Haircut Tourism

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.

 

 

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Notes From a Temporary (we hope) Curmudgeon – Day 1

From the week before Christmas till the penultimate week of January, I was in Asia. For some of the time, I was in Taoyuan, Taiwan then moved for the last two weeks to Bangkok, Thailand. I was immersed in the world of the two-year-old grandson, who was my constant companion.

That meant that, for the most part, I was absorbed intellectually and emotionally by the mercurial disposition of the little boy. But when he descended into the quiet of sleep, I found brief opportunities for critical thought, just before the curtain of fatigue closed over my brain. The internet was unstable, but I was able to search intermittently for both news of home and moments of entertainment. Thus, in the narrow alleyways of my own mind as it intersected with the limited scope of the available worldwide web, I found enough material to support a series of rants.

I was unusually cranky. It was hot in Asia. I am no fan of high temperatures. The hot weather exacerbated the extreme anxiety wrought of my distanced observation of the travesty that has become my beloved country.

From over there, it was difficult to assess the degree to which my homeland’s future was tenuous, but it wasn’t hard to picture the Orange Imposter standing on the steps of the Capitol Building grinning while Washington burned. A hideous manifestation of

Theater of the Absurd — an ersatz president strutting and fretting his too long hour upon the stage, pizzicato-ing across the instrument of our American government, threatening to pop the strings and break the neck. My reaction to things was probably more negative than it might have been had I stayed home.

I declaim my rants. I realize I am a victim of my own White Privilege, preyed upon by my sensitivity to an unstable internet connection and an Asian climate.

I acknowledge here that I am an outlier. My opinions and reactions reflect (nearly) none of my confederates’, my cohorts’, my co-anyones’. I react on my own, according to my own lens.

Thus beginneth the venting of my steam. . . Over the next few days, one rant a day. . .

1. The journey across the world.

I usually fly Taiwan’s own EVA Air. The service is terrific, the bathrooms are immaculate, the 777s offer sufficient leg room for my aching knee. Best of all, the company offers slippers that make it easy to shed shoes and still wander the ample aisle space and ward off PAD (peripheral Arterial disease). Unfortunately, I was traveling at exactly the same time as the myriad Asian kids leaving their American schools to spend the holidays at home, and EVA was booked solid.

I resorted to Qatar.

The flight over was miserable. Puddles in the bathrooms threatened dropped clothing, and in the absence of complimentary slippers, stocking feet. The

Airbus E350 has aisles too narrow for easy navigation. The endless sitting made my inner thighs ache. Seats are configured such that I was unable to sit up straight, and the strain on my back worsened as each of the 13 hours it took to get to the first stop (Doha) dragged on. No inflight entertainment soothed the soul either. Every film on the agenda was an action or horror film. I’m too old for those. Instead, I watched the Netflix shows I had downloaded, which meant that I used up the shows I was saving for later.

Truth is, I was already predisposed to be disgruntled. Unlike most airlines, Qatar’s policy is to charge a customer $350 when s/he makes a reservation and changes within 24 hours. The website promised a 72-hour grace period, but it turned out that was only for tickets purchased online.The website was inaccessible on the evening I wanted to book. The price they advertised was expiring that night so I phoned Qatar Air and booked with the company. It turned out that I had chosen the incorrect date and had to cancel. only two hours after booking. Hence, I was obliged to forfeit the $350.

I hope I will never have to fly Qatar again. (NB: There is an addendum to this entry at the end of the book of rants.)