Haircut, Shanghai Style

OK girls, imagine this nightmare scenario - you are plonked into a foreign city for a year with no hairdresser who speaks your language, and it's now 3 months since your last haircut. Aaaagh! What to do? At the point of desperation you are relieved to discover that English-speaking hairdressers do exist in Shanghai, however you have to make an appointment to see them 28 months in advance, and they will charge you the equivalent of a years' worth of Cherry Ripes to cut your hair. And a colour? About the same price as a plasma TV, or 10 years of Chinese lessons.

So it becomes obvious - you are going to have to find a Chinese hairdresser. This is totally terrifying. Firstly, the language barrier means that nuances of cut and colour will be lost in translation. No, I do not want to look like Lady Gaga. Or Roger Federer. And what if they put hair dye suitable for asian hair on mine? What if all my hair falls out? The ways in which the whole thing could go terribly, horribly wrong are many, and my Chinese Hairdressing Words are few.

I take the plunge. I do a reccy first, on my bike, to see what the salon looks like. It looks pretty good, all-white decor, Kerastase products. Then I go in to make an appointment. They want to know do I want a haircut now? This would normally be seen as a bad sign (no waiting list, no talent) but not in Shanghai where anything is possible anytime at the drop of a hat. But I need a cooling off period in case I chicken out, so I make the appointment for the next day and cycle off.

Yesterday was D-day. The first thing I notice as I take my seat in a plush white leather chair is the total absence of female staff - every single person working at the salon is male. I bet they're all straight too, although I find that harder to tell here as perfectly red-blooded Chinese heterosexuals are likely to be wearing pink girls' sunglasses and Hello Kitty t-shirts. 

Then, the consultation with the senior stylist.....he speaks no English at all, but has chosen Benson (as in Hedges) for his English name. I unfold my helpful list of Chinese Hairdressing Phrases, pulled out of a tourist magazine 6 months ago and kept for just such a situation. I scan through it for "Please give me a modern bob, cover up all my grey with natural looking highlights, and while you're at it make me look 20 years younger'

Oh...there's nothing on the phrase list that even remotely helps. It's got really useful ones like: 'Please make me look like a rockstar' and 'Can you shave it all off?' Even 'Don't make me look like that dog of yours'. I'm a dead man. I revert to miming, and indicate a kind of shape like a bob. 'Bo-bo?' asks Benson. 'Bo-bo' I reply.

Now for the colour. Trickier, because the colour book seems to consist entirely of shades of black. I whip out my ipod and show Benson a photo of my hair when I was in Paris two years ago. On reflection, the background of the Eiffel tower is what makes the colour look good. It'll have to do. We get the only English-speaking staff member to translate. I ask him:'Is it a permanent colour?'
'No' he says, 'Not permanent. Forever!' Reassuring.

So the fun begins. I have no less than eight men doing my hair, including one whose job is just to wash it, and another who just combs after washing. Sadly, Benson rejects his combing and the comb is passed to someone with more experience. For five long hours I am sat, wrapped in a cape, while weird stuff happens to me and my head. It begins with 2 large black plastic ear covers, so I look like Goofy, and a white neck wrap around bandage thingy to keep hair dye off my skin. Along the way my head is pummelled, wrapped in plastic, and covered with 58 separate foil envelopes.I have mini panic attacks every 10 minutes or so when some new chemical is applied to my already overloaded head. The supposedly relaxing scalp massage is an opportunity for the overly-strong hair-washing guy to practice squashing skulls with his bare hands. Can a scalp massage give you a headache?

At last the torture is over. The wraps are off and the drying begins. During the finale I meet a new staff member whose job is just to dispense styling product to Benson, and another who holds up sections of hair while Benson dries underneath it, so he doesn't have to struggle to use one of those annoying clips. Benson seems extremely pleased with his results. And you know what? I do too. It's one of my Best Haircuts Ever. And its definitely my Best Haircut in a Foreign Language (I recall that distressing time in Thailand I came out looking like Macauley Caulkin in Home Alone).

On the way home Daughter Number One says 'I don't like your haircut. You look 25!' Since when was that supposed to be an insult? What do you think?

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