When we decided to move to China, I would never have believed you if you had told me that the most challenging thing would be getting my hair done. But, two years in, I have decided it is. Fortunately, I am not as worried about my appearance as some. Unfortunately, I am too vain to let my hair go grey. This was true in New Zealand but is even truer here, where men and women die their hair, usually jet black, until at least 80. I already look older than my years with the wrinkles of my Irish descent skin ‘kissed’ for decades by New Zealand’s sun through ozone free air, and am not quite ready to have others assume I am more than 80 years old.
When we first arrived, finding a hairdresser was my top priority, because we had been traveling for six weeks and I was already colouring in my grey stripe with a crayon from my New Zealand hairdresser. I have already blogged about our amusing and highly memorable experience trying to communicate then.
For the first nine months, things were reasonably straightforward. Every three weeks, at this salon, the same hairdresser mixed the colour, similar enough to the colour my New Zealand hairdresser had used that I didn’t notice whether or not it was different. And every six weeks she cut and blow-dried my hair in a semi-predictable way, again similar enough to what I had arrived with that I felt relaxed. One time she was not there and I left with a different style, but had a good laugh with Raymond, and then she was back and things returned to normal.
Until one day I went to this salon and the door had a lock across it. Through the window, I could see that all the hair salon specific equipment was gone, leaving rubbish and a concrete floor. My heart sank – I needed to train up a new hairdresser.
My number one criterion was that they were within walking distance of our apartment. One of Raymond’s colleagues was getting her hair done by the English speaking wife of a teacher at another international school. She is the librarian at this other international school, but does hairdressing as a hobby. And they live in the same apartment complex as us. I messaged him to see if she could do my hair, but they were busy and I decided I wanted flexibility more than being able to communicate easily – I am not sure that I would make the same choice now.
So, I went in to the blingy hair salon close to our apartment. The manager sat down beside me and used Wechat to ‘chat’. He found out what I wanted for my hair, as well as all about my country, family and work. He totally charmed me, which led in to the sales pitch. If I bought the VIP card for 5,000 元 (NZD1,000), I could get a 60% discount. I did some sums in my head and thought that we would easily spend that much in the next 2-3 years and ‘what a bargain’. So, I agreed – and who doesn’t want to be a VIP customer?
I left looking like the picture below – after blow drying the style felt more boofy than I am used to, but it is always different after I do it, so generally happy.
Three weeks later, I went back and had a different hairdresser (890) mix the colour for my hair. As the colour was going on, I felt it was redder than I remembered, but decided to go with the flow. I was right, in one foul swoop he had undone months of incremental lightening by my New Zealand hairdresser. So, before my third visit, I messaged my charming manager to see if he was there to help me return to the right colour – maybe even introduce some crazy system where they keep a record of it like the earlier salon had. It turned out that he had left to set up a new salon, which he suggested I might go to instead – if only I wanted to travel an hour each way to go to the hairdresser. Then he organised for my first hairdresser (826) to do it again. But 826 didn’t remember it accurately, or maybe it was just getting more obvious how dark it was, and it was still too red and dark.
So, the next time I took King, my 18 year old male bilingual work colleague and friend, an ex-student of Raymond’s, who fortuitously lives in the same apartment block. I also took a picture from my New Zealand hairdresser of what she used. I wanted a lighter, less red colour and foils because by now it was so dark. It turns out this is not a concept that translates easily, especially because my young male friend did not always know the Chinese, let alone English, hairdressing terminology – although he knows more now. And it took so long, because King’s crash course on hairdressing took time, translation is time consuming, hair dyeing takes longer here (not sure why but it does), and they insisted on doing the foils after dyeing rather than simultaneously like my New Zealand hairdresser does. When through King, I suggested the simultaneous method, 826 replied that foreign hairdressers often do things the wrong way. Taking so long meant that everyone else had gone, and I still hadn’t had it cut. King, 826, the dyeing-hair-washing minion and I were the only ones left. I would have to return the next evening for the cut. When I saw the brilliance of my foils, which were done vertically not horizontally, giving a less natural look, I thought I might also ask him to re-dye it the next evening. In the end, I decided it wasn’t so bad, that I didn’t want to spend all that time again, and to live (laugh) with it.
By this time, I was wondering about other options – but decided against it for two reasons. Firstly, I still had most of my one thousand dollars left unspent. The 60% discount does mean this three weekly service (adventure) is very cheap. My first hairdresser charged close to NZD100 for dye and cut, whereas, this salon is only about NZD30. Secondly, apart from the inflexible English speaking option, I would have to train up any new hairdresser, and I had at least part-trained these ones.
My next couple of visits went reasonably well, accepting that my hair was now a darker colour. But the next time I needed a cut I was annoyed after having my hair washed to see 826 just beginning to cut someone else’s hair. After all, he knew I was there – dyeing takes over an hour! When I later communicated my disappointment via WeChat, he told me that the other woman was a pre-booked appointment, so we agreed the process for booking. Simple things that seem so easy when you speak the language and have grown up with the processes, but not when you don’t.
My next visit, as 826 had suggested, I messaged him the day before to make an appointment. However, when I got there, he wasn’t there. When I asked for him, the young welcoming woman seemed embarrassed. I have not seen him again, so maybe he left or was fired. (When I messaged him, he said he was sick.) I was frustrated, because I thought I was following the system and still it wasn’t working. The young welcoming woman got the (new) manager to come and talk to me. First he talked to 890. I think he was asking 890 to do my hair and I think 890 said no. Maybe 890 was busy with other customers, maybe there was loss of face with my choosing 826, back when I hoped that would solve the colour issue, or maybe he just doesn’t like me. I don’t think 826 liked me – he had seemed disappointed to see me when I arrived, even though once he took his photo with me. So, the manager organised 802, who I warmed to immediately because he smiled.
802 dyed my hair and the manager blow dried it for me. Below, you can see five screenshots of my communication using wechat with the manager. I use the translate feature, and can also read many of the Chinese characters which helps more than trying to listen to them speak. But the translation is not always accurate. It took all my self-control not to laugh out loud when he sent me the message in the last screenshot below.
So, 802 became my ray of hope. Three weeks later when I booked an appointment beforehand, he was there. When I arrived, he smiled. He took over half an hour looking at pictures and colour samples, and chatting via WeChat to try to understand the colour that I want. He seemed to remember my alternating dye only, cut and dye system. And, when I stood up too quickly after my cut and felt faint and tripped, he treated me kindly like his mother, or maybe grandmother.
During our long wechat chat, after I wrote to 802 that my colour was lighter, the translation of his reply was ‘the colour is more pronounced than last time’. I then wondered if this was a clue to a possible cultural problem behind all this. In China, most women my age dye their hair jet black, and it is younger women who have light colours. I may be wrong, but I wonder if these young male hairdressers think that I should go with a more natural (dark, actually black) look, and not have such an unnatural (brown or even blonde) look. I tried to tell 802 that in the west women my age go lighter because they think it suits older skin more and contrasts less with the grey. I showed him some pictures from the web to reinforce my point.
However, even after the long chat, 802’s colour was still not right. Mixed with the various treatments from beforehand, it was close to what I wanted but my roots were far too reddish orange, and ominous for the future. I decided to have another chat to 802 when I went back.
But, a few weeks later, when I messaged him to book my next appointment, he apologetically told me that his mother was unwell and he would be away for the next month. Back I went, with my Chinese friend who was staying with us to help communicate what I wanted. Mystery number hairdresser welcomed me, sat me down, listened to my friend and began. It was no longer orange but back to being too dark. It is also getting shorter each cut, which some people have commented on positively.
As for me, I have given up on having strong views about how I want my hair to look and wait for the surprise. When I return to an English speaking environment, I will try to influence things again.