When we arrived in Beijing, exhausted from our Mongolian adventures, we decided to take it easy for a bit. I spent some time researching our train tickets, and we ventured out just for two things — food and Peter’s main errand in Beijing: getting his hair cut.
I have gotten my own hair cut in Beijing before, and was subjected to thinning shears. So, while I was supportive of Peter’s need for a trim, I was also a bit wary of what a potential hairdresser might have in store. My wariness intensified when I saw the young men at the salon Peter had chosen: they all had long haircuts with bangs swept across their foreheads; some of them had gone a step further and styled it upwards to create poufy pompadours. They looked like what would happen if Ashton Kutcher stuck his finger in a socket.
But how difficult could a normal haircut be? After explaining in broken Chinese that Peter had hair and that he would like it cut, not too short but not too long, I asked them if they had a book of hair cuts so we could choose a picture. They did indeed — but the models all looked like the guys in the shop. We picked the least offensive one and showed it to the stylist. He nodded and got to work.
In retrospect, there were many indications of impending disaster. Like, for example, the fact that the guy in the photograph had highlights. And also, the model’s hair was wavy.
But I didn’t have a chance to really think about that second point because the owner of the salon came up to me and started trying to sell me a deep conditioning treatment for my split ends. “It’s from Germany!” he told me. “It is good for hair!” He picked up a loose strand of my hair and inspected a frayed end as I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, pale and tired, with flat, limp hair that clearly was in need of some professional attention. But still. Twenty bucks for German conditioner? I’ll just put it up in a bun.
I kept saying no, and he kept pushing. I didn’t want to be rude but I also didn’t want his conditioner, so I was relieved when he said a word that I recognized from my previous time in Beijing: massage. I’d forgotten that in China, haircuts usually come with a head rub. And I love having my head rubbed! As Peter’s stylist snipped away, I negotiated a rate for a head massage, sans German treatment.
“Will you be okay?” I asked Peter.
“Sure,” he said, eyes still closed. I followed a young woman to the back of the room.
Over the next fifteen minutes, I received a nice massage and again was encouraged — one might even say pressured — to try the German conditioner I chatted with a young massage therapist and was offered a back rub. When it was over, I walked to the front of the shop, expecting to find Peter waiting for me by the door.
But Peter’s fifteen minutes had been very different from mine. He had not received a head rub. Nor was he waiting for me. Instead, he was sitting under a heat lamp. His hair was twisted into foil-covered spikes and covered with saran wrap.
He was getting a permanent.
I took one look at his head and started to laugh.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I do,” I said. “You’re getting a perm.”
Peter looked at me as if I were crazy — which was ironic, given that he was the one with tin foil on his head. The rotating circular heat lamp, combined with the spikes, made him look like some sort of punk angel.
“He asked if I wanted tall hair.”
Clearly there was a gaping hole in Peter’s knowledge of salon treatments. I have never gotten a perm myself — but I know one when I see one. And while Peter assumed that he was just going to end up with a temporary curl or two, anyone who saw the vertical rise of his foil-dreds would know that the stylist had something different in mind.
“They’re making it stand up,” I told him, glancing at the other men in the salon. I’d assumed that they had achieved their gravity-defying styles with massive use of product, but upon closer inspection, I couldn’t see any tell-tale signs of hair goop. “They’re making it look like theirs.”
At this point, Peter started to get a little worried, especially when I asked the young man how much longer he would be spending under the heat lamp, and he said a half an hour.
“But I can just brush it down, right?” he asked. “It won’t last long.”
“Peter,” I said. “It’s a permanent.”
By this time I was starting to get a serious case of the giggles, but I didn’t want to insult the young stylist dutifully keeping track of the heating lamp’s orbits. I stared at my lap for a bit, then out the window. Eventually, the young man removed the lamp and saran wrap and began unwrapping the foil.
The effect was reminiscent of a porcupine — sharp little spikes of hair sticking up in neat rows from his scalp. It didn’t get much better when the stylist fluffed it — Peter’s hair not only stood up straight in the air, but its texture had changed. It looked fried.
The stylist then pulled out the male version of the German conditioner, a treatment that we refused both because of cost and out of fear that it might add additional permanence. The hairdresser seemed genuinely concerned — were we crazy? This stuff was essential! — but when we continued to say no, he reluctantly led Peter back to the sink for a final wash.
The water didn’t matter, though — his hair just popped back up again. I managed to hold myself together till the street, then burst into laughter that resumes any time I think about what his hair looked like from the side. We raced back to the hotel and Peter scrubbed his hair twice more in the sink — which made it look a little better, but could do nothing to change the fact that it felt like a shag carpet.
Here’s hoping it grows out fast.