For the past five years, hospital I’ve gotten my haircut by Julie at Nice Cuts in the Castro. The whole process takes little effort. In the gayborhood, Julie probably cuts about eight fohawks a day. I drop by without an appointment, she does her magic in 15 minutes, and I fork over the usual $20.
I knew that I would have to let go of some comfortable routines traveling for a year. But I had no idea that getting a haircut would lead to such a cultural experience each month.
I got my last haircut from Julie a day before leaving San Francisco so that it would last the maximum time. My hair started to get shaggy in Sydney, where I had difficulties finding a haircut for under $40. Luckily, I found a young woman in a mall salon who said that she had watched a lot of Ellen and understood what I wanted. She charged me $25.
Four weeks later we’re in Java, Indonesia where I had two hours before needing to leave for the airport. I walk into a spa where they advertised a $2 haircut. What a deal! A young man seats me in a salon chair and studies my head. I point to a man’s haircut on the wall among the sample photos of hairstyles. He tells me that because I am a woman, I should not have a haircut like this. I tell him not to worry about it.
He doesn’t wet my hair or use any special scissors. He looks at me, and starts to sweat nervously. He confesses that he has never cut a Westerners’ hair before. I wonder to myself why all the sample photos of hairstyles on his wall are of Western models.
With great pains, he cuts about five hairs at a time, taking a full two hours. The only time he starts cutting fast is when I point to my watch. He then decisively cuts off my “lady burns,” the one area around my ears that I had asked him to keep. He can tell by my face that he has made a mistake, and he gives me a look of panic. The counselor in me tries to console him. “Don’t worry, it is only hair. It will grow back.”
It grows back and one month later I am in Cambodia. I walk into a salon this time with a new strategy for my $3 haircut. I whip out my laptop and show the young woman a slideshow of photos of me in San Francisco. She snips away furiously fast, to my relief after Indonesia. She also takes off far more hair than I expected. I can see how Cambodians get their money’s worth for each haircut.
She leaves the back very long, so I make a “bzzzzzz” sound and mime a gesture of shaving off the back of my neck. She doesn’t have an electric razor and takes out a handheld blade that looks like something my grandfather used in 1920. After shaving the back of my neck, she then moves on to shave the little hairs on my ears that I didn’t even know I had. Before I can blink, she proceeds to shave my face. As she scrapes away on my cheeks and forehead, I wonder if she knows I am a girl. Shocked at the 32 years of peach fuzz she has managed to collect, I thank her for her detailed service.
This week, I dread getting my hair cut in Taiwan. I had already dyed my hair black by mistake with a box of hair dye that I had bought from the pharmacy (the instructions were all in Japanese, for whatever reason, and even Jenni couldn’t help me). But knowing how stylish the Taiwanese are, I decide to go with this young guy working at a salon that advertised $20 haircuts.
He gives me the best hair cut of my life. First he starts with an amazing 15 minute shoulder neck rub with minty tiger balm. He then walks me over to a massage table where I get to lie down to full body vibrations. He puts a visor over my eyes so I can rest while his coworker massages my head and washes my hair with three different shampoos. Fully relaxed, I then sit in a chair where the receptionist hands me a latte and turns on MTV on a personal-sized flat screen tv. I feel like a movie star when he blow dries and styles my hair with spritz, gel, and hair spray. High on fumes, I don’t want to leave the chair
Many times I have thought about giving up on getting haircuts. I’ve thought about saving money and letting Jenni take her best stab at it. But then again, a haircut can be one of the most intimate interactions with locals when you travel. And isn’t that the whole point of going abroad?