I have quirky hair. It is thick and blonde, a gift from my father’s Dutch ancestry. But it’s also unruly and willful, often kinky and frizzy, the bequest of my mother’s Ashkenazi forebears.I like my hair. It’s singularly mine and uniquely beautiful. So says every beautician to whom I have entrusted its care. But it has traditionally been a pain to tame, a challenge for those who seek to cut and style it
My aunt was the proprietor of her own salon. A talented stylist, who simply could not be bothered to do battle with my tresses, Aunt Ruth’s approach to cutting my hair was to ignore its idiosyncrasies and clip indiscriminately. I wanted long hair, but until I left home at 17, I had to abide by my mother’s edicts, and she mandated a semi-annual visit to her sister’s shop. Which is why, when I look at photos taken before my liberation, I wonder if Mike Judge saw me somewhere. I could easily have been the model for his Butt-head character.
Over the years, I have invested heavily in what appears to be the right haircut. I live in NYC, where a beauty parlor appointment can be more costly than an overnight hospital stay. Every visit is an exercise in cautious paranoia. Will the operator figure out how to navigate the territory? Will I have a mop-head when they finish?
The stylists share my trepidation. They typically spend the bulk of my time allotment fussing over where, how, why to layer and then trying to re-assign the part on a head of hair that listens to no one. After the cut, every artiste insists on straightening the hair, forcing it into flat lifelessness. Too often I emerged from the salon with hair I would not wear to a Halloween party, having paid the equivalent of a year’s salary. I remained resigned. This was the way things were.
Until I was in Taiwan two years ago. My hair got long, I shed profusely, and my hairphobic hostess was frantic. She could not stand the sight of hairs on the couch, the floor, the kitchen counter. I had to get it cut.
Quaking with fear, I chose a place close to the apartment with an American brand name. I had little faith in my choice, but I believed it was my only alternative. Branded or not, could a Taiwanese stylist understand the dangers lurking on my scalp? Would she be able to make my hair presentable?
In the salon, though neither of us spoke the other’s language, she easily grasped what length and shape I was hoping for. She spent no time at all assessing the hair but instead lavished me with a luxurious wash and scalp treatment, a neck and shoulder massage, and a delicious cup of jasmine tea. Then she went to work, studiously snipping a large chunk here, a bit there, another chunk, another bit, and in record time, she was patiently twisting the locks as she assaulted them with the blow-dryer, causing my natural curls to spring gratefully into line. When she was finished, my hair looked better than it has in my adult life. We bowed to one another, and I paid the bill in Chinese NT, an amount which, amazingly enough, amounted to less than a caramel soy macchiato at the local Starbucks. When I offered her a tip; she declined, smiling. Tipping is not the custom, and she was proud of her work.
On two more occasions, I found myself in need of a haircut in Taiwan. For various reasons, I wound up in a different salon with a different operator each time. Invariably, I had the same experience: treatment that engendered languid comfort and a respectable haircut for little money.
This past summer, I found myself in Turkey rather than Taiwan. As before, I was there long enough that my hyperactive hair growth and insistent shedding necessitated a cut.
Had I not been schooled in Taiwan, I would have been beset by anxiety. Instead, I confidently walked to a very local spot, a tiny establishment with one chair and one sink. I had a moment of hesitation when I saw that the price of a haircut listed on the board was less than a straight-up cup of black coffee in any NYC diner. I ventured in nonetheless.
This time I was slightly more able to communicate. With roughly 25 words of Turkish at my command, I was able to explain what I was seeking. The receptionist nodded solemnly and motioned me into a chair in front of the sink. She simultaneously made a phone call and briskly, brusquely washed my hair. As she threw a towel over my head, a squat, middle-aged man appeared in the entryway. He spat a cigarette from his mouth and smashed it beneath his shoe before walking over to us. He and the woman exchanged a few words – she translated my instructions into proper Turkish. He nodded, took the towel from my head, and went to work. He snipped about, parted and re-parted my locks, brushed the hair forward, cut some more, pushed it back, snipped again, flipped it to one side and then to the other. After about five minutes, he stopped cutting, affixed the diffuser to the blow dryer, puffed air at me for a few more minutes, and grunted that he was done. In the mirror that he held briefly behind my back, I caught a glimpse of the back of my head.
The hair looked great.
This time I paid in Turkish lire, and he accepted a tip. I had to fight the nagging sense that I had stolen the haircut.
Walking back to my apartment, I wondered what it was that I had worried about all these years. What was it that made the process so damned fraught and so incredibly expensive?
American values, of course. Nothing is worthwhile if we don’t pay dearly. No one is worth anything until s/he proves successful in monetary terms. “You get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get.” We measure people by the quality of what they acquire.
The ramifications are myriad.