I used to look forward to going to the hair salon – it was “me”-time, a time to sit back and relax and be pampered for a few hours. However since moving to Shanghai, I dread getting my hair done nearly as much as I hate going to the dentist (and I really hate visiting the dentist.)
It is always hard finding a new hairdresser when you move to a different city, but even more so in a foreign context. Going to the hair salon (理发 lǐfà) is a national pastime in China: whether for a haircut, a blow dry, or even just a hair-washing experience, so it shouldn’t have been difficult for me to find somewhere to have my hair coloured and cut – there are at least two salons on most street blocks. However, part of my hesitation in venturing off on my own to find a suitable stylist is that some of the hair salons here are fronts for much “shadier” activities than hairdressing.
I put off having my haircut for a few months when we first arrived here, but eventually asked my language teacher to recommend a hair stylist. She kindly introduced me to the guy who cuts her hair and came with me the first time help me to explain exactly how I wanted my hair cut and coloured. She even wangled a 30% discount for me because I am her student. And then she departed and left me on my own, but not before she slyly told the stylist that it would be good for him to engage me in conversation so that he could help me to practice my Mandarin.
The next 2 ½ hours of my life proceeded to become some of the longest, most stressful hours I have ever experienced.
Not only did I struggle to understand the stylist’s Guangzhou accent, but his quiet and soft-spoken tones were in direct competition with the loud salon music and the general chit-chat of other customers and staff. I bravely battled through the general “starter” conversation questions that I was interrogated with: “how many people in your family”; “are you married?”; “do you have children?”; “what do you do?”; “how long have you been in Shanghai?”; “do you like Chinese food?”; and after that….well, I don’t think we got any further, and if we did, I can’t remember.
I went into brain-freeze mode, where my vocabulary, so carefully prepared and practiced beforehand, just refused to travel from my brain to my mouth. Or maybe it never even got out of my brain. I stammered and stuttered like a 4-year old trying to hold a conversation with a PhD graduate (except that a 4-year old would not have had a fraction of the self-consciousness that I was experiencing.) I mashed up the tones – a key component of speaking Mandarin; my grammar went AWOL; I could barely string three words together and when I did, they were in the wrong order. The longer I sat there, the worse it became: feelings of inadequacy threatened to overwhelm me. Humiliation was total. I had been studying the language off and on for the past few years and the stylist (and everyone else in the salon) must have thought I had the intelligence and speaking level of a village idiot with a close-to-zero IQ. And the worst of it all was that I could not escape – I was pinned to the chair while my hair colouring was still in progress.
I listened desperately with intense concentration until I could decipher a word that I recognised – or thought that I recognised – and then I pounced on it and with a false and pretended confidence tried to put together a sentence around that topic based on any vocab that I could retrieve from my reticent and uncooperative brain. Whether or not it answered the question that he had asked was no longer the issue, I just had to do more than smile and nod – which took up a large proportion of the painfully long time. There was also a limit to the number of times I could resort to 我听不懂 wǒ tīng bú dǒng (the over-used phrase churned out by expats when they “can hear but not understand”.
The haircut was fine, the colour was fine, but I left the salon exhausted, with a splitting headache and totally traumatised.
P.S. I went back to the same salon once more to try to redeem my reputation (and that of my language teacher) but this time I took a book with me that so that I could dissuade anyone from trying to talk to me. After this episode (although it was marginally less painful), the coward in me opted out and decided to find a new hair stylist. The excuse I’ve told myself is that I needed to find one closer to home, but in reality I felt that I had already sunk too low to re-establish any self-respect at the first salon, so the only option would be to go to a different hair salon and try to start again with a clean slate where no one knows me.
P.P.S. I still dread 理发 lǐfà, but hopefully my communication skills have progressed a few degrees beyond the level of a 4-year old.
P.P.P.S. OK – I confess – my next haircut is now overdue by 2 months…Maybe I’ll go next week….