My Hairstyling Nirvana in China

Once upon a time, I feared China's foreign scissors -- until I discovered the delight of a haircut in the Middle Kingdom.

Just this past Tuesday, I visited my local US hair salon to tidy up my ‘do (an unruly mess of wavy, fickle brown hair). She snipped, she clipped and had me out the door within 10 minutes. It looked fine, but it was like the hairdressing equivalent of “wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” And the experience left me yearning for those hair salons I used to know in China.

Of course, when I first moved to China, as an English teacher, I yearned for the hair salons back in the US. Like every woman, I’d done the “dating around” with many a hair salon, until I discovered the perfect stylist, a woman who absolutely “got it” about my hair. I didn’t even need to give her directions, beyond “just make me look good.” And she did, every time.

When you have this almost spiritual connection with a stylist, you just don’t want to let go, and suddenly risk the unthinkable — a bad haircut, something powerful enough to spiral your day into a horrible abyss, and even make you think twice about stepping outside (for several days, even).

But when you’re abroad, you have to let go, and take the ultimate leap of faith — have a strange salon cut your hair, in a language that you don’t even understand.

I hardly spoke a word of Mandarin when I arrived in Zhengzhou. That’s why I’d put off my haircut two weeks too long by the time I decided to go. I had to ask my only Chinese friend there, Frank. In his usual cautious, nervous state, he confessed to me he didn’t even know the place we were going to. “My friend Maggie recommended it,” he shrugged. Frank, like his name, preferred honesty, but it was honesty I could have done without. So I trembled over my brown tresses, preparing to go under unknown scissors, as the two of us walked into the salon, on Huayuan Road.

Was this really a salon? I almost felt like I was standing in a room of the Starship Enterprise, with huge panels of opaque plastic on the floor, ready to beam you up to a better ‘do. And the staff looked like an Asian punk rock band that did hair styling as a day job, with wild, unruly hairdos in spikes and perms and even manes, funky jeans with chain belts, and hip, heavy frames for their glasses.

I looked over my shoulder, out to the usual dreary, loess-swept streets outside, filled with Chinese with the same standard-issue haircuts and outfits, and had to rub my eyes, just to make sure this wasn’t a dream.

But it wasn’t, and after rinsing me up, I sat on one of those space-age chairs, before a mirror, and a young Chinese man with a mohawk and scissors, and faced the final frontier — getting a haircut in China.

“Just tell him to clean up my current style,” I told Frank, who hovered next to me and translated my wishes to the hairstylist. And as he tilted my head forward, I took a deep breath and prayed that I wouldn’t be hiding my hair under a baseball cap for the next month.

Snip, snip. Pause, look. Clip, clip. Pause, look. The hairstylist wasn’t just thoughtlessly ripping through the strands of my hair. He poured over them deliberately, like an artist before a canvas, taking the time to get just the right color here or the right texture there. It was as if he had been waiting all day, just to finally tackle this great magnum opus of his career — my hair style. And whenever I thought he finished, he’d look in the mirror again, and shave a little off this corner or that strand. He wasn’t just creating a hair style — he wanted hair perfection.

After what must have been more than 30 minutes of his attention, the hairstylist rested his scissors on the table, and I waited for that final blow dry and style. Except, the receptionist and her lion-like mane tugged me out of the chair to the sink once again.

I craned my neck towards Frank, with a puzzled look on my face. “What’s going on here?” I asked. “Aren’t they supposed to dry my hair now?”

“They’re just doing the second rinse,” reassured Frank, which confused me even more.

“The second rinse?”

Frank, who usually had an undramatic, if not nervous, gaze seemed genuinely surprised by my question. “They don’t do that in the US?”

But here in China, they rinsed me again, just to remove all of the stray clippings caught in my hair. It was a revelation — I mean, how could I have missed this, all these years in the US?

After the stylist blow dried and slicked my hair down with a pomade, I left that hair salon with not only a kick-ass cut, but also the sense that I’d been cheated by every haircut I’d ever had in the US.

I only stayed in Zhengzhou for a year, but I spent many more years after that in China, indulging in many a hair salon. I’ve had my share (or is it shear?) of bad haircuts, including one that nearly destroyed my weekend in Shanghai, and made me contemplate pulling out the baseball cap. But, truly, most of the time, these Chinese salons were a little taste of hair nirvana, once again chipping away at the US bravado, where we’re supposedly “the best” in everything (yeah, right).

Now, if only I could just import one of these Chinese hair salons. 😉

Have you ever been surprised by a haircut in China, or another country?

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7 Replies to “My Hairstyling Nirvana in China”

  1. I accidentally got my hair dyed neon pink at one of those places. I haven’t been back – my hair has been growing out for the last four and a half years!

  2. It’s interesting that you posted this article today because I’m trying out a new hair stylist this week. I’ve had some bad experiences and I’m hoping this stylist is “the one”. Wish me luck! I wish I could find someone like the stylist you found in Zhengzhou.

  3. Very interesting post, I am pretty sure you won’t get the 2nd rinse treatment in europe too. Now I am well get used to no 2nd rinse treatment, because I am having a habit that driving back home immediately to take a shower after my haircut, er… so far no better idea!!

    You know what, I never thought there is a thing called Barbershop rather than hairdressing shop until I were in Dublin. Simplely, it is rarely existed in China, maybe there is, i just don’t know…… just wondering why would someone just do men’s hair rather than do both male and female. Honestly, I still can’t get my head around on this point until now, I can only think that it is a tradition. In fact, I love the barbershop around corner where I live.

  4. I’ve had nothing but good hair experiences here in China, and I always go to the same one, though at different places. It’s a korean hairdresser with lots of shops at different places. Mostly in Xi’an but I’ve heard you have them in other cities too.
    But they don’t do second rinsing, but they do have massage ^^. The first half year of studying in Xi’an I never washed my hair myself, I always went to the hairdresser to wash my hair, just because of the massage you get, but after a while it gets a bit expensive, it’s only 10 yuan each time, but still, after a few months I could have bought some nice outfits with it hehe.
    The thing I like best about the hairdressers is that they have this special cream that makes your hair straight. I’m not sure about other countries, but in Belgium we don’t have this. You can make your hair straight if you go to a hairdresser specialized in the hair for black people, but it doesn’t look natural at all, while the chinese straight version is very natural. I wish they had this in Belgium, but probably would be too expensive for me :(.

  5. I’m enjoying reading about your adventures in China. Having lived in many a foreign country (due to my hubby’s job), I’ve experienced some pretty awesome things that I never would have in the US. And some pretty awful things (again, that would have never happened in the US). One thing I was always careful to do was to remember my homeland and not be one of the many ex-pats that spoke poorly of my own homeland abroad. It makes me sad when people do that.

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