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.
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.”
It 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.
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:
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
12 times Taobao made my eyes bleed
January 7, 2015 at 11:14 pm
I feel ya sistah! Seriously, I have the type of hair that never behaves. Having just come back from Aruba, I settled on gel and au naturel so as to avoid the inevitable frizz and obnoxious “fwip” my bangs make no matter how long they are. I have tried everything under the sun to make my hair look nice for longer than 5 minutes post style. Other than getting a little boy layered cut and looking like a bizarre excuse for a woman, let alone adult human being, I have settled for the reality that long is better and aside from letting my hair (an altogether separate organism from ME) feel like it is getting a special treatment let it do whatever it wants to. After all it will anyway! Much love from the U.S. of Messy Hair A! 😀 By the way, I remember seeing you in sponge rollers and bobby pins as your mother attempted to make you and your sister’s hair curlie. So cute!
January 8, 2015 at 9:45 am
Oh, the challenges of hair. Lol! Yours usually looks great in pictures, so you must be doing something right, at least for the photo! 🙂
January 8, 2015 at 12:46 am
I totally understand your plight. When I lived in Korea for 10 months I refused to get my haircut because it is my belief that all Asian hair stylists feel that they know best and if things don’t turn out right, somehow it’s my fault. It’s why I never go to non-Americanized Asian hair stylists in America too. The problem doesn’t change with the change in continents. =) Of course, then I have the added challenge that American hairstylists can’t seem to get my Asian hair right either. But, at least they will do whatever I ask them to do so if things go wrong, it really is my fault. =) I’ve had to be content with long hair with no style. But, I’m always happy to be casual so it’s okay. =) You look very cute in hats, so it’s great that you can have that option on bad hair days. You also look like you’ve lost weight. That’s awesome! =) Anne
January 8, 2015 at 9:41 am
That’s interesting, Anne! Maybe that’s why I ended up with a super-short angled bob when I asked for long layers. The guy just thought it would be a better cut on me. Who knows. I was also wondering if those with Asian hair have similar challenges when they go to non-Asian hairdressers, and you’ve answered that question. 🙂 Hope at least the shampoo works for you, though.
January 8, 2015 at 5:18 pm
My hair & China aren’t on speaking terms either. After numerous failed attempts in a salon chairs here, armed with personal photos of ME from EVERY angle of the haircut I wanted, I have vowed to not let another China razor/scissors touch my hair again. That was over two years ago & the Golden Trifecta is what it is usually in ever since. Its so sick of the toxic relationship that it has been falling out, by the masses! Relief will come in 137 days when I’m back on US soil to stay. Maybe then it can start growing back & heal from the deep wounds of the bad relationship. By that time it will have been away from it’s magician (i.e. my fab hairdresser) for over 4 years/3 months! I’ve already made an appointment to sit in her enchanted chair. I can see it now……..me, with a cute cut, actually styled (not “up”), & healthy again. I certainly believe in heaven & it’s where I want to be….this long awaited evet will be just a wee glance of it 🙂
January 8, 2015 at 8:31 pm
Sounds like China is nothing but a heartbreaker for the hair of many of us! I’m laughing (in a commiserating way) that you already have an appointment booked for your return home. I do not blame you at all. Enjoy it thoroughly!
January 8, 2015 at 11:02 pm
I totally remember the tiny curl poodle head. I feel like I was with you at the salon for some part of that– up in HangYangGuoJi.??? My hair and China have the same relationship. I always comfort myself with the mantra of ‘it’s just hair’. I don’t know if I truly believe that but the repetition is comforting! –
January 9, 2015 at 9:55 am
Yes, Andrea, that’s the one! Yeah, there have been many times when I’ve had to repeat, “it’s just hair,” and, more importantly, “it will grow out.”
January 13, 2015 at 9:49 pm
I completely agree with your post here. I’ve given up on the hair salons here completely. My friend once found out that she could get a good head massage at a hair salon and convinced me to come along. Even just getting it washed and massaged, they were so rough with my fragile blonde locks that I never went back. I usually wait until I go to conference to get my hair cut in Thailand, though I have my fair share of bad hair cut stories from there, too. I must say, though, that you look super cute in your winter hats! 🙂
January 14, 2015 at 6:52 pm
I’ve had pretty good luck with hair washing/head massage here, though there have been a couple mishaps even with that. And thanks for the compliment, but let’s remember: I only post the GOOD looking photos! Ha ha.
June 12, 2015 at 2:26 pm
So funny! I live in hot humid Papua, Indonesia and I have long naturally curly hair. I bring all hair products from Canada. One time I went to a local salon, probably the best one in town, with neatly waist-length hair. I had it in a braid and was wearing a cap (sound familiar?). I told the girl I had curly hair and I wanted a trim and some layers. She cut a foot off my hair and when it dried the sides were above my shoulders and I had a very attractive rat tail at the back….
June 12, 2015 at 10:38 pm
Oh, Erica, that’s awful! But, I hope you got pictures.
November 15, 2015 at 10:17 pm
Oh man, thanks so much for sharing! As a curly-haired blonde that lived in China for 4 years and now Singapore… I CAN RELATE. No one understands why I stock up on shampoo, conditioner, curly hair sprays, etc. when I am home in the US. It’s because it is impossible to find over here and the “regular” stuff destroys my hair! It’s been about 6 months since I had a haircut… Probably another 6 months until I am in the US… Loved this post (especially the stories of your salon attempts and the NO. because it’s so. true.) Thanks for sharing!!
November 16, 2015 at 9:10 pm
I am soooo with you on this, Lauren! I support your hair product stock-up. 🙂
January 5, 2016 at 12:26 am
I didn’t realize so many went through this. Two days in China, my fine hair changes even using US products. My first experience buying shampoo had the manager say “Oh, you have foreign hair.” Huh? Thought provoking (?) I DO have foreign hair – in China. Curling my hair is out of the question in this humidity. I use a Chinese brush/blowdryer and pray ; ) I got haircuts twice a year in the US – length based on the weather – Can I put it up with a clip or not? Fortunately, my US hairdresser was awesome.
January 5, 2016 at 10:54 am
Oh, the joys of having “foreign hair”!
January 12, 2016 at 2:50 am
Wow, this is an education! You are making me rethink the idea of getting a perm before going to my son’s wedding in China in June…right now it is straight and I blow-dry it and then curl the bangs and tuck the sides behind my ears….sounds like keeping it simple will be better. I would hate to have a bad hair day at his wedding!
January 12, 2016 at 7:59 am
I’m not too sure on the weather situation where you’ll be, but if it’s hot and humid…hmmmm…. I will say that I have had a much better record of getting my hair styled in China, just not cut or permed. So, if there are already arrangements for you to get your hair styled on the morning of the wedding, you’ll probably be in good hands. Best wishes!
February 26, 2016 at 3:29 pm
This was hysterical! (Clicked through to this from your “Fluff” post…way to keep it fluffy!) I haven’t had as horrendous stories, but I’ve only been a few times. Our “guy” that we go to is decent, but we always bring a friend to watch the back and is ready to step in if he’s doing something weird. Last time I went, I wanted him to trim my bangs. He trimmed 3/4 of them. I asked about the dangling piece. He said, “If I cut it, bu hao kan!” Ummm, dude, you were the one who cut it the first time. So, I proceeded to go to Thailand to see all my pretty friends with funky bangs. And now, back in Northern China, my hair is seriously revolting at the lack of moisture. We literally have bowls of water sitting on our radiators to try to create some humidity! ha!
Also, we’re in a whole ‘nother ball game with our kids’ hair. They’re mixed half African American/half Caucasian, so the soft curls are abundant. I have been able to train ONE guy how to cut my boys’ hair (we used to do it ourselves, but it’s such a mess!), but I have a 1yo girl that I don’t think they’ll ever be able to touch. Not that she’ll need one anytime soon, but still. NO.
Sorry for rambling. 🙂
February 26, 2016 at 6:45 pm
Thanks, Ashley! Definitely some good fluff in this post. 😉 I love that you have to bring a friend to haircuts in case an intervention is necessary. Not a bad idea, my friend. That is great that your boys can get haircuts with success! If they have a tough time with my baby-fine hair, I can’t imagine what a mental jump it would be to work with naturally curly hair. At least curls are better at hiding mistakes like what happened to your bangs. Ugh.
May 22, 2016 at 9:03 pm
I clicked the link on your Guilty Mom Bingo post. Ha! The thing is, stringy, flat, poodle perm or Realtor ‘do, you are always such a beauty! Your mom always struggled with her hair. Yet, like you, she’s always so gorgeous.
This was a fun read all the same.
May 22, 2016 at 9:46 pm
Aw, thank you so much! I take after my mom and aunts. 😉
August 4, 2017 at 7:35 pm
In the states I would color my own hair. When we came to visit in 2014 I saw that there were plenty of brown color options in a box for me so I didn’t pack any when we moved. After we moved, my husband was at the store one day and asked which box and color I wanted and I told him any box in either a medium or light brown would be just fine. Well I tried the light brown first and my hair turned yellow…not good at all. The next week I tried the medium brown and my hair turned red. It looked a bit better than the yellow but not exactly what I wanted. I was devistated! The next time someone asked what they could bring me from the states I said hair color.
August 5, 2017 at 10:48 pm
Oh, Tamara, that is too funny! Well, funny now that your hair is back to being the right color. I hope you got pictures, though. 😉
July 16, 2019 at 7:58 pm
I just googled “buy hairspray in China” and stumbled on your hilarious blog!
I’m just here on a holiday and my hairspray and dry shampoo, which was fine in my checked luggage on the plane, got inexplicably taken out of my luggage and confiscated at Beijing North train station.
I was slightly annoyed but felt confident that I’d be able to pick up some replacement products at a supermarket or pharmacy.
How wrong I was!!
I’m only here for a few more days and have resigned myself those being bad hair days.