Getting our hair cut in Ulaanbaatar

Hair cuts!

I hate getting my hair cut. Hate it. Almost as much as the dentist, really, but for different reasons. It’s too much close contact with (usually) a stranger for too long a period of time, and I start to get self-conscious about the weirdest things. These days, it’s the stubble under my chin (thank you, menopause). Or the weird pop-up mole next to my eye (which looks huge in hair salon lighting). But I’ve had short hair most of my life, so I’ve had to get a lot of haircuts. I usually let it go until I can’t stand it anymore and then go in, about every three or four months. Once, a hairdresser told me I should get my hair cut every six weeks. Yeah, right. That’s never going to happen.

I’ve gotten my hair cut in six different countries (the USA, Denmark, Switzerland, Japan, Egypt, and now Mongolia). In three of them, I didn’t speak the language well, and in one not at all, so I often went with a friend who did. In the US, I usually go to Supercuts, home of the $16 haircut, and have a different person every time. My hair grows fast, so I don’t really care much how it comes off because it will always grow back, and I’ll need another cut.

The funniest hair cut I got by far was in Egypt, where (at least in the 1990s) not a lot of women had very short hair like I did at the time. A co-worker took me to her usual salon, and the guy who cut my hair spent hours styling it with a blow dryer. I didn’t have much hair, so it didn’t seem worth the effort, but he had to do it. I ended up looking like an 80-year-old southern blue hair after a perm, without the blue hair or the perm, which to my 31-year-old self just didn’t seem right. I went straight home and washed it again, destroying all of that poor man’s hard work. It was a good haircut, though not as short as I’d wanted it.

Other times, I would let my hair grow long to avoid needing a haircut for a while. The first time I went to Ethiopia (1999), my hair had grown out a bit already because I hadn’t had time for a cut. So I decided to just grow it long that year because it had been a while since I’d had long hair. I had my hair done once while I lived there, for a big anniversary celebration at Mekelle University (which my school, Mekelle Business College, was in the process of merging with). A colleague from work (one of the two or three other female professors) took me to the salon and explained what I wanted. So, while all the Ethiopian women were in there getting their hair straightened, I was getting mine braided, with extensions. I seem to recall it took two women about two and a half hours to do it.

A few weeks later, in a hotel room in Addis Ababa (where I had been evacuated to because of the war with Eritrea), it took me about two hours to take it out. Along with a lot of my own hair. But during those few weeks, I had loved having those braids. They were so easy, and no funky bed head, either.

Here in Mongolia, I didn’t want to get my hair cut short in the winter, because I felt like I needed all the insulation I could get. When we were back in the US, Emma got a great haircut, with one side shaved, and I thought I could do something similar and make it until spring without getting the rest chopped. It was fun, but I ended up with kind of a crappy cut, because the woman who did it didn’t approve of an apparently frumpy middle-aged woman having a fun haircut, so she did a really half-assed job. Anyway, it looked OK, got the hair off one of my ears, and made the rest of it livable almost until spring.

Which is now. It’s still coldish, but it’s going up to the low 50s (Fahrenheit) this weekend. (Yay!) Though it’s due to dip back down below freezing for a couple of days next week, it’ll go back up again soon enough. So as far as the ridiculous cold goes, I think we are free of it. Emma had been bugging me to get her hair cut for a while, too. She inherited my thick hair, and it was driving her nuts. So we planned a day to go get our hair cut at a salon where I had been assured people speak English, Flex Salon in downtown Ulaanbaatar, near the Shangri-La Mall. And then Emma promptly made plans for that day. I planned another day, told Emma more than once, and was really looking forward to losing my mop. She made plans again. By this time, I had already taken the scissors to my bangs. Finally, I set a date, Friday after school, and we actually got to do it.

I walked to her school (a solid hour’s walk) to get some exercise on a beautiful sunny afternoon, and then we took her school pick-up taxi downtown. We found the Flex Salon, across the street from where Google Maps said it would be, and communicated to a man who clearly didn’t speak English that we wanted our hair cut. Both of us. A woman who spoke some English (the manicurist, I think) came over and told us to wait for a young woman with light purple hair, who was blow drying another woman’s long hair. We watched another woman who had hair about Emma’s length getting her hair cut and got a good feeling about the place.

Waiting for hair cuts

Suddenly it was our turn. Emma said that I should go first. Lavender Hair guided me to the hair-washing station, which was so much more comfortable than the ones we have in the US. You have a support for your head, and you are laying back more, so it’s easier on the neck. I almost dozed off while she washed my hair. Then we went back to her station, and she asked me what I wanted in a haircut.

This is always the most difficult part for me, because I honestly don’t care, and I think a professional would come up with something better than I could imagine, anyway. After all, they do it for a living, while I just have hair because I was born with it, not because I really wanted it. All I knew this time is that I wanted it short. I showed them a photo of what I considered to be the ultimate haircut – done mostly with #3 clippers – that I got before moving to Mongolia in August.

Pretty soon, there was a crowd of six or seven people around us, including a customer who was brought over mid-haircut to help translate because she spoke English. It was clear that they did not approve of my haircut choice, because they kept asking if I really wanted it like that. It would have meant bringing my entire head of hair down to the level of the grown-out shaved section over my right ear. I really did kind of want it like that, but they said, “Are you sure you don’t want to leave one side longer?” So I stuck to my guns (as I always do) and said, “Yeah, maybe.” “Which side?” I felt like messing with them and saying the right side. But I ran my fingers through the mop over my left brow, and said, “Maybe this?”

There was some more conferring in Mongolian, which I couldn’t catch, and shaking heads. I felt that what was at the root of this was a feeling that a middle aged, frumpy-looking woman shouldn’t have a cool haircut. They really wanted me to have more hair. I flashed back to a time when I was in college and I wanted to get a short haircut, and my brother told me I shouldn’t because I’d just look like a “fat little boy.” Never mind that I was 5 foot 7 at the time and not particularly fat. I have a somewhat round face, but I’ve always looked better with short hair, and I know it. People who don’t approve of women with short hair really bug me. There’s a lot of that where we live in southern California. Emma used to have an adorable pixie cut, and she was always being told she was in the wrong public restroom at Target, because her short hair made her a boy somehow. She grew her hair long partly because she was tired of people thinking she was a boy. Here in Mongolia, a lot of women have long hair, too.

 So I was starting to bristle, but then the consultation ended. The English-speaking customer told me that Lavender Hair wouldn’t cut my hair, but one of the men standing around in the consultation cluster would. So I moved over to his station. Lavender Hair would cut Emma’s hair instead. I left her to fend for herself, while Leather Wristbands got started on my hair. He held up my bangs and mimed cutting them. “Teem, teem,” (yes, yes) I nodded vigorously, hoping to convey that it was OK for him to cut my hair. Then he did the same with the hair on top of my head, then over my left ear. I nodded to all of it.

Then he got started. At first I was worried he wouldn’t take enough off, but then he started getting into it. It was different from any haircut I’ve ever gotten before, because he mainly used those hair thinning scissors and just thinned it all the way down. I figured it would be the usual experience, where I’d be done in five minutes, and Emma would take longer because of her longer hair. But no. This was serious.

The only other time I’ve had such a meticulous haircut was in Japan. Only this guy’s hands weren’t trembling. The guy who cut my hair in Japan was clearly nervous about cutting my hair. He was sweating, and his hands shook (hey, watch it with the scissors!), and he periodically inhaled sharply through chattering teeth. It was an experience I’ll never forget. But it was a truly great haircut, and he took his time, though I’m fairly certain he needed a week off afterwards to recover.

Leather Wristbands was calm as he worked on me for over an hour. It was an amazing experience. By the end, I was the one who needed a week off to recover. I may never get my hair cut again. It was one of those experience where he kept scrutinizing his own work and taking a bit more off here and a bit more off there. I started to get the feeling I could end up nearly bald if he kept it up, which would have been fine with me. But at one point, I just really wanted it to be over. Like, now.

To distract myself, I kept trying to see what was happening with Emma on the other side of the salon, but it was hard to tell what was going on over there, and I didn’t want to move my head. Every time I did anything, Leather Wristbands acted like I was communicating with him (he reminded me a bit of our dogs, who watch our every move as if everything that we do is meant for them alone). So I tried to sit perfectly still. Especially when he was trying to figure out how to use the trimmers around my earring-studded ears.

When he got out a straight razor, I nearly passed out. He actually shaved the peach fuzz off my cheeks, which has never happened to me before. If he even tried to shave under my chin, I would have knocked the razor from his hand and run out into the street, but he didn’t. As it was, I had to fight an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh while he smeared shaving gel around my hairline and went at it. I guess I was basically getting a man’s haircut, so he probably figured, why not?

Then it was over. Or so I thought. But there was still shaving gel smeared on the edges of my face. He backed up and said, “Wash.” I realized he was going to wash my hair again. He did, twice, and then we went back to his station and he blow-dried my hair. And then wiped something that could have been aftershave around my hairline and on my cheeks. And then it was over. And I realized that I was not covered with bits of hair the way I always am when I leave an American hair salon. These Mongolian hairdressers are pros. I’m pretty sure this is the best haircut I’ve ever had in my life, even better than the one in Denmark, which was amazing.

Emma was still getting her hair blow-dried by Lavender Hair. She had cooperated and kept most of her hair on her head, like a girl should. I think she had wanted to, anyway; she’d mainly wanted it thinned out and cleaned up. Pretty soon, she was done, and we could pay and leave. It was about an hour and a half, total, since I had had my hair washed. More time than I had spent in a hair salon since I had an ill-advised perm back in college and came out looking like a brunette little orphan Annie.

The truly amazing part was that my haircut was 25,000 tugrug, less than $10, and Emma’s was only 15,000. So around $15 for two extremely meticulous, professional haircuts, less than the $16 I pay for one 15-minute cut at Supercuts. To be honest, I kind of prefer the 15 minutes. Still, this was an interesting experience, and I am glad we did it, finally. We may go back one more time before the end of the semester, just for fun.

As we walked to the bus stop to catch the bus home, I almost regretted the loss of hair. It was still above freezing, but a cold wind had picked up, and I felt exposed. I hadn’t brought my beanie, either. It’s amazing how a little hair can really insulate. We talked about or respective experiences, and Emma repeated that Lavender Hair had been really meticulous, as well. I was ready for an isolation tank after all that human contact, and I think Emma was as well, because we nearly got into a stupid argument (rare for us these days) before we made it home, about how I kept forgetting to show her how to back up the photos on her phone.

So, thumbs up overall for Mongolian haircuts, though prepare yourself for a bit of an ordeal. Especially if you’re a middle-aged woman who wants short hair.

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