I entered the salon prepared for battle.
Years of terrible Korean haircuts meant a trove of neuroses as dense and fibrous as the mop of hair I was then sporting. Every excursion to a hair stylist meant almost certain doom and failure, a horrific exchange of miscommunications and dire proclamations of woe from both customer and merchant. It meant dismay and misfortune, it meant a furrowed brow and a trembling hand, and it meant a series of really dumb haircuts.
Over time my defences grew strong and I tried to mitigate the destruction rent upon my scalp through readiness. I knew vocabulary in Korean, as I now do in Chinese, to describe vaguely the kind of haircut I desire. I photos of myself from multiple angles with an approximate coiffure goal. I can draw myself in comic form, present a rule to give exact dimensions, and even guide them physically if necessary. A bad haircut in the latter days of Korea was a hard-won failure, but at least the fault was entirely upon the barbers, and not on me.
And so as I entered the salon in China, I was similarly clad for war. I had my pictures and my words, my sternest expression, my exact specifications and the blueprint for my head, the support beams and the girders and the gridlines required to sculpt my scalp into something vaguely like what I desired. My lip was curled, and my fist was around my phone, which was already scrolled to a picture of me, shorn-headed, with a similarly scornful sneer spread across my face.
“Sit down over there,” the barber said, rivulets of tedium pulsing through his voice. “I’ll shampoo you in a second. What kind of haircut do you want?”
Flabbergasted and utterly unprepared for this turn of events, I went through the usual motions and showed him the photographs, the multiple angles of my head. He nodded—yes, he had seen a man’s haircut before. Would I like to use my words? He asked me shorter or longer, how I would like the sides, if I was okay with the buzzer. Did I like gel? And how much of it would be required? Did I work nearby, and how had I heard of him? The entire time he worked away at my head he chatted idly, the way all hairdressers are legally required to do.
This hair-trigger terror, this constant fear and attendant preparedness, emerged out of years of experience. I knew the likelihood of my being understood in my home language, the stumbling blocks I still had in Korean or Chinese or Spanish. I knew that every interaction would involve some sort of struggle, that a coffee without a wedge of cucumber in it would be a hard-won struggle, that securing shoes in my size and in a colour that wasn’t vomit-brown would be a victory of effort on both my part and that of the ever-forgiving shopkeeper whose good graces I trod upon.
I had trained myself into fear and worry, into assuming the worst would befall me. I walked through life in a crash position, waiting for impact. My hands were always ready to buffer my words, to assuage my gloomily poor Mandarin or Korean or Thai level. My feet were always twitching, in case the situation went awry and I simply needed to run from the room, screaming and crying. I had started looking up recipes for smoke bombs in case I needed to make hasty escapes. Embarrassment and conflict and Mandarin-language interactions were everywhere, were looming around every corner, and my terror was matched only by my forethought.
And thus I have very few coping skills when assaulted by English in places where I don’t expect it. I try not to expect it, in some minor salute to being less of a cultural imperialist. So when a local barber lazily massages my scalp and talks about the noisy kindergarten below or all the other customers he knows from my workplace, I am left mostly stupefied. When the cashier at the local Chinese supermarket stares into my vacuous face, and mutters “Want a bag?,” I stare back in wonder and gaping stupidity.
That I also live in a weird parallel-China populated largely by Taiwanese, Westerners, Koreans and Singaporeans complicates matters somewhat. I am surrounded by malls and Mexican restaurants, by English bookstores and helpful passersby, by Chinese waitresses festooned in Western shirts and Daisy Dukes, strange inheritances from lunatic relatives long passed. The density of foreign people summons a density of foreign-language services, at levels to which I am unaccustomed.
In Korea I had people regularly flee from my presence, terrified as they were at the likely awkwardness of our interaction. They would feel terrible about their English, and I would feel terrible about my Korean, and everyone would be so ashamed and horrified that the magnetic force of the Earth would suddenly thrust them from my presence. Here in my bewildering pocket of unChina, every tired and overworked barista and waiter and bagboy are so accustomed to speaking the nuggets of English and Korean required to complete their jobs that they could probably functionally pick up the same job in another country.
And yet it is hard to unlearn my language strategies, to detrain myself from fight or flight. My hackles raise when I enter unfamiliar stores or restaurants, when I think it likely I will have to swing my hands about in grandiose arcs, in devilish swoops in hopes of being understood. I’m prepared for difficulty, for tumult and horror. Ease is not something I can comprehend. I’ve been riding in crash positions so long, I’ve forgotten what it was like to ride safely, to stare out the window, and to see the world go by.