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updated 12:00 PM UTC, Nov 17, 2017
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Getting a Haircut in China (inc. Essential Vocabulary!)

What do you get when you cross a foreigner with a Chinese hair-dresser? This sounds like the opening line of a poor joke. For expats living in China, however, this combination is no joke; it is our unnerving reality.

The thought of attempting to converse with my local hairdresser, aided with little but my substandard Chinese and “creative” hand gestures, used to quicken my heart-rate and twist my stomach. The many hairdressing horror stories shared with me by members of Nanjing’s expat community did little but intensify my hairdressing fears. 

A young, foreign girl requested a basic hair trim below her shoulders in Nanjing’s Xianlin District. Ultimately, the poor thing left the salon with tear-stained cheeks and hair no longer than the lobes of her ears. Meanwhile, an Australian man’s poor Chinese resulted in his barber mistakenly shaving the sacred remains of his scarce, supply of hair to mere millimeters. He was subjected to many balding jokes in the days following his fresh, spring trim. 

When I finally conjured the courage to let a Chinese hairdresser handle my precious, foreign locks my experience was surprisingly far better than anticipated (no tears or an un-ordered bob-cut for me). In fact, the quality of service was excellent. Nowadays, a trip to my local salon is something that I eagerly anticipate rather than dread.  

Newcomers to Nanjing are usually petrified by the thought of getting their hair trimmed in a new, foreign environment where English speakers are scarce. Hopefully, however, under the guidance of our “ultimate hair-dressing guide,” you too will be able enjoy Nanjing’s hairdressing services free of worry.

Expectations: What to be weary of

1. Bold, Bizarre Barber? Do not fear!
It is very easy to play “spot the hairdresser” in a Chinese hair salon. Simply find the owners of outrageous, attention-demanding hairstyles that appear to have been inspired by K-Pop music videos. My most recent hair-dresser was equipped with a sky-scraping mohawk. Throughout my appointment he admired his own reflection more frequently than his Western client’s.

Being assigned to a hairdresser with ludicrously styled hair can be scary (I speak from personal experience here...). However, try to resist the urge to be intimidated by your designated assistant’s pineapple-like style or poodle perm. Generally, the quality and style of your haircut will not depend on the hairdo of your personal Chinese stylist.

2. “Duo Shao Qian”?
In China, the price of your appointment will depend on the qualifications of your selected hair-dresser. Shop menus will generally offer singular services at many different prices. Your cheapest option will grant you a less qualified hair-dresser, whilst costlier options will reward you with the salon’s most accomplished members of staff. I tend to select an option which lies nicely in between these two extremities. 

3. Pampered to perfection:
For those of you who have not had your hair professionally washed in China before: you are in for a treat. Once your hair has been bathed in wonderfully fragrant lotions your hairdresser will transition into a relaxing, Chinese head massage. The procedure is long and luxurious, involving motions ranging from kneading to running fingertips against the scalp vigorously.

When receiving this pampering treatment (which is more relaxing than sounds, I promise), do not fear: you are not being victimized by a Chinese scam! A head massage is a wonderful, complimentary component of most Chinese haircut routines. I strongly suggest that you take my advice: sit back, relax and enjoy this divine Chinese experience.

Locations

Hairdressing salons are not a rare site in China’s ancient capital. However, finding a store which caters for your personal needs can be difficult when prices and quality standards range so dramatically. Read this section of our guide to understand what is offered by the main hairdressing locations which are accessible to Nanjingers.

1. City Centre
Nanjing’s most extravagant hairdressers are located in heart of Xinjiekou. These salons typically provide their customers with a luxurious hairdressing experience which will make any Westerner feel as though they are back at home. In upscale malls, Deji Plaza and Golden Eagle, keep in mind that your luxurious hairdressing appointment is likely to be paired with a hefty price tag.

2017 update - one hairdressing salon which has already earned themselves a fine reputation amongst members of Nanjing’s expat community is M.a.W. (Masters at Work), situated in the back alleys of Xinjiekou off Wangfu Da Jie. Read more about them here.

If you are looking to pull out the big guns, "V-Salon" is the place to be. Run by Vinecen, who has already meddled with the heads of celebrities such as Nicolas Cage and Julia Roberts, this stylish hairdresser located in Golden Eagle (the same building as the Crowne Plaza) promises genuine and professional service as well as high-quality cuts (2017 update - another location has opened on the fifth floor of House of Fraser). Vincen has a total of 16 years of experience to fall back on, during which he has learned from the best around the world from Germany to Singapore and closer to expat home, Shanghai. He impresses with his acute awareness of the differences between foreign and Chinese hair in terms of softness, texture and even the shape of the skull, which is of importance when choosing an appropriate cut to compliment the shape of the head. One visit will set you back around ¥800 at least, but if you walk out there looking like Julia Roberts, it is probably worth it.

2. Outer Districts
Shops in Nanjing’s outer districts generally offer customers more affordable hairdressing services. Typical packages, involving a wash, cut and blow-dry, cost on average 30-50 RMB. English menus, and (if you’re lucky) bi-lingual stylists are sometimes accessible, particularly in locations accommodating large expat communities such as Xianlin District and Jiangning District. 

3. Shanghai 
A handful of Nanjing expats use hairdressing services based in Shanghai; a haven for foreigners who are craving the familiarity of Westernized culture. Only a one and a half hour bullet-train ride away, Shanghai can offer fastidious Nanjingers with hair stylists who are accustomed to serving Shanghai’s large expat population. 

Communications: How to converse with your hairdresser

Conversing with your local hair-dresser can be difficult for those whose Mandarin is very basic. To avoid miscommunication, resort to the following Chinese expressions and vocabulary for assistance. Otherwise, you could use hand-gestures or a photograph to communicate your hairdressing needs.

English Chinese Pronounciation (Pinyin)

Haircut

剪头发

Jiǎn tóu fà

Hairstyle

发型

Fà xíng

Shampoo, haircut and blow-dry

洗剪吹

Xǐ  jiǎn chuī

I would like a haircut. How much does it cost?

我想剪头发。多少钱?

Wǒ xiǎng jiǎn tóu fà. Duō shǎo qián?

Wash hair

洗头

Xǐ tóu

Trim only a little bit

修一下/不要剪太多

Xiū yī xià/ Bù yào jiǎn tài duō

I want my hair layered

我想剪得有层次感

Wǒ xiǎng jiǎn dé yǒu céngcì gǎn

Long

Cháng

Short

Duǎn

Top /Back /Sides

上面/后面/两边

Shàng miàn/ Hòu miàn/Liǎng biān

To thin out my hair a little bit

打薄一点

Dǎ báo yìdiǎn

Do not want my hair thinned

不要打薄

Bùyào dǎ báo

Clippers/Buzzer

推子

Tuī zi

Straight hair

直发

Zhí fà

Curly hair

卷发

Juǎn fà

The same as...

和。。。一样

Hé... Yíyàng



Just like many other obstacles faced by expats living in China, with repetition and patience, getting a haircut in your local salon will eventually become an effortless task. How I will now return to the very basic, but costly, hairdressing services of Australia is beyond me. No more indulgent, Chinese head washes (which only cost a few dollars). No more humorous stories to share with friends after hairdressing visits; where is the fun in that?

Whether you are seeking a unique, cultural experience, or a well-deserved pamper session, I strongly advise that you take advantage of this luxurious and (often) inexpensive service during your Nanjing-based years.

If you have any particular places to recommend for a good snip, tell us about them in the comments section!

Happy haircuts, everyone!

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Nanjing

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