Crash Positions and the Bag Boy

Straight razor

“I’ll have a little off the top, please.”

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?”

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Nuggets of Pedagogy: Notes from the Peanut Gallery

A co-teacher once compared teaching English to a class that contained any fluent speakers to being naked in front of a crowd. I understand, certainly: speaking to a group when someone in the audience has more experience or natural ability can be embarrassing, as you know every flaw that you express, the stuff that is thankfully usually never noticed, gets picked up and scrutinized.

All the same, I’m so thankful these little embarrassment-makers exist. Sometimes, they can hop over the tricky language barrier far more nimbly than either my co-teacher or myself, both people understandably losing some nuance with a later-learned second language.

In grade four, we taught a lesson on “Don’t ______” imperatives. We set the kids a brainstormin’, trying to come up with various rules for a theoretical English class. To allow them to freely come up with ideas, Korean talking was a-okay, and my co-teacher and I (though mostly her) would translate it into English.

One child suggested something in Korean which the other kids agreed with, and my co-teacher turned towards me and squinted. “Don’t… be big?” I was confused. Was this kid saying students weren’t allowed to be fat? Or tall? Famous? “Don’t… make yourself big?” Like, when bears are attacking? I thought the opposite was true.

In the back, one of my fluent students, YS,  flew into heights of apoplexy. Constrained by my fastidious adherence to the rules, he did not want to call out, and thus was flapping his hand vigorously and shaking as though there was a bathroom emergency. He wanted nothing more than to settle this, and knew that he was the only boy for the job. Noticing him finally, I called on him, and he breathed with enormous relief, “He means ‘Don’t brag.’” Suddenly, all made sense.

(Later in same class: during writing, the same student wrote the following, “Don’t kick somebody’s butt.”)

In another class, my students suggested, “Don’t… 똥침!” (a common and horrific Korean prank where one shoves one’s extended forefingers into another’s prone butthole through their pants). The students asked me for a translation, but the literal version, “Poop needle” sounds too bizarre, and I really didn’t want my kids using it as a verb. One student, who I later discovered lived in Boston for two years, had his own offering: “Don’t butt killing.” This is good advice for us all.