The woman had scissors in her hand, a pair of clippers in the other, and the back of my head before her, like a great, scarred battlefield. “I’m scared,” she muttered in Korean, as though before her she saw trenches, opposing troops, the very face of death. This was to be her greatest challenge. None of her training had prepared her for this. No one had told her about this in school, none of her mentors had ever even suggested such a horror would befall her. But now she would have to fend for succour with the great unknown of foreign hair, and she would have to be brave. She brought the clippers to my head.
It is not terribly uncommon for the Korean barbers and hair-dressers I go to to confide their fears when approaching the bewildering depths of my foreign hair. It is weird, and unruly, and it is not Korean hair. It is confusing, and if they make a bad job of it, I might get angry and start saying things in English, which is just about the next worst thing to nuclear holocaust.
They look upon my head like an unclimbable mountain, an unwinnable battle. Here they see nothing but the sheer face of a cliff, and no possible way to find purchase, no places for their hands, no reasonable way to ascend. Is my hair made of straw? Or iron? Why is it that colour? Will it melt or dissolve or inflame should they touch it? Can it even be sheared by the tools of man? What foul creatures live within its depths, those which might be roused by such intrusive groomery, and act out their vengeance upon such unwary interlopers?
That I am even requesting a haircut in the first place is usually bewildering, because most Korean hair-professionals see my head and assume it is a pricey, well-tended perm. Why would I load all the money and hours into such a hairstyle, only to have it rent from my very scalp? It is folly, and they want little part in such wasteful luxuriance. If they are to be dragged into this, they will make sure that some of the perm is maintained, no matter what I might request.
What I actually request is usually of no consequence when I go to a barber or hair-dresser in Korea, because my head presents such a confusing wash of emotions that most of them will basically ignore everything I say. I bring full-colour pictures with multiple angles, I recite various instructions in two languages, and am able to produce them in large writing so that they might be posted in the mirror and never forgotten. But usually the fear of dealing with me in the first place clouds out everything else beyond “short.” Every other word surrounding this one becomes the sound of wonky trombones.
And so we dive into the haircut. The stylist stands before their array of tools, wondering with what and how they might broach this bewildering task before them. They hesitate before the first lock is cut: this is the point of no return, and if they mess this up, hell will certainly break loose. They’ve seen the news. But once the cut is made, they enter a frenzy, a sort of fugue of destruction and chaos, sheering my hair with such fervour and speed I worry they will injure themselves or give me a bald patch. They’ve taken the plunge, and they know the faster they complete my head the faster I will leave.
It’s hard to get a haircut in Korea because, ultimately, many of the people doing the haircutting don’t know what I (or people with non-Asian hair, generally) want. I can give diagrams and detailed instructions and guide the process physically, but all of the hairstyles they know are designed for heads which I do not possess. The number of Korean Guy Haircuts I have gotten, despite my protestations, visible discomfort, and cries to the gods, are uncountable. They look ridiculous on me, and both the stylist and I seem to know this fact, but neither one of us wants to walk down the road where I try to rectify it through complaining.
Even when I am asked for my opinion and try to guide the cutting in a direction that favours me, we still head down untenable routes. Most of the haircutters quiz me on if they have gone short enough, usually because they have still left my hair comically long (voicing what they all think, one finally confirmed the perm theory, and remarked that she wanted to maintain some of its lusciousness. I have long given up on explaining that it grows out of my head this way). When I tell them to go shorter, they cut a fraction of a centimetre more, worrying that they might go too far and raise my unholy ire. After several more journeys down this road, I eventually give up and accept whatever it is they have done to my head.
Because my head is ultimately pretty confusing for them, I know. It’s in a different shape, and on top is a bunch of stuff of a different texture, colour, and a waviness that bewilders and terrifies. The last time I got a haircut, the stylist prefaced the occasion by remarking to her assistant that she had no idea what she was about to do. Halfway through, she asked me to go get my hair washed, because the curly horrors atop my brain helmet made her confused as to whether or not I was done.
So we go through the process. They blast through my hair and stand back, bottom lip quivering, looking hopefully at my reflection in the mirror. Have I done a good job? their eyes hopefully plead. Will he go away soon? They’ve certainly tried their best, and I realize what a traumatic experience this was for them. Certainly they will crack a beer and fall to the floor once I’ve left. That they have completed their task in fifteen minutes, and that it will cost me ten dollars at a maximum certainly softens the blow. Also I am Canadian, and they just tried so hard, and I don’t want to make them feel bad.
I raise a hand to the monstrous results of our mutual follies atop my head. It is a Korean Haircut, and I will deal with it, because it’s the only kind I can get.