Things That Are Absurdly Easy in a Country Where You Speak the Language: Haircuts!

Welcome to the beginning of what will probably be an ongoing new series.

I’ve been really, really bad at writing this season.

Partly because I’ve been so busy setting up house in a whole ‘nother country (and buying the same freaking things from IKEA that I’d bought in 4 other countries before and left behind in my haste to leave with limited luggage allowance and unreliable postal service. People, chronic expatriation is bad for the environment! Don’t do it!) and partly because everything going on for the past two months has been very quiet, very private, very domestic.


bread hair

This is what happens when you neglect to trim a snazzy asymmetrical bob for 5 months: one side of your head is a lot heavier than the other…


I mean, seriously, I’m nearly 38 weeks pregnant: I’m not exactly going to be roaring around the countryside on the back of a motorcycle (though I’d really really like to) or out carousing and taking in the cosmopolitan nightlife of urban Leicester. I drink hot chocolate with marshmallows in pubs and am at home by 9.   Tea features heavily in daily routines. I’m baking a lot, mostly experimental breads filled with hearty nuts and bolts and seeds and twigs. I’m reading books about how to get babies to sleep and ordering so much basic baby gear off Amazon that the kid has more stuff than I do (not a difficult feat, mind you, as I came over with just a 20kg suitcase).

Not exactly scintillating stuff of travel legend. No mysteries to unravel. No steep cultural or linguistic learning curves.

Thus, this series.

England isn’t exactly new or exotic for me. I’d lived here before, though mostly in London and a bit of the south-east. Most of the mid to late ’90s were spent tromping around in my Doc Martens and bleached blond buzz cut, working crappy jobs and living out of a backpack in cruddy, cramped, shared accommodations and being unable to actually afford to do anything beyond saving up to tromp around eastern Europe and Africa during my downtime.

It’s a lot easier now.

I’m a bit more grown up (kinda), with a lot more savings and life experience behind me, and so packing up and moving to the midlands of England has proven to be an exercise in recognizing how insanely easy everything is now compared to, say, Turkey or China or wherever else I’ve attempted to spend more than just a few weeks passing through.


Today, I’m going to start small, by telling you all about getting a decent hair cut in a country where I actually speak the language.


bozcaada 117

This is how my Turkish friends saw me in 2005.


I’ve had my hair cut in a lot of different languages over the past few decades. Spending 6 years in Turkey and nearly 5 in China necessitates such quotidian tasks (unless you want hair down to your ass– been there, done that, over it).



I can’t even complain coherently.


You never really realize how much thought and linguistic planning must go into something so simple as a haircut until you have to explain in, say, Burmese, that you need your bangs trimmed and the scruffy nape of your neck carefully clippered back.

My vocabulary for Turkish haircuts was a lot more precise than for Chinese ones (which mostly involved a lot of miming and saved Google images of short layered bobs) but what I wanted done to my hair at that time in my life (super short purple pixie cut) was frequently so far from what the hairdresser thought was appropriate for a woman that I also needed to be able to talk them through it, step by step, reassuring them that I did indeed want hair that was about an inch long. And purple.


Paris and London 2003 112

I eased up on the purple dye for a while due to hairdresser pressure.


In a country where women’s hair tended to be long and sleek and far more glam than I could ever muster, my requests to just cut it all off were met with reluctance assuaged only when I promised that I was also there to get my eyebrows threaded into a sexy arch and my nails properly manicured. In the end, I gave up and joined the glamour club, growing out my hair and shifting away from the purple dyes.


Switzerland 062

Ignore the fact that in all my Turkish pictures I seem to have a glass of wine.


Doing all this in a language not your own, where you are painfully aware of your limitations and inaccuracies as you try to explain your aesthetic needs to someone who doesn’t actually agree with you in the first place, is stressful.

I used to practice phrases that could possibly come in handy for hours before embarking on a hair salon adventure.

In China, after a few curious disasters involving naked straight razors on my eyebrows, hair nearly melted by dyes meant for sturdier Asian hair, and awkwardly chunky mullets that would have better suited a thick-haired 19 year old wearing lensless red glasses and hot pink lacy short-shorts, I found my happy place in Shanghai: a little Japanese salon at the bottom of Shanxi Nan Lu, where for 120 rmb I could get the manager (a snazzy young mod who called himself Louis) to sort out my hair.



A poodle can get a good haircut in Shanghai more easily than I ever could.


After the first visit (which involved a lot of carefully leafing through the half dozen Japanese hair magazines at hand, separating what looked groovy on adorable, trendy 15 year old Japanese girls from what would actually suit me), all I had to do was mime the angle of my desired bob along my jawline and he’d give me the thumbs up. Three painstaking hours later (I swear, he cut it hair by hair), I’d emerge with happy hair.

I was terrified of going to anyone else after I found Louis, as it was immeasurably exhausting and stressful trying to explain in clunky Mandarin what it was that I wanted. Being over 25 (and hell, 35), I knew I had to fight to not end up with a middle aged Chinese lady’s boxy permed cut. I also realized that I couldn’t have anything besides my standard short layered bob with him, as it would involve starting the whole descriptive process all over again and my tones just weren’t up to it.

And then I moved to Leicester.

After a month or so of tolerating my awkwardly grown out, very precise asymmetrical wedding haircut (which had been gradually puffing out weirdly on the longer side since I had it done in Canada in August), I caved and found a hairdresser around the corner from our new home in the yogurt-weaving, studenty,  middle-class bohemian neighbourhood of Clarendon Park.

I walked in, explained to the hairdresser exactly what I wanted (in English!), sat down in the chair and an hour later emerged with an excellent haircut. It was that easy.

Seriously, until you’ve had to memorize and rehearse reams of terminology in five different languages, you can’t appreciate how excellent it truly is to be able to do it casually and fluently and confidently.

When moving back to a country where you speak the language fluently, what strikes you as being delightfully easy?

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.