New Castle News


January 14, 2011

Haircut in China provides its challenges

NEW CASTLE — (Alison McNeal and her husband, John Nichols — New Castle residents and retired Slippery Rock University professors — are spending a year teaching in China. They are sharing their adventures with readers of the New Castle News.)

We arrived in Nanjing on Aug. 21 and I could tell right away that I was going to have trouble with my hair.

While I do not like to predict the dire, I had to acknowledge that I was sitting in one of China’s three “hot pots” — places where the temperatures reach three digits in the summer, and where the humidity is routinely 90 percent and above.

Though I am not prone to hysteria, I felt that I could not breathe because the air was so wet, not to mention polluted. For relief I ran our apartment’s wall air conditioner on high, just to dry the air out, earning for myself the largest bill for the month of September in the whole apartment complex for foreigners — about 300 yuan or $45 U.S.

However, while I personally survived the unbelievable heat and humidity, my hair took a nosedive.

As it is, my hair is extremely fine with only enough body near my left temple to flip out, so that with the most even of haircuts, my do looks lopsided and uncared for. Because I had to walk everywhere, my hair also was tousled by the wind and dust and further dampened by frequent rainstorms.

Most of the Chinese women around me handled the difficulties of the weather by drawing their hair back into long, lovely, sleek pony tails, or sweeping their tresses into very becoming chignons at the nape of their necks. But as for me, when finally even the most industrial strength hairspray could not bring me into the fold of the well-groomed, I realized I had no choice: I had to get a haircut.

I put out tentative feelers to find a stylist who was good and maybe, if I got lucky, also multi-lingual. I thought maybe our local barber shop might be an option, but after I talked to two of his victims, err, customers, I ruled his shop out because he obviously did not understand the difference between a half-inch and four inches. Then there was also the issue of cleanliness.

So I was wholeheartedly grateful when my Chinese teacher offered to take me to her beauty shop and be my translator and personal watchdog. The shop was small, but clean and well-lighted with two walls of glass meeting in a corner.

I promptly was taken to the shampooing area where I received a head massage, along with a thorough head scrub that involved three rinses. Next, I moved to the chair where I greeted Li Yi, the owner, referred to as “Boss.”

With my translator’s help, I explained that I needed a blunt, single-length cut. He had his scissors in a holster, which he seriously strapped to his waist, and approached my head with the same intensity as in “High Noon” when Gary Cooper faced the outlaws.

He took my derelict hair in his hands, and literally twirling his scissors gunslinger style, gave me the best haircut I have ever had.

I found out in chatting with him that because he fell asleep over his books when he was younger, he decided that instead of being a scholar, he would become a beautician. Most Chinese hair stylists are male, and it takes them three to five years of concerted practice and study to get their license to practice the trade.

I promised to return in a month, handed him 20 yuan — around $3 U.S. — and walked out into the cool autumn sunshine, holding my head (and hair) high.

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