curling brushes and enough hairspray to style the entire cast of Dallas, the assistant shuffled around my head holding my hair away as if she were a human hair clip.  The senior stylist barked orders at her in rough Chinese so that she scurried around my head in manner of frightened mouse; frightened mouse whose job it is to hold hair for the senior stylist.

This job is perhaps emblematic of a greater labor problem within China.  Any such number of seemingly useless jobs abounds there.  For example there are the workers who stand outside shops and restaurants and clap for hours on end to entice patrons to visit their shop.  There are also the workers who yell into microphones inside clothing shops saying things like “Buy this top! It makes you look like insect, so fashionable, so trendy!” or “If you leave this shop, we will chase you and yell at you and then stare at you!”  Actually, I don’t know what they say; the whole thing is terrifying in a why-are-you-yelling-at-me way that I can’t believe anyone actually buys merchandise from these shops.

The entire hair process took about one hour.  When Enrique finished, he looked at his handiwork proudly.  His head bobbed up and down, and I felt compelled to model my new ‘do, whipping my head to and fro and beaming as if in a Pantene commercial.  Ironically, and bafflingly, the experience cost only 15 RMB or about $2.  I left the shop satisfied but confused.  Imagine if haircuts cost only $2 and included human hair clip in America?  Surely, our entire society would grind to a halt, everyone instead choosing to get hair done.  Ahh, if dreams came true

Madeline Grimes Written by:

Madeline Grimes is a freelance writer based in New York City. She grew up in the tiny beach community of Ipswich, MA where, as the saying goes, if you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else does. She earned a degree in Sociology and History at the University of Toronto, and worked in pension governance for the two years following graduation. Stricken with a severe case of wanderlust, she has spent the past three years traveling in South America and Asia. Trip highlights include scuba diving with sharks in Thailand, being accused of carrying bombs (errr, tampons) in China, and walking on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. When not traveling or planning her next trip, Madeline enjoys cooking, running, and pretending that she lives on a tropical island.