Have you ever accidentally gotten a perm? I have.
How does one accidentally get a perm, you ask? More easily than you’d think. Here, I’ll tell you.
It was Wednesday afternoon, and I desperately needed a haircut. I scoped out quite a number of barbers, hair salons, and stylists around the neighborhood, maybe 15 in all, including a toothy man with shears, a mirror and a plastic stool who’d set up shop on the sidewalk with his three wheeled cart, before choosing Mango Stylist. I didn’t choose Mango Stylist because of any particular quality it appeared to possess, but rather because I was tired of looking. And I like mangoes.
The few people inside who I had thought were customers turned out to be employees. That was the first thing that worried me. I was shown into a narrow room with a reclining chair and a basin for my head. I got shampooed, rinsed, and dried, and then escorted back to the main room where I sat in front of a large mirror. The second thing that worried me was the fact that the chair I sat down on was a rusty metal folding chair.
For some reason they called the stylists there the Chinese word for ‘teacher’. Please wait for your ‘teacher’, I was told. My ‘teacher’ came. He examined my hair. Patted here, lifted there, and teased the long strands I hadn’t cut in 6 months. He asked me what I wanted to do with it. I said I wanted it shorter, but more so on the sides than on the top. He asked if I wanted to show him a picture on their computer so he could get a better idea. I said sure and typed in “men’s hairstyles” on Yahoo. A screen full of headshots came up and I pointed to the first one that looked appealing. I want something like this I said. But, he said, you don’t have that kind of hair. I said I don’t care; I just want something approximately like that. He said you need coarser, curlier hair and yours is very straight. I said (and here was my fatal flaw), whatever, just do what you think is best.
The next thing that worried me was the way he cut my hair. Not the technique, but the posture. He kept his arms up and out to the side like the stunted wings of some silly bird and clipped away, sometimes slicing through nothing but air. Luckily, my ears and my nose remained completely attached. As I gazed in the mirror, it seemed that my ‘teacher’ was actually giving me a decent, normal haircut. But this was to be only the beginning.
An assistant came over, pushing a cart with various instruments laid out on its top. I thought maybe the assistant was going to detail the cut, do some pruning. But then the ‘teacher’ came back and, with the help of the assistant, started doing something quite extraordinary. Mind you, I’ve had quite a fare share of haircuts in my day – around 3.5 a year times 23 (that’s about 70) – but never had I run into the bizarreness that was happening on top of my head. The assistant handed the ‘teacher’ a small square piece of cloth or paper and the teacher would wrap a small bundle of my hair in it then fold the paper and roll it in itself before securing it with a hairclip. I watched in nervous bemusement as this went on for nearly 15 minutes. Soon my head was covered in curls of white paper. The assistant then tied a towel around my head like a bandana, at which point I was actually kind of scared.
I was brought a menu with a list of options: 1, 2, 3, 4, and High Level Japanese Type. #1 was the cheapest (around 280RMB) and the Japanese one was the most expensive (around 1200RMB). What’s the difference, I asked, still unsure of what I was even getting myself into. The quality of the hold – how long it’ll last and how good it will look he said. I had originally been intent on getting a basic cut, offered at a cool 30RMB, and this, whatever it was, was going a little beyond my budget. The ‘teacher’ suggested I choose the #3 option for 588RMB. I told him I was jobless and couch surfing, and the reason I was getting a haircut was to get a job. He said okay, then how about the #1. I said it was still too expensive. He said he’d give me the special ‘member discount’ (50% off) on the #1 after I told him that at my last job interview the interviewer had told me my hair was too long (which was true). So there I was, having just bargained my way to a #1, and still just as clueless as to what was going on.
The assistant went into a back room and came back with a pink box with fancy black writing. He quickly showed it to me in the mirror, stressing the fact that it was still in its plastic wrap: unopened. I didn’t really get a good look at the label, but when he pulled two plastic bottles of semi-clear liquid out of the package, I assumed the worst: he was going to dye my hair. I was pretty sure that the hair in the picture online hadn’t been an unusual color, nor had my ‘teacher’ mentioned anything about color. But I could never be sure if the hair I had pointed to had been dyed green or red since I’m red-green colorblind. I tried to think hard back to the picture – had there been anything off about the hair? The assistant was already squirting the liquid onto the curled pieces of paper as I envisioned myself with ridiculous dyed hair. But surely dyed hair wouldn’t help me get a job, I thought. I knew my ‘teacher’ was doing what was best for me.
After the papers had been thoroughly soaked, I was handed a Chinese fashion magazine to look at, and as I was reading the text under several pie graphs displaying the results of a survey on marriage (nearly half said that they’d wait until they were 28-34 years old to get married!), I suddenly became aware that some machine had just started whirring immediately behind me. Heat waves began pouring down upon my head. The assistant quickly told me, don’t move your head. I turned my eyes up over the magazine and onto the mirror where I saw a gray UFO swooping around my head. At this point, I quickly recalled dozens of movies, pictures, and memories that all pointed to one, relieving conclusion: I was getting a perm.
But I was still skeptical. After all, I was in China, and in China almost anything can happen with no explanation. For example, when your friend asks, why is there a wall in the middle of that sidewalk, or why is that woman holding her child up to pee in a trashcan in the middle of the supermarket, or why does that exit ramp take you right back onto the same highway you just came from, you must respond, don’t ask, it’s China. So I wasn’t ready to accept that I was just getting a perm. I would wait until the very end.
I must have read almost half the magazine, and learned a great deal about current marriage trends in China (looks are 10th on the list of requirements for a good spouse, and financial stability 4th, good temper, 3rd. A fifth would play around too if they found their husband cheating, while half would divorce him immediately. An encouraging two thirds think that ‘love’ is necessary in marriage) when the ‘teacher’ came up and told me, it’s done. He undid the bandana, and started taking out all the paper. I didn’t look up until he’d take every last piece out – didn’t want to ruin the surprise – and to my relief, my hair color hadn’t changed (as far as I could tell, anyway). My head was just covered in dozens of pointy spikes like it had turned into the set of some punk rock nightmare.
They washed the spikes out and blow-dried my hair. My hair looked tousled, like I had put some mousse in and given it some more body. How long will this last, I asked. Around four to six months said the ‘teacher’. Well, I thought, I won’t have to bother with putting product in my hair for a while – it’ll just be like that all the time. I was beginning to like my perm. I paid the 140RMB and thanked my ‘teacher’. I hope you find a suitable job, he said.