Sunday, June 14, 2009

Shave and a Haircut, Four Bits

The prospect of getting a haircut in a foreign country is a bit intimidating, especially at my age. Twenty years ago, I could afford to be a bit more cavalier about my choice of barber, secure in the knowledge that a bad haircut would only be a short-term embarrassment. But these days, with my hairline in full retreat and more new growth in my ears than on my head, I’ve become a bit more selective about who comes at me with a pair of scissors. This proved to be a challenge in Nigeria, as the phrase “bature hair” became synonymous with an impossible task for the resident hairdressers. The nature of foreigners’ hair was such a departure from the norm for the local salons that most could only make a best guess as to how to approach it, resulting in horror stories that were very amusing to those not in the barber’s chair. For this reason, I tended to put off my visit to the hairdresser for as long as possible, extending my usual monthly visit to quarterly or beyond. I wish I could say that the moptop that resulted from such a delay made me look like a holdover from Woodstock, but the truth is, the hair piled up only on the back and sides of my head, so I more closely resembled Jack Nicholson at the end of “The Shining”. Not quite the look I was going for. Eventually, I did manage to find a salon in Abuja that catered to ex-pats, so the results were much more to my liking, but the price of the cut made each appointment an extravagance on a volunteer’s salary, so I still only managed three visits over the course of the year.

So, it was with no lack of trepidation that I faced the same dilemma in Bangladesh. I wisely visited my trusted and true hairdresser in Toronto two days before I left to get a decent haircut and some consolation about the fate awaiting me overseas. His broken English always made him sound a bit like Tarzan, but I understood him well enough. “Yeah, them don’t know what them doing over there. Make you look like shit.” Point taken, King of the Jungle. Following the pattern established in Nigeria, I put off my first trim for as long as possible, but after four months, Kristel had begun to hide the sharp objects in the house and lock me out of the bedroom, so I knew the time had finally come.

One fact provided me with more confidence than I had ever felt in Nigeria. Surveying the heads of my colleagues here, I found their hair to be much more like my own. Only much more luxurious, damn them. Most Bangladeshi men my age boast a head of hair that would rival that of a Hollywood leading man. So, the only real risk might be that a barber accustomed to sturdier follicles would attack my head with his usual zeal and reduce my head to a moonscape. In order to mitigate this hazard, I strategically interviewed those coworkers who were less blessed when it came to dome coverage. No consensus resulted, but most pointed to a small salon around the corner from the office as the most convenient place to go. Steeling my nerve one afternoon at the close of the workday, I set out to meet my destiny.

An interesting quirk among barbershops in Bangladesh is that most of them prefer to call themselves salons, except that the majority misspell the word, adding an extra “o”. Given the general prohibition of alcohol in the country, it’s very funny to see the abundance of “saloons” open to the public. My saloon was located literally around the corner from our flat, a quick two-minute walk away. A commercial strip of stores has grown up there, but the shops are so small and the strip so short that it feels more cozy than imposing, a neighbourhood of its own. It’s become our drop-in centre when we’re too tired or lazy to do our shopping farther downtown. One of the shopkeepers has made a point of rewarding us with sweets whenever we come by to buy potatoes, onions or toilet paper. As an incentive, it works pretty well on me. We also trade vocabulary lessons with him, although it hasn’t progressed much past learning the words for potatoes, onions and toilet paper. Well, maybe just potatoes and onions. In any event, my focus this day was on something other than vegetables, so I passed his shop with a wave and the briefest of greetings.

Arriving at the salon, I slid the door open and was greeted with the usual shocked stares. The shop was not unlike any of the ones that might be found back home, and I was pleased to see plenty of mirrors so that I could keep tabs on the potential destruction. Taking a seat by the door, I smiled at the barber currently clipping another customer. In the corner, another fellow was enjoying a full facial that seemed to have relaxed him to the point of unconsciousness. A television set near the door occupied the attention of the barber and his customer, a Bollywood movie blaring at full volume. After a couple of minutes, the door slid open and a man entered. Looking at me sitting there, he sized me up and said, “Cut?” I hoped this meant he was another barber and not a travelling surgeon. I nodded and he motioned me to the lone unoccupied chair.

Covering me with layers of sheets to guard against the flying hair, my barber looked me in the eyes and said “Short?”, which is always an interesting question, no matter where the barber is located, since everyone has their own definitions of that word. Deciding that an explanation might cause more grief than a simple agreement, I nodded my head and helpfully gestured with my thumb and forefinger close together, though this really didn’t mean anything to me, either. Settling in to his work, my barber pulled out a pair of scissors that probably could have pulled double duty as hedge clippers. Actually, his approach to my head was not unlike creating a work of topiary, the scissors in constant motion and clacking perilously close to my ears. At certain points, the Bollywood movie would broadcast a particularly compelling moment and his attention would be drawn to the screen, but not at the expense of stopping what he was doing. Visions of my ear doing a van Gogh danced in my head, but I resisted the urge to flinch too much, sensing that any movement of my head might increase the danger. The main cut complete, I looked at the results and admitted that it looked alright. Taking a short break, my barber went to the air conditioner to spray an air freshener into it. Soon, the scent of a citrus rainfall filled the salon. At this point in the cut back home, an electric razor would be produced to provide the final trim, but the power cuts here would make that somewhat useless. So, my barber reached into the drawer for his trusty straight razor instead. “Your name isn’t Sweeney Todd, is it?” I wanted to ask, but I sensed that the joke, even if understood, probably wouldn’t have been appreciated. So, I remained as still as possible while the razor scraped its way around my head.

Signalling the end of the cut, my barber held up a mirror to show me the back of my head and I confirmed that it was still there. Actually, the cut looked as good as any I would have received back home, so I complimented him on his efforts. Finishing me off with a dusting of powder and a good brushing, he swept the fallen hair off me as he cast the cover sheets aside. Asking him the cost of the cut, I was surprised to see him hold up three fingers. Going through the possibilities in my head, I assumed three hundred taka to be too much and three taka to be ridiculous, so I confirmed that he meant thirty taka, and he nodded. Thirty taka for a haircut - the equivalent of about fifty cents in Canada. Haircuts haven’t cost that little since Diefenbaker was in office. I thanked him once again and assured him that I would return again soon, to which he gave his smiling approval. Or maybe he just liked the ending of the Bollywood movie. As first haircuts go, this was a good one and the cost of the service was brilliant. I may even return for a followup before the year is over.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah, the joys of getting a haircut. I never ever venture to a local barber or salon/saloon when overseas. Then again, I'm never away for longer than 3 weeks.

I too am folically challenged, but I have a full grey beard. I find that in the heat of summer, especially with high humidity, my hair grows faster [as do my fingernails]. So I arrive in China fully shorn [number 1 buzz cut], but quickly "hair-up" as if I were a werewolf facing full moon at midday. Yet, I refuse to go to a local salon/barber.

In China, where beards are so rare, I truly stand out -- even the shy become curious. I am the avatar of Father Christmas. There are more photos of me with small frightened children encouraged by their parents to smile at the weird stranger, even as they shake with fear. I have no idea who these shutterbugs are, but I am popular indeed. I am the topic of many conversations at family gatherings where I will never be bodily present.

I find hair to be a cultural differentiator. Ignoring the beard reference, people in China sometimes come up to me to pet my arms. While they are not particularly hairy by Western standards, there is sufficient hair to be noticable in a culture where men do not have hairy arms.

We won't talk about chests or backs or other more private places. But I have noticed that Chinese men have hairy legs. This somewhat surprised me, because I thought they had little body hair.

Body hair confirms in the mind of Asians that Westerners are barbarians [literally so since that word refers to "hairy men"]. We are exotic animals, monkeys that talk [maybe] and are even intelligent enough to learn the language [Chinese of course]. Indeed, people pet my arms just like one would pet a dog.

I toured Seoul, Korea, several years ago. My guide took me up the radio tower on the mountain in the centre of the city. As we got off the elevator, we ran into a pack of school children on a day's outing. I was instantly mobbed, as if I were a rock star. But I quickly realized I was not a celebrity -- just a bearded, hairy foreigner. I had 12 year old girls squealing in delight as they touched my beard and my arms. Camera flashes blinded me -- the paparazzi of Seoul. All because of hair.

Then again hair has a sexual meaning, especially among men in China. A full head of hair represents virility; going bald is unmanly [like wearing glasses as a sign of weakness]. Each lost folical seems to be equated with low sperm count.

I am sure that our Western obsession with a full head of hair is just as primitive. And our need to wash away the grey is part of the current youth culture. Samson and Dalilah is a highly erotic story, verging on porn.

If I allow my hair to grow out, I ultimately look like a gnome -- Billy Goat's Gruff living under the bridge. Not an image I like to portray. So I get fully buzzed every two weeks without fail, just to be on the safe side.

Talk to you soon...Victor