When we moved to China, I knew I’d have to learn a new language, a new culture, and a new toilet. But it never occurred to me that moving to China would affect my hair.

Let’s explore the history of their relationship.

1997: The first encounter.

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With scenery like this, who’s thinking about bad hair days?

My first trip to China was to Changsha (one of the infamous Five Furnaces) and it was summer. I don’t remember clearly what I did with my hair, but I’m confident the main styling product I used was pure sweat. Not a good start to the romance, but I didn’t care. I was young, and the rest of me was having a great time.

2005-2008: Hope and heartache.

The next time my hair and China met was when my family moved here long-term. There was all the normal excitement and optimism of the adventure of living overseas. I was confident of finding “functional equivalents” for everything, including hair products.

I recall one failed trip to a store, where a kind friend tried his best to make the fuwuyuan understand that I wanted to buy hairspray. After much smiling and nodding and gesturing and re-explaining, we walked out with spray gel.


I was still optimistic, but my continued attempts usually ended badly.

There was one haircut that I rehearsed for, asking my tutor how to say “just a trim,” and bringing a photo of me – not some celebrity in a magazine, but ME – with the hairstyle I wanted. My hair was longer than shoulder-length, and I wanted to keep it that way.

But I ended up with the shortest hair I’ve ever had in my life.



Even when I managed to get only a trim at subsequent salon visits, they insisted on using razors and thinning shears. Since I have less hair than most babies, I DO NOT need it thinned or razored, thank you very much.

(Really, should I have been surprised? The hairdressers had never worked with hair like this before, and they just did whatever they did with all their other customers, whose hair behaved as expected. Mine was weird. “It’s so…soft,” they usually observed with a frown. It really threw them. They’re probably writing blog posts about it right now.)

And then there’s the shampoo and conditioner. All the brands here, as they should, use formulas that are good for Asian hair. That’s bad news for my hair. It’s naturally pin-straight, but the products here manage to make it kind of wavy and frizzy.



The heartbreaks started wearing on my hair. It was getting more and more discouraged. For about a year, it refused to go to salons lest it get further daggers in its soul.

2008-2009: “We just need some time apart.”

We spent a year back in the U.S. Slowly, my hair came out of its shell, plied with real American shampoo and conditioner, and hairdressers who kept their promises of “just a trim.” It was starting to get longer, long enough that I could pass for a Realtor.



But then it was time to go back.

2009-2012: “Don’t go breaking my heart.”

And then there was that perm.

Years before, my American friend had tried to get a perm in China. She spent hours at a hole-in-the-wall salon only to end up with her original perfectly straight hair. The hairdresser had forgotten to put in one part of the perm solution, so it was a total waste.

From that, I learned not to go to the cheapy salon on our little street. I sprung for a higher-end salon, where a Korean friend had ended up with gorgeous BIG curls. I wanted the same, something like this:


I was confused when the team started putting tiny rollers in my hair, but my protests were met with reassurances of, “just trust me.” As I feared, when they took the rollers out, voila! I was a tiny curl poodle head. The hairdresser stood there raking through the curls with her fingers, looking shocked and confused. She had years of experience that told her tiny rollers yield big curls…in Asian hair.

Guess what happens with my hair.


Sorry, Justin. No.

Back into the cave of depression my hair went, consoling itself with chocolate and Taylor Swift songs.

I don’t think my hair was alone in its heartache.

Once, I went to a women’s retreat in a nearby province. An American hairdresser happened to be there. She had come to do something completely different, but casually offered that she’d be happy to give haircuts during break times. Word spread like cholera, and she ended up wielding her shears far into the night. I think she cut the hair of nearly every woman I knew there. God bless her.

2012-2014: “Maybe we should see other people.”

486756_10151389915883073_1935454171_nIt was time to go back to the U.S. again. When we got there, it had again been something like 12 months with no haircuts, not even a trim. For my birthday, I got a fabulous haircut at a nice salon. She made me look GOOD.

Yes. Yes! YES!

Holy glamour shots, Batman. Really? That’s my pitiful, thin, fine, “soft” hair? MY hair can look fantastic? Granted, my hair did not look like this every day, but still.

Hope had been renewed.

2014 – Present: “It’s not you. It’s me.”

Full of optimism, I packed a ceramic curling iron. On the recommendation of a hairstylist friend, I purchased the most expensive hairspray I’ve ever owned.* I bought a cute headband thingy at Old Navy. I was ready. Off to China we went.


Plus there’s a slight buzzing sound. Perfectly safe, I’m sure.

And then, reality.

Heat and humidity. Frizziness. The fact that using my U.S. voltage curling iron means risking accidental fire, death, and/or melted plastic.

And really, perhaps the biggest reason of all:

While I’m here in small town China, there just doesn’t seem to be the need to have my hair nice every day.

So, I stick with the Golden Trifecta of rushed-mom hairstyles: ponytail, braid, and bun. (Suggested pairing: Starbucks cup, yoga pants, and an SUV full of kids.)

There have been two exceptions so far.

#1 The Banquet.

We got invited to a banquet. Long story. I knew I could get away with a ponytail, but I decided to make an effort. My hair was actually looking pretty good, but then…the scooter ride. Helmet + wind = shoulda gone with the ponytail.

#2 The Christmas Family Photo.

You’d better believe I’m going to try to make my hair look good for a photo that is going to be on other people’s fridges for the next 1-20 years.



Inspired by that success, I thought about making a daily effort again, especially as winter approached with its promise of less heat and less humidity.

But guess what? Winter is stinkin’ cold here, and it’s like 43F even inside my house. So, my hair mostly remains hidden:

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Humidity, frizz, heat, sweat, helmets, cold, and small town life. I think my hair and China have figured out that the odds are stacked against them ever getting back together.

At least my hair knows fantastic romance is possible. Just probably not in this country.

*That hairspray I mentioned really is incredible. It’s renowned for its ability to hold up in humidity. It even comes in non-aerosol, which means it can be brought in your checked luggage. You know, for those of you whose hair is still trying to make things work with China.

Photo credits: All smalltownlaowai.com except Zhangjijie – enghunan.gov.cn ; big curls – Tobi Jenkins; Justin Timberlake – huffintonpost.ca

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