When you are a foreigner, getting a haircut in China can be a truly frightening thing — even when you are a guy, and you really don’t care as much about your appearance as your female friends do. You are more than likely at the mercy of a person with sharp scissors who doesn’t understand English or any word you are saying. They will do what they damn well please. Many snips later, and you may leave with a high-and-tight shaving that could pass muster with U.S. Marine Corps regulations. Even worse, you may end up with a male Chinese hair style that even western punk rockers with gelled-straight-up mohawks would look at with utter confusion. Let’s just put it this way: during my first year in China, I didn’t get a hair cut for like more than six months. Scraggly and slightly curly bangs hung down to my chin, and I had a penchant for wearing very old dress pants I had sawed off at the knees with a serrated steak knife. That was to make impromptu shorts, of course.
You look like a homeless! Several my Chinese friends told me. Some of them laughed. Some of them were concerned. Some of them were very much both and didn’t know what to make of me. Yes, I did look like a bum. I didn’t feel that way. Still, it didn’t matter. No matter what, however, I looked like a complete idiot back then. My adamant refusal to get a hair cut or even shave just made it worse — like I was some wanderer in a scorched and post-apocalyptic wasteland where jars of dirty water were traded like a highly valued currency. As in: Can I have two pounds of ground rat meat? I can trade you three jars of muddy water! Oh, and I can trade you this battery I pulled from a car somebody shot with a machine gun and lit on fire many years ago?
China is no apocalyptic wasteland, and my day-to-day life certainly doesn’t involve bartering for rat meat as a dietary source of protein. I no longer feel so fatalistic about things, and that is good. Very good. Well, I’m trying to change. Honestly. I am. Those scraggly and sawed-off dress pants shorts? I threw them away. I also no longer maul trousers with a steak knife to make shorts in the first place. I shave more often! Sometimes, its a severe struggle just to try to act everybody else. And, most importantly, I no longer have an irrational fear of Chinese barbers. I know how to get a haircut.
Three Chinese words have helped with that. They are 一点点. In Pinyin its: yi dian dian. In my own strange and made up pronunciation system, its E D-En D-En. If you point at areas of your hair you are concerned about and say this, your non-English-speaking hair dresser will nod and not shave everything off your head with buzzing clippers. Trust me, that’s a good thing.