Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture Corner: Fraggle Doo to 7-3

I will certainly stop short of saying all Chinese people look alike.  As there are no two grains of sand exactly alike, the subtle differences are there, but the lazy Western eye is simply not trained to see it. It is understandable, however, when you live in a country of 1.3 billion people, all of the same ethnicity, nearly everyone having black hair, brown eyes, and is small and skinny, you're bound to think to yourself "Is that one of my students?" at least eight times per day. If you were to limit the US to aryan characteristics and quadruple the population, I think the same questions would arise.  (“Do we live in Elfland?”)  So, the question remains, how do the Chinese individualize - how do they separate themselves from the masses?

As hair color, eye color, and variety in shape and size aren’t enough, the latest method employed by the Western man to isolate himself from the herd is the tattoo.  However, as the Chinese are still in the beginning phases of stepping out from the crowd, they have only just arrived at a point Western man left behind in the 80's (at least most of them).  What point is that?  Well, it’s hairstyles that look like the bastard stepchild of a Fraggle and a Troll doll. 

Hair salons - the second most popular form of employment in Nanjing - occupy every other shop on a street and churn out these spiky monstrosities by the hour - all shapes and angles, the more obtuse the better. Some of the creations would do well in restaurants as a way to serve appetizers.  Seeing the results, there are several occasions that I have burst out laughing while walking down the street, seeing someone’s idea of neon palm aesthetics.  But the part that really gets me is, if everybody is getting similar haircuts, how have you succeeded in individualizing yourself?  Ahh, I digress.

From what’s fashionable, what about what’s "unfashionable"?  The answer is easy.  Like politicians worldwide: the standard (aka “uncool”) haircut worn by men is neat and trim, parted at the side.  (This is known as the “7-3” in China because of the percentage of separation).  The average woman wears their hair shoulder length, and often have it pulled back in a pony tail for convenience’s sake. Even more convenient, it seems there are a lot more women in China which have very short hair than do women in Western countries.  

I had my hair cut recently (I was looking a little Fraggle-ish myself), getting my usual crew cut, or whatever you want to call it. My method was to walk into the barber shop, grab their hair clippers and the quarter inch extension, and point at my head.  Seeing the result, my students told me I looked like a criminal and that it’s possible some Chinese wouldn't talk to me because of that - a claim later backed by others. Apparently, the only other people in China with fuzz on their heads are prisoners or escapees.

To my knowledge, no one has yet shunned me from conversation because of my hair. It has done nothing to deter the flood of Chinese who want to ‘improve my English.  Talk with foreigner.” But that's the subject of another culture corner.

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