RTW Basics: Getting a Haircut Overseas

There are so many things we take for granted when we live in one place, like buying liquids in quantities larger than three ounces, being able to wield sharp objects, and finding authentic nacho cheese. Another one is going to the same salon every eight weeks for a haircut and knowing with some certainty that you won’t walk out looking like Garth from Wayne’s World. (Unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for. Party on.)

Having more courage and less hair than I, Eric jumped in to overseas haircuts a little sooner. At a barbershop without electricity in Nepal, he got a cut the old-fashioned way. The barber had a pair of very long, very sharp scissors and a straight razor, and that was all. Toward the end of the beard trim and haircut, the guy was down to cutting individual hairs to make it all even.

On the other side of the spectrum, he also had a haircut in Japan where he had to pay a vending machine and was vacuumed clean afterwards. To draw another example from a classic, it was a little like this:


Ok, so it wasn’t that traumatic. Actually I had to stifle giggles when I heard the familiar whoosh of the vacuum cleaner and saw the barber skimming it over Eric’s head and shoulders like he was a sofa cushion.

But I was hesitant to see a hairdresser for fear that I wouldn’t be able to communicate what I needed. I can just see it: I say, “Please just take a tiny bit off – a trim,” and they hear, “I’d like a pixie. The shorter the better”. I know it’s irrational, but thinking of how wrong this could go makes me wince.

I feared so much that my hair would be lost in translation that I tried several times to trim it on my own. This meant standing in front of a tiny hotel room mirror under dim yellow lighting and contorting my arms to hack away at my mane with a comb and a pair of those safety scissors you use in kindergarten. It wasn’t pretty. So it had been over eight months since I had a proper haircut.

Then one day in China I decide that enough is enough. I find the shiniest, busiest salon nearby and go in, determined to gesticulate clearly even if I don’t speak Mandarin. Most communication is nonverbal anyways, right?

Upon entering the salon, the ten people who work there all take notice. Six of them stand near the doors welcoming me as a young man tucks my purse away in a locker and walks me to a back room to start with a wash. Instead of the torture chamber chair/sink combo at my old salon in the States, this washing basin has a long elevated cushion attached so I can basically lay down with my head in the sink.

Some hot water and shampoo, and I’m all sudsy getting a scalp massage. It’s intermittently relaxing but the experience is disrupted as my washer guy occasionally stops, picks up chunks of wet hair and shows them to the people congregating behind me. They chat about it and snicker for a minute before he resumes that blissful mini-massage, moving down to draw circles on my temples. Helpless, all I can do is crane my neck to see what they’re doing and grin back at them. Are they inquiring as to why my hair is so wispy and thin, or noting its auburn hue? Am I host to a colony of well-behaved head lice? I guess I’ll never know.

Twenty minutes later and they put me up front with the stylist, a young Chinese woman wearing a bleached denim mini skirt and long, sparkling fingernails. Here’s the big moment. I take a small lock of hair, hold just the very ends out and make a cutting motion. Then I motion to the rest of the length and shake my hand, open palm towards her, saying, “No – I don’t want the rest cut”. She steps back and studies my reflection in the mirror, points to my hair and makes a motion down her body like she’s saying, “Looong hair”. Yes, I nod. I want it to stay long.

Aside from some rough combing she turns out to be a really good and thorough stylist, going through my whole head of hair three times over to fix all the damage I’ve done with my DIY haircuts. To my relief it all goes off without a hitch, and that shouldn’t be surprising – people here get haircuts too.

With my locks properly tamed, I emerge from the salon with a spring in my step. A massage and a great haircut for $11? I feel silly for having waited so long.

3 Replies to “RTW Basics: Getting a Haircut Overseas”

  1. That’s funny! When my cousin went to Japan many years ago people were crawling in the floor to get her hair- she has super Irish curly red hair

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