With moving so frequently in the past several years, I haven’t been able to build a relationship with a hair stylist, and because I’m not willing to pay somewhere near the triple digits for a simple haircut, I quit trying to find a decent salon. So, I have settled for the walk-in places found in the corners of strip malls. My hair always ends up stacked or angled when I have always preferred low maintenance long hair that I can pull into a ponytail or pin into a messy updo because that is what I’ve been doing since I was in junior high. What scads of stylists define as “simple” has forced me to get up earlier, experiment with styling products, and even dare to use a flat iron, which in turn, damages my hair and requires even more frequent bad haircuts. For months, I had been looking for someone to listen to me when I said that I wanted long layers, not give me six different haircuts, beginning with a bob at my chin and ending with a long, skinny layer of hair hanging halfway down my back.
I thought I’d tried everything—even going to more expensive salons, but no one could listen or understand that to me, “simple” means that same haircut I had when I was 12, given by the ever-exasperated Missy, the woman who cut my hair from 1992 to 2006 in Ashland, Ohio. But they didn’t know her, so I learned the Spanish words for particular cuts when I was trying to communicate with stylists in mid-Texas, and I often brought in pictures of actresses with soft, long hair, but nothing worked. My expectations have sunk to the point where I would leave happy if I knew that the lines were cut straight. Instead of expecting to be heeded, I have decided that I will go and as I sit with my hair being scrubbed clean with claws or lifeless hands, I will pray over the women, and ask them about their lives. Some of them want to talk, and some of them don’t. Some of them don’t speak English, so I decide that I can pray in English with my eyes closed and my head in the sink while they proceed to surprise me with the new head they create for me.
(Having started this practice several years ago, I have learned that prayer may very well bring peace upon these women’s lives that I may never know, but it has little effect in improving the quality of my hairstyle).
So when I walked into another one of these places last fall in the latest town, I found four women sitting cross-legged in their chairs, waiting for the day’s long line of customers to arrive. They were casually talking and intermittently giggling about something. The smallest one shot up, immediately asking me for my phone number in order to register me in the system.
She brought me to her chair, tied the cape and tissue around my neck and guided me to the sink. Her English was broken, but we talked as she washed my hair, massaging my hairline, tracing above my ears and through my crown with circulating thumbs. I discovered that she has been living in the U.S. since 2002, and that none of her family lives here. When I asked her if she cut hair in Vietnam, she laughed, continuing to press the pads of all ten of her fingers into my scalp, and told me that she used to be a pharmacist, but she has had trouble learning English and does not have time to go to school while she takes care of her two young boys.
I don’t know why, but I couldn’t tell her that I already knew that she was the best stylist I’ve ever had. I wondered if it would somehow insult her.
Back in the chair, she flipped my hair to one side and told me it’s not that damaged, so she wouldn’t take much off the bottom. An inch, maybe.
Some of the women began to speak in various accents, saying English words heavily coated in the linguistic variables of their first languages imposed upon mine. It was almost impossible to understand, yet all of this language classified as “English.” To me, the conversation seemed to function as a common ground for casting all kinds of pronunciations into a verbal circle like metal jacks haphazardly strewn there for them to throw their balls into the pit to pick up whatever they could to form meaning.
The one laughing spun in her chair with her thick black heel, bending over, pushing both her palms over her knees.
Behind me, my stylist saw that I was watching her co-worker in the mirror and leaned forward.
“She laugh,” she said, pausing and smiling. “She laughs because where she from, when she was in Cambodia, you wash with the same thing for clothes, hair, body—all. There is only one. Now we have the wall.”
I could see the wall of brand names from the ceiling to the floor in the mirror.
The stylist continued, “Where she was, in 1975, there was nothing. No clothes, no food. Because of the war.”
I nodded, almost shivering under her shears, thinking of how I am lucky not to know anything about a world without shampoo (or, you know, seeing the horrors of The Killing Fields).
“In my country, too, many people have no food.”
Her face was sad but each time she spoke, it was a matter of fact that her sons would know how to eat small portions, and to only take a little bit at the buffets—only what they needed. Like many people who come to America and watch the unchecked excess of all-you-can-eat bars, she will never get over seeing so much wasted on whims.
“The people in this country are lucky.”
I agreed with her, and it may have seemed to someone else that she was trying to shame me because I belong to the Americans who have too much and know absolutely nothing about it. But she wasn’t. She was only making conversation, and for her, rather surface-level conversation.
The women in the salon weren’t talking about the terrors of living under Khmer Rouge or the mass graves that probably buried their aunts and uncles. They weren’t discussing what it was like to witness life during and after Vietnam. They were laughing about the absurdity of staggering choices in hair soap housed in their very shop.
By the time she was nearly finished, she asked me about how often I colored my hair. (Most women ask me this, and I let them know that my hair is naturally this orange.) She continued, telling me it was extremely dry, particularly for not coloring it, and she suggested that I try one of the shampoos on special, and I declined because I thought it best to sit on the decision. What she didn’t know is that I couldn’t talk myself into buying bottles of soap that would cost more than the cut and her tip together after listening in on that beauty shop talk. Instead, I gave her a bigger tip than usual and told myself that I would come back later and try to buy the shampoo when I had more money.
Since that fortuitous first visit, I’ve returned, sometimes for Tim’s haircuts, and sometimes for my own. We sometimes go together when we’re bored. That’s how I ended up with bangs again—not because of Michelle Obama’s mid-life crisis but because I told myself I’d quit cutting my own. As usual, I printed out a picture of Brigitte Bardot and showed another woman.
“Ooh! You want to look like Pamela? Very nice.”
It took me a moment to realize that she thought she was holding a picture of Pamela Anderson, and I didn’t know what to say. I was appalled and amused but too shocked to respond with anything but “yes.”
My bangs didn’t end up looking like Anderson’s or Bardot’s. They actually looked a lot like the short, crooked ones that the woman with the scissors was sporting.
Meanwhile, Tim had climbed into the chair next to mine and into the hands of a novice who had just been brought into the company of women. He spoke less English than his co-workers and knew even less about hair cutting because he pulled out the thinning shears first. I cringed, the trainee sweat, and Tim clenched his teeth without enough gall to say, “Stop!”
Tim waited to expel all his favorite words of anger and disappointment in the front seat of our car afterward, and I coached him about how to tell people to stop hacking away at his hairline that already causes him way too much anxiety without a bad haircut.
But who am I kidding? I certainly don’t take my own advice. I’ve continued to return to the same place time after time, with the probability of a good haircut being only about 1 in 3.
I go because I find these women’s stories the most interesting and they give the best head massages I’ve ever had. If I’m too disappointed with my hair, I tell myself it’s a good check against my vanity and more entertaining and educational there than if I were to go where I knew I could get what I wanted. It’s admittedly, unnecessarily masochistic.
Each time I return, I hope that they’ll remember me, but they don’t, and I don’t remember which one of them left her husband because he didn’t want to eat the street food in Thailand because he thought it was dirty or which one of them doesn’t talk much at all. The stories get lost among the faces; moreover, I have no idea if the one whose ex-husband only likes to fish is the one who cut my hair well, or if it was the skinny one who always wears jeweled sandals and used to be a computer programmer.
When I think about these women, I wonder if they would find it strange if I were to ask to sit there and listen to them talk. I’m tempted to walk in some time and ask them if I could interview all of them to ask them how they all came to work in this salon. It is a haven for refugees and people whose English language skills just weren’t high enough to get them jobs or qualifications here, and I want to know more. Then I remember I’m not writing for anyone but myself now. I could write it and pitch it as some local color story, but I just haven’t done it yet. I need to commit—or at least ask. Some time in September, I’ll need another haircut, and maybe I’ll finally get one of the stories straight enough to write about, even if my hair ends up jagged again.