I hate getting a haircut in any language.
The small talk, the waiting, the smells--the questions. I don’t know what style I want. I’ve had this same cut since birth and I’m fortunate that my curly hair makes any basic style look good at several lengths, so more than anything, if I had the necessary swagger, when I sit in a chair, I just want to say, “Make me pretty” and be done with it.
Normally, it’s more of a meek, “A trim?”
But in Korea, I don’t get that luxury.
I can say, “Give me a haircut please,” and “A little” and “Like this?” but beyond that, I’m in their hands.
Some seasons are better than others and I’ve accepted that bad haircuts are just the price I pay for not speaking the language. The best haircuts I’ve gotten were when Korean friends went with me to translate.
I didn’t have that today.
It’s Buddha’s Birthday. No one’s in school. Banks are closed. My hair was long enough to put in my mouth so around noon, I went in to my local salon that I pass on the way to work each day and for the last few weeks, the hairstylist had given me that look like, “Is today the day?” Inside were three ajumma in plastic headwraps, chatting as they waited for the whatever to whatever; I don’t know what goes into women’s haircuts.
I had all afternoon. I was fine waiting an hour for my turn.
They offered me coffee and I felt pretty confident in my Korean, saying “That’s okay!” and we left it at that. The women went on chatting. It felt more like friends than just customers.
Then the door opened. A delivery man walked in. Set a bunch of food out on a coffee table in front of me, and I started to feel awkward that I’d interrupted their lunch time. Should I leave? I didn’t know how to ask that so I looked at the hairstylist who told me, “Han-she, gwaenchanhayo?” One hour, is it okay?
So I left. Did my grocery shopping. At the cash register, I cut in front of an old lady by the baskets and I thought she was picking one up, but nope, just osteoporosis bending her over like a question mark.
Anyway, an hour and some minutes passed and I went back for the haircut.
A middle school girl was in the chair with her mother next to her. Not one of mine but I felt a kinship. We shared similar expressions as awkward children, her actually, me perpetually. That kind of mindset where people say things twice because we don’t realize anyone’s ever talking to us.
One of the ajummas from before asked me about coffee again and again I said, “That’s okay!” She was insistent this time.
Then the questions came. Not about hairstyle. The questions I get pretty regularly as a foreigner. Where are you from? What do you do? How long have you been here? Apparently, she lives on the floor above me. I had this excited surprised reaction as I understood, which made the whole room laugh except the student. You know how teenagers are. She asked about my dog, even. Great! But that meant questions that I’d never heard before. She took some time trying to explain them but she had to give up. At one point, she told me to study and I said okay.
Then the mother of the student who knew a bit of English, I guess, more than my neighbor anyway, turned to me and said, “Handsome!” which I responded with my usual “Thank you” and big smile but I was feeling brave and vaguely comfortable around these strangers (weird for me!) so I told her, “E-ppu-da!” which is “You’re pretty!” in the local Jeollanamdo dialect. The room lit up with laughter. Even the student broke her grimace.
I’d been accepted by these people.
My turn was up.
The girl’s hair had been permed with those big loops and now she wore the plastic headwrap under that big hair dryer that as a basic guy I’ve never used so I don’t know why it instead of the hand one. She was in the chair next to me. I could catch her eye in the mirror.
The hairstylist started asking me things that--who knows if my responses were correct. I said, “A little” and “Like this” and pointed and then she asked me something and I said, “Okay, sure!” knowing this was the part where I let go and let God or whatever when the student, near silent but for that one crack of laughter, shook her head.
If I had to guess, she saved me from an awful haircut.
So we agreed on something else. “Tubular,” an English word adopted into Korean.
I don’t know what the tubular hairstyle is. Or, well, I didn’t. I do now. Unfortunately.
She shaved the long hair around my ears. She started cutting. Midway through, the ajumma asked the student and I heard the word, “Papago,” which is an app I use to translate English to Korean. She did it the other way. With scissors in my hair still, the ajumma came up asking me things, letting the robotic voice of her phone speak English.
“Does he have a girlfriend?”
(Korean doesn’t use pronouns in the same way so translators always to default to he or it).
The hair stylist was yelling in that friendly way to stop interrupting till suddenly the haircut paused. The stylist looked in the mirror.
Midway through a haircut, it always looks bad.
However, we were 80% done. Normally, I can see its potential by now.
But I was missing a whole lot of hair. There wasn’t much left to cut.
And I think, as the majority of the salon’s customers were women, she maybe didn’t have a lot of practice with this hairstyle.
She asked her friend something.
I’m going to assume it was, “Is this right?”
And there was a discussion.
A long discussion with quick, heated exchanges.
And my neighbor, via translator, told me, “This was a popular style in Korea.”
I could shelve my opinions on the in-progress unsightliness of the cut until the end. I could put the pause and the discussion out of mind. The reassurance, though, really weighed on me. I looked over at the student, grimacing again.
It was done being cut but I needed a wash and whatever. At this point, the student’s hair needed its next step too, so the stylist walked me over to the hair washing station, that deep reclining chair that led to the sink with the neck hole. Then the stylist put a towel over my eyes so I couldn’t see and I felt tentative hands cleaning the hair out of my ears. And a pause. Then a few massages to my hair. Another pause.
While the stylist helped the student, the ajumma, the friend, my neighbor took on the task of washing my hair until she did a bad enough job that the stylist did it herself.
Back in the chair, the cut looked… not bad. Okay, I guess. Not great.
And the stylist grabbed a brush I’d never even seen before. It was round with large spokes very spread out, and she used it to tease my hair, which is an issue, because I don’t have that brush at home. I’m not going to buy that brush for home. So if the only way to get my hair looking all right is that brush, I think I’m screwed for a few months.
The end product is not bad, for now, but it’s very not me.