Though not as much of a lightning rod as the beard, my ever-lengthening hair has been a topic of discussion on this site and in email.
I've never gown my hair out. It was always cut short as a kid, at least as far as I can remember. Through High School and College, I had to have it short for basketball - coaches don't really seem to like long hair for some reason. In fact, I even had my head buzzed during part of my freshman year.
I think part of the reason for growing it out was just that - as overly symbolic as it sounds, my hair, like the trip in general represented (for me at least) another very visible departure from the norm. I'd have never tried to do this while at work. I never really had the chance to do it before. And, above all... Why the hell not?
Anyway, I'll cut to the chase - It's gone. Most of it anyway. After a little over nine months, I finally got my first real haircut.
Now to be honest, I have had two semi-haircuts during this trip. The first was in Cape Town, South Africa. My mane was starting to get pretty unmanageable, and I was starting to feel like more of a freak than I know I already am. I was walking through a mall, and saw a decent-looking place that had some cute girls working the reception, so I went in. After explaining that I was trying to grow it out, the rather effeminate stylist spent the next 20 minutes snipping away, then another five giving me a lecture on using conditioner and watching out for split ends. What the hell is a split end?
My second cut was actually in Dublin. I was getting a little self-conscious about it in London, so when I found a professional-looking place, I stopped into get a price.
Now, I'm pretty cheap when it comes to haircuts. In the real world, spending over $20 on a cut drives me absolutely insane. I just don't see the point - especially if you keep it short. So, when I found out a cut here was going to be 45 Euros, I headed for the door.
On my way out, I noticed a sign for the "Hair Academy", conveniently located right above the salon. Sweet. That has to be cheap, right? So, I went up the winding staircase into a really hot room filled with about ten female stylists working on various customers. A small price list near the counter said Men's haircuts are eight Euros. Awesome. They're speaking my language now. When I actually asked the lady at the counter to be sure, she said in an Irish lilt: "Oh, we don't charge for gents." Sold!
So, to make a long story short, I got a free haircut in Dublin. And another lecture on split ends.
Fast forward to September. I was holed up in Poland and the Czech Republic for a couple weeks, and apparently had just enough time to get really annoyed with my hair. There's a point in a trip like this where you look at a picture of yourself and say, "Damn. That looks terrible." I reached that point in Prague. I simply got tired of looking at this long stringy mop. I was tired of it being in my face all the time. I was tired of it getting in my eyes and ears. Besides, my hair is not all that good. It's definitely not super-model thick, it grows really slowly on the top and really fast on the sides - a combo that I now know starts to look like crap when you try to grow it out.
So, when I got to Beijing, I thought I'd try my luck. I know there are probably better places to try to find a place to cut your hair. My Mandarin isn't what it used to be, and hair styles in China aren't exactly like those in Kansas City. However, this year isn't about convenience, right?
A couple days after I arrived, I found myself in a nice shopping mall called "The Place" - walking the hallways, trying not to get annoyed with every, single person in the mall staring at me as I walked by. Yes people, I'm a foot and a half taller than you. Close your mouths.
I ended up on the third floor in front of a little modern-looking salon. It was moderately busy, a little buzz of activity which made me feel a little better. Most of the staff had trendy-looking hairdos, which I realize can be good or bad. Much like a European restaurant, they had a price list posted to a little sign outside the entrance. 80 Yuan for a Shampoo and cut by a "Senior Stylist". As the dollar is worth about 7.5 Yuan right now, this felt pretty good - especially since I walked by a place earlier today that was charging 380 Yuan for a cut.
I went to the receptionist, and asked if anyone spoke English. No dice. This could get difficult. I pointed to the sign, and specifically to the 80Y line. A little head nodding later, I was sitting in a leather chair at a "consultation" counter, staring at myself in a huge wall-length mirror with an iced tea in hand.
A thin, wiry guy with black pants, a white shirt, black and white striped tie and black horned rim glasses came up behind me and started cautiously messing with my head. I think there was equal parts bewilderment and apprehension - likely due to the state of my ridiculous head, and the fact that I was nearly taller than him while I was in the chair. He asked something I didn't understand but drew some inferences from. I made the assumption this was my "Senior Stylist" trying to figure out what I wanted to do.
Now, I hadn't really thought about this before sitting down. I sort of arrogantly assumed someone would speak English. How do you tell someone you can't communicate with that you want to get rid of nearly all of your hair, but want it to look a certain way - you know, like it did before.
I tried to use some hand gestures - grabbing the long part of my hair with one hand and making a scissor motion with my other hand. He just stared at me.
Ah ha! My passport. I have a photo of me before I left in my passport. That will do.
Damn! My passport is at the Indian embassy in Beijing right now.
The guy is still staring at me.
Ha! I have my old expired passport in my wallet. In it is stapled a second picture of me from before I left. I pulled it out and showed it to him. He looked at me quizzically - looking at the picture, then back at me, then back at the picture.
Yeah, yeah, I know, I look different.
I made a few more gestures - pointing to the picture then to my head. "I want to look like this again." I don't know why I said it - I don't think he learned English in the last 15 seconds, but just in case...
A second later, a smile of understanding came across his face. He pointed at the picture, then at me. Yes! We were on the same page. Then, he pointed to the back of my head and shrugged his shoulders.
Ah - what should the back look like? Damn. Didn't think of that. I started looking around at the other people in the room. Nope. Nope. Nope. There! A guy talking to a customer near me had a short, squared off cut. Like a three-year old, I pointed at him, then back at me.
Again, the smile of understanding came to the stylist's face. Good deal.
He walked off, and a smaller guy in a little maroon colored smock (I don't know if it was really a smock, as I'm not 100% sure of the definition of a smock, but the word sounds right) came up and asked me to follow him. When I stood, he attempted to put a little jacket-thing on me, presumably to keep all the little hair giblets off my clothes. We had a couple problems with the logistics, as A) he trying to help put it on me, but was about two feet too short to help, and B) their little jackets aren't built for people over 6'5" and 200 lbs. A couple patrons and staff nearby got a good giggle out of the show.
We eventually managed though, and I followed him to the row of basins for the shampooing. Again, I found myself maneuvering myself into some awkward positions, as the designers of the chairs and sinks didn't necessarily have me in mind.
A few minutes later I was sitting in another chair, staring at myself in the mirror with a towel wrapped around my head. I think that's the first time for that too.
The "Senior Stylist" appeared a minute later, followed by the little assistant guy in the smock pushing a little cabinet of tools. It was like a nurse following a doctor. I checked the table for a scalpel, but thankfully didn't find it.
So, now the fun begins. Did he really understand what I was wanting? Was he just going to shave my head? I had my old passport in my hands just in case I sensed an errant clip or something else going awry in the process. I'm not sure what good it would actually do, but I wasn't afraid to bust it out just in case.
As it turns out, however, I didn't need it at all. The stylist was actually pretty damn good. He took his time - cutting everything by hand. I had anticipated him just grabbing and cutting by the handful. He had a process, working from side to side, piece by piece. From time to time, the stylist would say something at which point the "nurse" would come over and use a sponge (I'm not kidding) to sweep the hair giblets off my face. It was pretty cool.
Admittedly, five minutes into it, I thought I may have made a mistake in coming here. He had my hair in clips, hanging every which way. I thought I may be getting the "tourist" treatment. But nearly 30 minutes later, I looked in the mirror and found someone I hadn't seen for nearly 9 months. It was amazing. I looked nearly exactly like the photo. He barked something at the "nurse" who came over with a mirror so I could see the back. Again - a carbon copy of the dude I pointed to. This guy was pretty good.
The nurse led me to the basins again for a second shampooing. I was then led back to the chair, where the stylist put a little "product" in it. Good Lord. Who is that guy in the mirror? It was really strange. I was just staring at my reflection like an idiot for a few seconds.
At the end of the day (and I don't know if you rank things like this, but I do sometimes) - it was probably the best haircut I've ever had in my life. Topped off by the fact that with tip it cost less than 20 bucks, I couldn't think of a better one.
Bet you didn't think I could write an entry this long on a haircut, huh?