I once had a linguistics professor who told our class “The two jobs that can get you anywhere in the world are teaching English, and cutting hair.” While I have yet to meet a stylist who puts this logic to use, truer words have never been spoken. Anyone who has trusted their hair to a foreign salon knows that the art of cutting hair overseas consists of 1 part strategy, 1 part language barrier, and 2 parts wishful thinking.
I have heard horror stories of haircuts in Korea, stories where unsuspecting foreigners trust the stylist with a pair of scissors, only to leave the salon hours later with a banged bowl cut Moe from the Three Stooges would envy. Indeed, there is a huge difference between the sleek, glossy hairs that are the pride of my Korean students, and the miserable tumbleweed erupting from my scalp. The likelihood that an Asian hairdresser would know what to do with my hair is slim to none, as I have been stuck with it for nearly 23 years and am equally bewildered.
Getting your haircut is scary. Getting is done in a foreign place is even scarier. Take comfort in the fact that everyone expects you to look strange anyway, and follow the tips below.
Step 1: Ask around. Expats have a great network of trusted doctors, dentists and hairdressers and you can be guaranteed to find one who is “foreigner approved.” If you’re expecting American-like service, seek out someone who’s been trained in the US. South Koreans are used to cutting South Korean hair in a South Korean style, so it’s only natural that they won’t know what to make of the frizzy lion mane I will be presenting them with. If you want to find a dentist in Seoul who will actually consult you before pulling teeth, the solution is easy – find a dentist who works with Westerners. They know that that’s not our modus operandi.
Step 2: Communicate! You could locate Vidal Sassoon overseas, but that doesn’t mean that you’re vision will translate into a good haircut when you toss in a language barrier. Words like edgy, retro, and low-maintenance are highly technical for the English learner, so if you’re going for a particular look, print off a picture to clarify any confusion. My most recent haircut consisted of me weeping and saying “not like Justin Bieber” over and over to bridge a language gap. That’s probably best avoided.
Step 3: Do not back down! After diligently following steps one and two of my own rules, I found myself sitting in the chair of an English speaking, Australian trained stylist, with my temper rising. In a moment of inspiration and poor impulse control, I decided I’d be chopping of all my hair into a bob worthy of Ellen DeGeneres. The hairdresser picked up my picture, stared at it, and grunted his disapproval.
“Short cut for boy.”
“But I want this cut,” I pleaded, desperately trying to justify my decision. “I think it’s cute.”
“I think medium for girl.” He gestured to my chin.
“I don’t want medium. I want short.”
This banter continued for several minutes before he reluctantly snipped a chunk above my ear, and carried on.
Step 4: Rock it. Not only did you have the courage to get a new, trendy haircut, but you also had the balls to get it done overseas, venturing into treacherous territory few have had the chutzpah to consider. Booyah.