Getting a haircut in China, especially somewhere other than a major city, can be a strangely unsettling experience as a foreigner.
Unless you speak fluent Chinese, which the vast majority of foreigners don’t, it is virtually impossible to articulate what you actually want the stylist to do to your hair. It took me absolutely ages to learn how to say, “I want a haircut,” in Mandarin, which, when you think about it, is pretty damn obvious when you are standing in a hairdressing salon. It’s like going into a restaurant and saying “Get me some food.”
Once, a hairdresser flatly refused to cut my hair on the basis that he didn’t know how to cut a foreigner’s hair. I tried to explain that it was just hair, and all hair is basically the same, but my efforts were lost on him. Another time, on a university campus in Beijing, I had the fantastic idea of taking a photo with me to show the establishment what my hair should look like, but the guy just laughed at my picture, gave me a business card, and carried on regardless. Cheers, mate. This was the same guy who made me sit in the window, so passers-by could see he was cutting a foreigner’s hair. Its good for business, apparently.
If, through a combination of hand gestures, limited Chinese, and the hair stylists (usually) even more limited English, you manage to somehow convey what you would like them to do, then the fun really begins.
First they wash your hair and massage your head, which can take anything up to twenty minutes (I still haven’t learned how to say “I just want a haircut without the head massage, thanks very much” in Chinese). It’s okay if you are lucky enough to have a hot young girl doing that part, but it can be a bit disconcerting to have a big fat Chinaman running his hands through your hair and rubbing your ear lobes.
Wash and massage complete, they then rinse your hair and get started with the cutting. This is a painfully slow process. Most of them seem to spend the entire time fannying about and snipping at thin air with scissors, while others seem to try to cut your hair one strand at a time. Often, when you leave your hair is virtually the same length it was when you went in. The general idea seems to be to make the customer feel spoiled and pampered rather than actually cut their hair. You can tell they take pride in their work, which is a good thing, but unfortunately they do very little that’s actually constructive.
When the ‘cutting’ part is finally over, they wash your hair again, rinse your hair again, then sit you back in the chair and start cutting, again. After that they use a hair dryer on you and finally, attempt to style your hair for you using a range of styling products. The problem is, having no idea what you want your hair to look like, they simply style it the way they think you want it. I invariably end up with a puffy bouffant George Michael circa 1988 hair-do, which doesn’t really suit me at all.
The whole process routinely takes over an hour, and that’s if you don’t have to wait. The Chinese seem to have a different view of haircuts in general. Instead of the end result (a damn haircut, get it?) they seem to value the ‘getting there’ process more. This is indicative of many things in Chinese culture. For us westerners its all about rushing to the prize at the end. I live in hope of finding a happy medium. Or a fast and efficient hairdresser who understands English.