Risking Disfiguration and an Exposed Scalp

September 28, 2013

Barber / Barbier

I will admit from the start I have very little to complain about when it comes to getting my hair cut in a foreign country. We can all say it: I’m a guy. Who cares if a barber messes up my ‘fro or shaves it all off? It’ll be back in a month or two, at worst. There’s no comparison between the genders and dealing with hair salons abroad: women have to consider bangs, length, etc, etc. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my fair share of horror stories; who’s to say that Japanese man who cut my golden locks wasn’t a relative of the crazy lady who cut the curtains off restaurant doors?

Counting backwards…

Arequipa, Peru
Price: 10 Soles (3.50 USD)

It had been a while since I had risked exposing my ears to a barber who couldn’t speak English. I was a little nervous, but there were two things in my favor:

1. It’s hot in Arequipa, and I just wanted a trim. Even if they cut it too short, it would be suitable for the weather.
2. Peru is cheap. If I received a bad haircut, it would only cost me a few dollars at worst.

I wish I could give you a dramatic tale to start this lot, but truth be told, this was the simplest time under the scissors I ever experienced, including those in the states. I learned the proper expression, as is tradition – “corteme solo las puntas, pro favor” – only to have a very businesslike woman sit me down and say “corteme?” before I could utter a word.

Simple and cheap.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Price: 10 Dirhams (2.75 USD)

It’s easy enough to find an English-speaking salon in Dubai, with its plethora of sterile shopping malls and services catering to foreigners (Tim Horton’s and TGI Friday’s on the same block). However, after my failure to find a suitable place in Bangkok (see below), I was in the mood to try a quick cut in the old city. To top it off, my local Aussie friend claimed he knew of a great place for 10 Dirhams near a mosque.

He got that part right. We navigated quite a few dusty streets well off the main highway. When we finally got out there, it was closed for midday prayers. No matter, though, as you could be sure to find something cheap in any part of town that excluded major businesses and shopping centers… those are actually pretty hard to avoid in the Emirates.

No words exchanged other than “haircut”. I believe rugby was on the telly.

Bugu, South Korea
Price: 8,000 Won (8 USD)

Whether it’s a restaurant, a street vendor, or a barber, I strongly recommend establishing a routine abroad when you first get started. Doing so, in the case of haircuts, will not only provide you with familiar faces, but also get what you need through trial and error. I have a preferred smoothie vendor here at the San Camillo market who knows exactly what I want because I’ve been visiting her for two weeks with the same request. My restaurant at AMU Plaza in Kagoshima always knew to expect me at eight or nine in the evening and have a glass of iced oolong ready.

In my small town in Korea, I had a bit of an issue with communication at first. In fact, though I learned the expression for “I’d just like a trim, please”, the woman scanned over my shoulder to read my cliff notes and determined what I wanted (I try to avoid just plunking a written message in front of people, but I can see how it might make things easier… a bit rude).

In any case, she wanted very specific information: how short? Rounded in the back? Use a hair thinner? Any product? Again, I’m a guy… who cares? As long as I walk out with shorter hair, I’m generally happy with the result. Asking such specific questions to someone with poor language skills can often frustrate customers just looking for a quick in-and-out.

My barber in Bugu must have seen me 8-10 times that year, and after 2-3 visits, she knew what I wanted without saying a word.

Thai Mueang, Thailand
Price: 60 Baht (2 USD)

Thailand was a different story. The heat and humidity were making it very annoying to have hair of even moderate length. As such, I wanted something really short to make it through the rainy season.

My experience at a small barber shop in Thai Mueang is the perfect example of why you should practice the local language before trying it in front of Thai people. I meant to say “cut off this much”, showing the length between two fingers… instead, I mixed it up with “leave this much”. With the first cut of the razor, I knew I was coming out of this looking more like a skinhead.

Well, it grew back.

Kagoshima, Japan
Price: 1500 Yen (18 USD)

I’ve been to a number of places in Japan for a haircut. Luckily the Japanese isn’t especially difficult (i.e. haircut is “haircut”), but finding a barber who is willing to listen to exactly what you want instead of assuming you’re an American soldier in need of a crew cut isn’t always the easiest thing. Japanese and Korean people have different consistencies in their hair than foreigners, which is why it might not be unheard of to find a shop unwilling to cut gaijin heads.

When I shattered my wrist in Kagoshima, I was in need of a haircut. Not only did I find a man willing to cut and shave me for 1500 Yen near Kagoshima-Chuo Station, but it turned out to be a delightful and relaxing experience: hot foam around the ears and neck, blow-dry, a short neck massage. Japanese are masters of relaxation and convenience.

Before I “risked” my head on my barber in Bugu, I had planned on a trip to Mt. Fuji over the Chuseok holiday. While in Shizuoka, I got a haircut. Yes, I traveled to another country and paid twice the price for a haircut rather than put myself in the awkward position of doing one for the first time in Korea… maybe I just missed the full package.

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