Stories: Haircut

When my family toured China for two weeks in 2005, I remember seeing a barber working on the sidewalk near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He was wearing a white smock and was cutting the hair of a client seated on a stool right along the busy street. That memory stuck with me and I decided that if I ever had the chance I’d get a haircut at such an interesting venue. Unfortunately, I never saw that kind of barbershop in Shanghai or on ChangXing Island. Instead, modern unisex salons are commonplace and about the only difference between them and the ones at home are their lower prices.

After about six weeks in China, my hair was starting to look pretty ragged so I decided to get a haircut in one of the salons near the school. My friend Guoming was insistent that I not over-pay for the haircut. Almost everything for sale in China is negotiable and haircuts are no exception. Another fact-of-life for westerners in China is that you will be quoted a price that is much higher than the one offered to a local. Merchants know that westerners pay much more for the same things at home so they are hoping that what would be an exorbitantly high price to a local might still seem reasonable to a westerner. I really dislike haggling but I had to learn to do it. On principle, I didn’t want to be paying a higher price simply because I was a foreigner. Anyway, Guoming made it clear that I should go no higher than 10 yuan (about $1.50) for a haircut.

As I entered the door of a salon near the school, a young woman regarded me with a bemused smile as she waved me toward a barber’s chair. The other people in the shop also showed great interest in my arrival but I was used to this kind of reception, especially on the island. Before I sat down I asked “Duo shao qian? (How much money?) but this got no response. I wasn’t sure if my pronunciation was so poor she couldn’t understand me so I tried asking a couple of more times as I let her seat me and place the cape around my neck. Finally, a lady who was apparently the owner quoted me a price – “san shi kaui” (30 yuan). I quickly decided this was too high and, since I didn’t like the way they had hesitated to answer my question when they clearly had understood, I stood up, removed the cape, said “Tai duo!” (Too much!) and left the shop.

The second shop I entered was farther from school and, initially, it seemed I was getting a similar reception. A young barber seemed hesitant to tell me how much it would cost. Just as I was thinking of leaving, a young man came out of the back room, took one look at me and cried out “Teacher John!” This young man was Ni Renjie, the fourth-grade student I have mentioned in earlier posts and it turned out his mother owned the salon. After Renjie appeared, his mother, who stood nearby, quoted me a price of “shi kuai” (10 yuan) so I was happy to sit down and let them cut my hair. The cut was preceded by a shampoo with a nice head massage. As the young man worked on cutting my hair, I chatted with Renjie who was quite excited at my presence. My limited Mandarin made communication with anyone but him difficult but I was able to tell his mother that I thought Renjie was a good boy (hen hao nan hai) and, though I couldn’t understand her answer, I got the impression she had a different view. An excited Renjie lingered at the side of my chair to chat with me while his mother kept yelling at him. It was pretty clear she wanted him to get back to his homework: he would reluctantly go back to a table on the far side of the room where his homework was laid out – but it wouldn’t be long before he reappeared at my side.

The young barber who cut my hair did a wonderful job – I thought it looked better than it had in a long time – but since I’ve been cutting it myself for a couple of years, this is probably not saying a lot. When he was done cutting and styling, I stood up and pulled out 10 yuan to pay. They wouldn’t take it. I looked to Renjie’s mother and tried to insist that she take the money – I was happy just to be paying the “normal” price. But it was very clear I wasn’t going to win this argument. Renjie’s mother seemed to enjoy the opportunity to show such goodwill to me. Whether it was because I was Renjie’s teacher or because I was a visiting foreign teacher I couldn’t tell. I thought about offering the 10 yuan as a tip to the young barber but realized this would probably be awkward as no one tips for anything in China. I thanked them very much (“fei chang gan xie”) and left the shop.

When Guoming and the other teachers heard about my “free haircut” the story spread quickly and it seemed everyone was talking about it. It became pretty clear that getting a free haircut wasn’t something that happened to them very often so I decided that my being a foreigner was a part of the motivation for their generosity. The next day, I went back to the salon and took them a large box of chocolates which was greatly appreciated by all in the shop. The chocolates cost about three times as much as the haircut – still a much cheaper haircut than I can get here 🙂

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