Shanghai-Tested: My first ‘Chinese’ haircut

Shanghai-Tested: My first ‘Chinese’ haircut

The hairstylist put down the bleach and took out a jar of brown dye. That’s when I realized something had gone awry. 

me, at the hair salon, internally screaming.

As part of my recent deep-dive into embracing China local life, I took the plunge and did something I had never done before – I let someone who doesn’t speak English bleach my hair.

My haircuts in Shanghai have always been some of the most petrifying China experiences, because no matter how much Mandarin you may speak, the words “Can you just trim it up a little and give me bangs?” just don’t seem to have a direct translation. And while I can order food in a restaurant, talk to my neighbor, and buy all the crap I don’t need on Taobao, I still haven’t really learned the proper word for ‘layers’ or ‘highlights’ in Chinese and I am mortified of potentially-toxic hair dyes that salons here probably use. I just have this horrible mental image of the hair foils coming off my delicate Eastern-European scalp, and when the foils come off, my hair coming off with them.

Because of these irrational fears, the past two and a half years, I’ve been paying an arm and a leg to go to Western salons like Toni & Guy, though to be honest, they’re not much better. And lately, I’ve found it harder and harder to justify putting down upwards of $200 dollars on highlights (I had a stylist try to quote me at $350 for partial highlights on just-past-the-shoulder-length hair. For that kind of money, I’d rather buy a wig.). And so I decided to get my first China haircut, because I’m brave and nothing fazes me, and because a friend told me they would do the whole thing for 800rmb.

On first impression, all seemed normal. The hair stylist reassured me (in Chinese) that he had worked on hair like mine before. I didn’t doubt him, but the whole thing brought me back to the haircuts I used to get in middle school where I was always told that my hair ‘will curl inward and look soooo cute’. The joke was on them (or on me), because it never did. He also said my hair was very damaged (something I knew already –  it had been a really long, dry winter) and that he would do a Keratin treatment as part of the package.

In a continued effort to make me feel better, he also said that “he would make my hair look just like Jen’s” (my friend who told me about the salon in the first place). Hold up. Now, I was confused. Jen’s hair looked great, but she also had naturally brunette hair and I’m pretty sure we weren’t going for the same thing. Nevertheless, I was already sitting down and it was too late to back out now.

We started with the foils and I breathed a sign of relief as I smelled the sterile scent of the  bleach. But then..things got freaky. About half-way through, he stopped the foils and began mixing a darker color (the famous last words “I am going to make your hair like Jen’s” echoed in my mind). How dark were we talking about? Darker than my natural hair color. Dark enough to erase two and a half years of highlighted hair. I put down my cell phone and began paying attention.

As the dye went on, I froze. I wanted to go full blonde, but that looked like it wasn’t going to happen. The next thing I knew, my hair was baking under a dryer for twenty minutes and about half a bottle of conditioner was upturned into my hair to make it less dry. I was like that alter-ego Taylor Swift in “You Belong with Me” or one of the less famous Hadid sisters. My hair was greyish-brown, and I sat in the chair, trying to figure out how to say “I don’t think this hair quite matches my complexion”.


So yes, my haircut got lost in translation. But in the end, I actually really liked the mistake! Jen told me a few days later that in that salon they tend to do what they think is best for your hair, and honestly, my hair actually looks natural and without that tell-tale demarkation of where the real hair ends and the highlights begin. Dare I say, I prefer it?

But I’ve learned my lesson. When in doubt, I’ve found it best to say, just cut a little bit – “只要剪一点点”  –  and show them a picture of Taylor Swift. You will never go wrong with TSwift.

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