Change is hard. I just moved to a new apartment in a very different part of Shanghai and, though I love my new place, the surroundings are taking some getting used to. But I now know where to get my groceries; I have my local restaurants for good dumplings; the little corner joint that sells freshly fried sesame balls on Sunday mornings; I know which stands have the best fruit (and its NOT the squinty-eyed chap that sold me that bad watermelon … yea, buddy, I’m talking about you!). So yes, I’m settling in nicely, thank you very much.
But the one thing that has NOT settled well, is where to get a haircut. Now, I hope that those of you who know me don’t consider me a vain person, at least not any more vain than the average middle-aged white guy who sees his youth slipping slowly away from him, thinking back on the “what-ifs” of life and how, as a young man, everything seemed possible and I was invincible and nothing could stop me so, naturally, I am grasping at everything I possibly can to shore up my crumbling male ego! (Er … sorry about that. Probably should have saved that for my therapist).
Anyhow, I don’t consider myself too hung up on my appearance – I like to look good, but I know that the good Lord only provided me with a limited amount raw material so I tend to lower my expectations … and part of lower expectations is that I have mostly avoided the mental anguish of finding the perfect place to get a good haircut. I figure that if someone can make my hair shorter, get it mostly even all around and avoid lopping off an ear in the process, that, by definition, is a “good” haircut. But the place that I had been going to was suddenly not so convenient for me, and finding a new place was, to be honest, a bit daunting.
However, I had some guidance in my quest because, for the past 5 years, I have been going to a chain salon called Wenfeng. Well, “salon” is a bit to much for this place … its kind of a mash-up between a barber shop and a fast food joint. And, true to my personal taste, this is not the place for haute couture in Shanghai. This is the Great Clips of China. Just a place to get a haircut. The stylists – if you can call them that – all have these fashionable cuts, but they go a real salon to get them done and can’t really do it themselves. Nope, Wenfeng is a place you go when you want your hair shorter and you are rather attached to your ears and would like to remain so.
Wenfeng is also a place that gives the absolute BEST scalp massages in the Milky Way. This is a feature of most hair salons in China – and, indeed, throughout Asia – where, as they are washing your hair before the cut, the washer will give you a scalp massage. OMG … it is the BEST feeling in the world! I have a hard time from keeping my leg from chattering like a Golden Retriever getting a tummy rub. And the reason that Wenfeng is so good is that the young women they hire all come from the countryside where they grew up slapping pigs around and hauling grain to market. These girls have finger strength that could poke a fourth hole in a bowling ball.
When I first started going to Wenfeng I purchased a 会员卡 (hui yuan ka), also known as a “VIP” card. You pay a certain amount of money and then use the card to pay for services, getting a decent discount besides. I wasn’t quite clear on the discount policy but I figured that I was going to get my haircut at least once a month so I put a couple hundred bucks down on a card. Well, it turns out that my discount is HUGE so each haircut comes to something like a dollar fifty and it seems I haven’t made a DENT in that card in 5 years, so I was kind of stuck looking for another Wenfeng near me.
I found one, about a half-hour walk from me, and went there last weekend. I walked in and a bell dinged, signifying the arrival of a new customer. There were about 20 workers in there and another 10 customers, and ALL of them turned towards me and the place fell silent. It felt like I had just walked into the women’s restroom or a secret cult meeting, I felt SO conspicuous! After 10 seconds of silence, a slight murmur went around the place … 老外，老外 (lao wai, lao wai). “Foreigner, look at the foreigner!”
Then the workers started scrambling and calling out a name of one of the employees. A young woman came up to me and, in halting, nervous English said, “Hello … you want hair?” I think she meant to say “do you want a hair CUT” but the question was appropriate either way and I was able to nod my head with a clear conscience. Then I said, in Chinese, “Yes, I would like a haircut, please.” There was a gasp from the entire store, like I had just turned shampoo into wine. “He speaks Chinese… he speaks Chinese!!” The girl broke into a huge smile of relief and led me to a chair in front of a large mirror.
As she started washing my hair, I looked at her in the mirror and said, “You don’t get many foreigners in here, do you?” She said, “No, you are the first one we’ve ever had, and we’ve been open for over a year.” We had a nice chat, asking each other where we were from, how we liked Shanghai, etc. Then others came by and got into the conversation, asking their own questions: how old was I, how tall was I and how much did I weigh, did I have children. Then someone yelled across the room, “Hey … ask him what he thought of China in the Olympics!” If someone were to have asked me my opinion on how to balance the US national budget, I would not have been surprised.
When it came time to get my haircut, my hair-washer found the oldest, most experienced stylist in the place. He looked about 15. He sat me in another chair and started looking at my hair, pinching it between his fingers, feeling the texture and saying “hmmm…” to himself. I was the first foreigner he had ever met, he said, and he wasn’t really familiar with foreigner hair. Chinese hair can be tough, like a horses mane, but mine has been inherited from my Scandinavian ancestors and resembles the light down on a duckling’s butt. It has no natural shape, no style of its own … it grows out of my head and then succumbs to gravity, falling in whatever manner it can.
He started cutting, slowly, getting the hang of things as he went along. He saw that he really had no chance of “styling” anything up there … he just had to make it shorter. Then he came to the top of my head and noticed that there is a part of my scalp where the hair is thinner than the rest … and with my wimpy hair, I’m talking THIN. He spent about 5 minutes trying to comb things this way and that and then fluffing my hair up in order to hide the spot. I don’t “fluff” and I told him so, saying not to worry about it because that’s just the way it was. He laughed and said that Chinese men were VERY concerned about going bald. I said, “That’s OK … I’m not Chinese. I’ve got other problems, but not that.”
He was done in 20 minutes and it looked pretty good. I went to the front with my new entourage in tow and produced my card. There was another gasp – not only was I a foreigner, but I was a VIP customer! I walked out of there with people waving and saying goodbye. I felt like Glinda the Good Witch of the West floating off in her bubble with people running after me.
There are very few places in Shanghai these days where foreigners have NOT been … we seem to have invaded, cockroach-like, into most corners of this amazing city and we don’t attract too much notice anymore. But everyone now and then, a Wenfeng Day comes along and any middle-aged balding white guy can feel like a rock star. Shallow? You bet. Desperate for attention? Um … duh!! In need of professional help? Yea, probably. But I don’t know of a therapist around that will make you feel better AND give you a scalp massage and a decent haircut for a buck fifty!