My Name is Benjamin Ross, and I’m a motivational speaker. I’m 27 years old, and I work in a barbershop down by the Min River!

Posted in Barbershop at 2:06 am by Benjamin Ross

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Two weeks ago I had my first chance to attend a Chinese motivational work meeting. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would get the chance to speak at one.

Last night before clean up time, Mr. Zheng asked me to step outside the shop with him.

“Ben, we are going to have our end of the month meeting tomorrow evening. I want you to give a speech,” he told me with a smile. “Remember what I asked you to observe when you first came here?”

My second day on the job, Mr. Zheng had asked me to pay attention to the service standards in our shop, and keep a running mental comparison to barber shops in the United States. Mr. Zheng had heard that service standards were much higher in the US than they were in China, and wanted to make the service in his shop more like that in the US.

“I want you to talk to all the employees, for about twenty minutes and compare our service to that of barber shops in your country. I want you to mention the good aspects and bad aspects of our service…but emphasize the bad aspects.” Mr. Zheng said.

I had to ponder for a moment. Generally speaking, standards of service in China are considerably lower than what I would expect in the US. This is especially applicable in restaurants, hotels, and banks. Ironically, I have noticed that the service given to customers in our barber shop is every bit as good, if not better than the barber shop I go to in the US. When customers walk in the door they are greeted by a sonorous “huan ying guang lin” and then a little brother or sister directs them into the store and begins the hair washing process. Every customer, whether receiving service or just waiting for a friend, is brought a glass of hot water, and I have never once seen the apathetic “How dare you disturb me from my newspaper!” from employees attitude that is prevalent in many other service industries in China.

I told Mr. Zheng, “I agree with what you say about the service industry in the US as a whole, but frankly speaking, and I’m not just saying this because you’re the boss and I’m your employee, but I can’t really think of an area where our shop’s service is worse than that of the US.”

“You have worked here for three weeks now, and you see what goes on every day. I want you to help me motivate the employees. Yes, they give good service, but too often they give service because of the rules, or because me, the boss. I want them to give good service because they really want to give good service, make it more natural,” he said.

This is the same kind of bovine scatology I remember being told when I was working service industry jobs in high school…as if I am somehow going to sleep better at night knowing that Pizza Hut is providing customers with best customer care in the industry. However, I will say that this form of motivation is more applicable in our shop. Since employees’ incomes are all based on how much work they do, improving the store’s business will not only thicken Mr. Zheng’s pocket, but should benefit the employees as well. Thus, it would seem logical for employees to truly want to provide better service, and not just do it because it’s the rule.

I was a little skeptical, and admittedly nervous to take on this kind of endeavor in front of my fellow employees. Mr. Zheng continued, “I think you can do it. Just think of some more ways we can improve our service. You only need to talk for 20 minutes.”

Yeah, sure, I’m not even sure I could talk for 10 minutes about this topic…in English, let alone 20 minutes in Chinese.

“I’m not sure I can do it for 20 minutes,” I told Mr. Zheng.

“OK, you need more time? How about 30 minutes?” he said.

“No that’s ok, I think 20 will be fine.” I replied.

“Great, we can talk about it more tomorrow during work. Just try to think about it tonight,” Mr. Zheng said. We returned to the shop, and I finished my cleaning duties.

I should interject that I absolutely respect what Mr. Zheng is trying to do. Often times I have experienced Chinese people (usually men) attempt to overly-exert their intellectual might, and insist on refusing advice or information from those who obviously are more knowledgeable about a specific topic. Mr. Zheng knows I am from a country which has a more developed service industry than that of his country, and wants to use my “expertise” as a way to improve his own business. The only problem is that the individual he is dealing with is a complete moron when it comes to the inner workings upscale American salons.

When I’m in the US, I get my hair cut from a bald guy in his 40’s named Marlon. I walk into the shop, read Guns and Ammo Magazine for about 5 minutes, sit in the barber chair, answer questions about my parents and brothers, talk about the stock market, discuss local sports teams, and then 15 minutes later my hair looks great. Marlon doesn’t really do much but cut my hair and chat with me about topics that barbers and old men like to chat about. Every time, I leave relaxed and satisfied, but I can not think of anything more Marlon could possibly do to enhance my overall haircut experience. So I am at a bit of a loss. I am not really sure what a Chinese barber shop could do to be more like an American one.

The talk is Thursday evening. If anybody has any suggestions for how Mr. Zheng can improve his shop, the lines to the comments section are wide open. I will try to check in throughout the day if I have the chance, and will be sure to provide an in-depth report on the meeting in the next couple days.

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The Tale of Adamum and Johnny

Posted in Barbershop at 11:33 am by Benjamin Ross

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No sooner do I write a column about the lack of conflict in the barber shop, when the first visible conflict emerges. The incident happened yesterday, and it involved two of the more interesting characters in my daily life. The first of which is Adam.

Adam is one of the most forwardly verbal Chinese people I have ever met. He’s the one who during my first ever conversation with him, indicated proudly that his dream was to illegally immigrate to the United States. Adam’s candidness stretches further than his future plans however. He suffers from a bit of a macho tough guy complex and thus is very open about his sexual conquests which he frequently discusses with the other employees. Last week he asked me a string of personal questions requesting to know the size of a particular part of my body as well as how long it takes me to complete a particular activity which requires the use of that particular part of the body. I would not have found these questions nearly as invasive had they not been asked in front of four of my other coworkers, who were all quite embarrassed by the situation as well. I responded with overly exaggerated sarcastic replies, and with Adam sensing he was not going to receive the information requested, the situation calmly dispelled. I also find Adam likes to pick on other people, mostly in a joking fashion, but I could see how it could potentially bother an overly-sensitive individual. He is the only employee who mocks my Chinese mistakes. Rather than get defensive, I usually just throw it back in his face by over-emphasizing the mistake in future conversations.

Despite all of Adam’s quirkiness, he is authentically interested in improving his English, which when I first met him was practically nil. When I gave him the name Adam on my first day, his pronunciation was so bad that he could only pronounce it “Adamum.” Even the other employees could pronounce it properly. Sensing the opportunity to give Adam a little taste of his own medicine, the other employees now jokingly call him “Adamum” as well.

For the past week, Adamum and I have been doing a language exchange of sorts. I have been teaching him English, and he has been teaching me the Fuzhou dialect. Our lessons have been going well and are a nice break from the usual probing sex questions and macho talk.

The other character involved is Johnny, who has now become officially the most annoying person I have ever encountered in China. Johnny is young, only seventeen, but he is immature (even for his age) and I am finding more and more he is lacking of many social skills. When I first began working in the barber shop, he was one of my favorite employees, because he would talk to me the most. Now I am finding the reason he talks to me so much is because he is ostracized from the rest of the group. I now understand why.

All day, Johnny follows me around the shop. If I sit down at one table, he will be there within five minutes. If I get up and move to the next table, he will inevitably follow me there. Whether I am reading the newspaper, talking to somebody else, working, or staring off into space, he always starts spouting inane comments at me. The problem is that what he says never has any content to it. After an entire day of being bombarded with his comments, I honestly cannot remember a single thing he says. It is that bad. He also finishes every sentence with a goofy laugh as if somehow what he has just said is funny or cleaver…it isn’t.

But more than anything else, Johnny’s tendency to butt himself into situations where he is not needed is absolutely driving me crazy. For example, during my hair wash training, I usually wash one of the master’s hair, and have a little brother by my side to coach me, usually Xiao Fang or Carrottop, who have both been working in the shop for several years. Johnny is easily the most worthless employee in the shop, not to mention he has less than a month more experience than me. When Carrottop and/or Xiao Fang are training me, Johnny always shows up by my side, giving me suggestions which usually run counter to what the others are trying to teach me.

In an even more blaring example, during my Fuzhou dialect lessons from Adamum, Johnny frequently sits next to us to listen. Now, if he only wanted to listen, I wouldn’t have a problem, but the issue is that he insists on helping Adamum teach me. This would only be a minor problem if Johnny actually spoke the Fuzhou dialect. The problem is he is from Sanming, which is on the other side of the province where they speak a completely different dialect. Since there is no system of Romanization for the Fuzhou dialect, most of our sessions consist of Adamum repeating a word, and me copying his pronunciation. As Adamum is doing this, Johnny always pipes in with his own attempt to pronounce the word, as if somehow it is necessary for me to listen to two people pronounce it at once, one of them who doesn’t even speak the damn language he is teaching! To put it in perspective, imagine you are studying Chinese with a native Chinese speaker. Whenever your Chinese friend pronounces the word, a Korean sitting next to you who has taken one semester of Chinese pronounces it for you again, insisting that his pronunciation is better than the Chinese guy.

I have come to assume that the reason Johnny annoys me so much is because that the others don’t like him either, but I had yet to see any outward displays of this. That was until two days ago when Adamum was giving Johnny a haircut. I know I mentioned this before, but Johnny’s most striking feature is that he looks like a girl, and most people he meets think he is one before they hear his voice. Apparently he doesn’t mind much, because his hairstyle only accentuates this fact. It goes down to his shoulders in back, and in the front, the bangs slant down from one side to the other covering up his left eye, and leaving the right eye revealed. Johnny has always been proud of his unique hairstyle and one time he explained to me to me that, “This is a personality hairstyle. It fits my personality.”

As Adamum was cutting Johnny’s hair, he “accidentally” cut the bangs in a straight line, thus revealing Johnny’s left eye. This changed the entire look of Johnny’s hairstyle, as his mysterious face was now visible to all. As soon as his precious bangs dropped to the floor, Johnny rumpled up his hair, ripped off the barber cape and ran to the back of the shop sulking. Adamum perceived to giggle about the situation he had “accidentally” caused.

Up until this point I had been afraid that I was the only person who Johnny truly bothered. The following day when I was sitting at a table with Adamum, Cheng Qing, and Johnny, Cheng Qing asked if I wanted to play pool with him after work. For the past two weeks Johnny has been inviting me to play pool with him as well, and every night I tell him I am too busy. Partially, this is true, but the main reason is that he is simply so annoying that I cannot stand to spend any more time with him than the eleven hours per day we spend working together. I did not want to hurt Johnny’s feelings, so I politely declined Cheng Qing’s request at first. Five minutes later, I asked Cheng Qing to step outside for a cigarette. As we headed out the door I told him.

“Listen, I have something I want to tell you, just don’t repeat it to any of the other employees. Actually, I do want to go play pool tonight with you, but I just didn’t want to say so in front of Johnny, because he asks me to play with him every night and I always refuse him. You know he is kind of…well, immature, and….”

“I don’t like him either, and neither do any of the other employees,” Cheng Qing interrupted (the word he used was 讨厌 which is somewhere between “dislike” and “hate.”) His words came with the tone that what he was saying was so obvious and definite that what he was saying should have been known to all. “He is annoying, and he doesn’t listen to orders. I know what you are thinking. Don’t worry, I won’t mention anything.”

What I find interesting is that I now had conclusive evidence that Johnny was not only driving me crazy, but the rest of the staff as well. Yet until this point, I had yet to see anybody respond to it, other than Adamum who is a little quirky himself. Had I been working a regular job in the United States, and not purposely been trying not to rock the boat (as I am doing now) I would have told Johnny directly to leave me alone a long time ago. Had he not left me alone, the conflict would likely have escalated as I would have probably been much less civilized about dealing with a person like Johnny. Yet, Adamum’s “mistake” was the first instance in which I had seen of any other employees outwardly revealing their dislike for him as well, and as I mentioned earlier, Adam’s actions are often very far from what one might consider “typical Chinese behavior.”

In other news, my goatee is now orange…pics coming soon.

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Cohabitation Nation

Posted in Barbershop at 4:45 pm by Benjamin Ross

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My freshman year in college I shared a dorm room with an old friend of mine from Hebrew school, Derek Gale. We had known each other since we had been old enough to walk, but had never spent much time in the same social circle. Our mutual friends all thought we would end up killing each other on account of Derek being extremely neat and tidy, and me falling more towards the messy end of the spectrum. However, we both agreed it would be better to live together rather than sharing freshman year with a random roommate. Through some miracle, we got along great, and today Derek is one of my best friends. Many of the other residents on our floor were not as lucky.

Across the hall from us was another room shared by two girls (let’s call them Jenni and Anne). For the first two weeks, all four of us got along well. The girls would come to our room for movies or microwave nachos, and we would often spend evenings chatting or making late-night runs to the 24 hour Taco Bell drive thru. As the semester wore on, Derek and I began to see the girls together less and less. One evening we heard yelling and screaming across the hall. The next morning on my way back from the bathroom, I saw Anne just outside her door. She looked flustered.

“What was going on last night?” I asked.

“Jenni got pissed off because I told her that I did not like all the posters of naked muscle men that she puts up in the room. I don’t want my friends to come over and have to look at naked guys all the time,” she told me.

Later that night I was having dinner in the cafeteria with Derek when Jenni sat down next to us. She was noticeably agitated as well.

“I have told Anne so many times not to smoke in our room. I’m allergic to smoke. Sometimes she can be such a dumb b****.”

“We do live on a smoking floor you know,” Derek mentioned.

“Yeah, but the first day, we made a deal that nobody would smoke in the room. And it’s not just that. I usually go to bed at 10 o’clock and she plays her music until midnight. I don’t think I can live like this anymore.”

Over the next few months, the situation worsened, with Derek and me finding ourselves trapped in the middle. When only one of them was around, they would constantly complain to us about the other. As finals drew near, the complaints about living habits gradually became replaced by metaphorical references to various barnyard animals. Derek and I did our best to stay out of the carnage.

At the beginning of the second semester Jenni moved out, opting to pay the extra fee for the single room. Anne was left with a single as well. To my knowledge, they never spoke again.

My Chinese co-workers find themselves in a similar situation—cohabitating with others who were not of their own choosing. The barber shop offers free housing for all employees, consisting of a three bedroom unfinished apartment, which we call the “dormitory.” The floors are cement and the walls are covered by scratched white paint. Each bedroom is packed in with 3 bunk beds without mattresses, and the living room functions primarily as a dining room, with a circular table and 10 chairs taking up most of the space. There is only one bathroom. 7 little brothers, the 2 managers, and one of the masters currently live in the dormitory. (Due to their higher incomes, the other 4 masters have opted to pay for their own accommodations, and 2 little sisters and 1 little brother live with family members).

Knowing what I do about Americans (this probably applies to most other Westerners as well) I do not think I would be out of line in asserting that these living conditions would not fly in the US. Forcing 10 non-related Americans to share a 3-bedroom, 1-bathroom apartment, would not work. We are just not capable of such intimate living. We would kill each other.

My 18 coworkers all spend between 50 and 70 (the 50 accounts for the shift differences) hours per week working side-by-side with the same people. Imagine working those hours, with the same people, but then also living together, and eating all of your meals together as well, all in the same 3-bedroom apartment with one bathroom.

When I first heard about this arrangement, I assumed that this environment would inevitably breed conflict, as personal problems are difficult to dissipate when you are with the same people literally 24 hours a day. Ironically, other than Johnny getting on other people nerves, I have seen virtually no conflict at all between the staff. Everybody either likes one another, or if differences do exist, they have been reconciled to the point that they do not interfere with the work day. Part of me is saying that it is impossible for there to be no major conflict, and it’s more likely that the conflict just hasn’t been exposed to me, but at the same time, I have been spending eleven hours a day with this group of people, and it is hard to imagine that if problems existed, they could be completely masked for so long.

So why is it that young Chinese people can live so seamlessly with 10 people cramped into one apartment, when Americans of the same age often find it so difficult to share their dorm room with one other person, not to mention share a single bathroom with 10 others?

Surely economics play some role. Every employee in the barber shop (Mr. Zheng included) comes from a rural area. They all grew up in predominantly poor families, in which their economic situation limited them to living in close quarters with other family members. Most of them probably grew up sharing their bedroom (and possibly their bed too) with a sibling or two as well as a grandparent. My guess is that if you were to take 10 eighteen-year-olds from wealthy Shanghai families and put them in a 3-bedroom apartment together, the results would not be nearly as pretty.

However…I would still wager that the 10 Shanghai kids would fare much better off than 10 American kids placed into similar living conditions.

Chinese people often talk of the dichotomy between 集体主义 (collectivism) and 个人主义 (individualism) when discussing differences between “us” and “them.” The conventional wisdom is that while Westerners tend to look out for themselves, the Chinese think more with the group in mind. While this paradigm has the tendency to breed over-generalizations, in many instances it is quite applicable. The overwhelming sense of belonging to a group is often more valued in China than it is in the West where we tend to view group membership as another obligation which impedes our individualist pursuits. In the case of Anne and Jennie, their respective opposing desires to smoke and decorate their dorm room with pictures of naked men were ultimately more important to them than was maintaining the cohesion of the group. My guess is had a situation arisen like this in our dormitory, both parties would have backed down from the conflict, seeing the threat to group stability as a greater loss than their own personal pursuits. Then again, some nude photos of Brad Pitt and Nicholas Cage could really do wonders to spice up those ugly white walls.

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Barber Shop Hierarchy

Posted in Barbershop, Culture Clash at 10:41 am by Benjamin Ross

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Yesterday was an exceptionally busy day at the barber shop as customers flocked in for haircuts, washes, and perms. At about 3 o’clock I looked around the store and noticed that all nine of the little brothers and little sisters were occupied either giving hair washes or massages. I was sitting near the front door chatting with Cheng Qing and two other unoccupied barbers when two middle-aged women walked in the door.

“2 hair washes,” one of the ladies said to Cheng Qing. He looked around the room, saw that all of the little brothers and little sisters were busy, and told the lady “It’s going to be about a twenty minute wait. Why don’t you sit down and have a drink of water?” The women sat down at the one of the tables, and Cheng Qing returned to his chat with me and the other two barbers. The women sat chatting and glancing around the shop for about 5 minutes, and then decided to leave.

I should point out that everything the little brothers and little sisters can do has been done already hundreds of times by the barbers. All of the barbers worked as little brothers for several years before graduating into hair cutting. Seeing that all of the little brothers and sisters were unavailable, wouldn’t it have made more sense for two of the barbers to wash the women’s hair themselves? Instead, they went back to their conversation and 24 RMB walked right out the door.

This situation can be justified by the hierarchy system imbedded into the barber shop food chain. There are three main levels, and they are primarily based on experience and expertise.

At the lowest level is the little brothers and sisters. A little brother or little sister begins their career in the industry with hair washes and massages, and gradually moves on to learn how to 做发 (zuo4 fa4) which includes dyes, curling, and perms. The little brothers and little sisters are also responsible for menial shop tasks such as sweeping hair, folding towels, bringing cups of hot water to customers, and cleaning the shop every night.

The second level are the barbers whom we call the 师傅 (shi1 fu4) or “masters.” The masters sole responsibility is cutting hair. Occasionally they help with a dye or a perm, but never once have I seen any of them do a hair wash. They are also exempt from clean up duties.

Finally, on top there is Mr. Zheng, the boss. Mr. Zheng’s daily routine is similar to the masters except he is able to show up to work a little bit later every day, and his haircuts cost 50 RMB instead of 30. He also serves as the teacher for instructing the masters in their hair cutting technique.

There is one other level which is a little difficult to place in the hierarchy, since their job is mainly clerical, and that is the two managers, Ling Ling and Xiao Huang. I call them “managers” but a better description would probably be cashiers. Their jobs are to stand behind the counter, handle monetary transactions, and make sure the little brothers and little sisters are keeping on task (when there is a task to do). They are also exempt from cleanup duty. Their position is above that of the little brothers and little sisters, but their hierarchical relationship between the masters is still a bit foggy to me. If I had to guess, I would say they are just below them.

The reason I bring up this hierarchy is because it often determines what work gets done, or more accurately, what work does not get done. Two of the advantages of becoming a master is that you can read the newspaper during cleanup time and you are completely exempt from hair washing, which is viewed as the least desirable task in the shop.

This is markedly different from service industry jobs I have worked in the US where workers at the top of the hierarchy will frequently scoop back down to the bottom in times of need. For example when I was 15, I worked as a sacker in a grocery store. During times when there was a high volume of customers, the managers would often take time away from their tasks to work as cashiers or even sackers, until the flow of customers died back down. If there was something more important which needed to be done, they would tend to it, but as long as labor was in need and they were available, they would help out.

After work yesterday, I told Mr. Zheng what I had seen, and asked him his thoughts.

“This is a very, very bad situation,” he commented, “and it is like this in all barber shops in Fuzhou. The masters don’t want to do any of the hair washes. But this does not make much business sense. It must change and I think it will change.”

My own personal view is that this example represents the deeply engrained sense of hierarchy and status in the Chinese psyche. By putting in years as a little brother, the masters, in addition to a higher salary, have also earned the privilege of not washing hair. Relegating them to the occasional hair wash would be undermining their status in the store which they have earned through years of hard work. In a sense, it would be akin to eliminating one of their benefits. This is a situation that Mr. Zheng has to deal with or else risk angering his employees and possibly risk them quitting. As angry as Mr. Zheng was that the two middle aged women left his store without getting hair washes, this certainly will bode better than losing two of his top barbers.

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Sanitation with Chinese Characteristics

Posted in Barbershop, Health and Medicine at 11:10 am by Benjamin Ross

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China often gets a reputation for not having exceptionally high standards in terms of cleanliness and sanitation. After living in China for three years, I have to say that I agree with this assertion. While in some areas, such as food, sanitation may not be as necessary in China as it is in the West, this does not quell the fact that most Chinese public establishments are considerably less sanitary than the American equivalent.

With this in mind, I wanted to write a little expose, if you will, on sanitation in Chinese barber shops, or more accurately, my Chinese barber shop.

For starters, I should mention our shop is what is referred to as “mid-range.” We refer to it as a 美发店 (mei3 fa4 dian4) rather than a 理发店 (li3 fa4 dian4) and our barbers are called 美发师 (mei3 fa4 shi1) instead of 理发师 (li3 fa4 shi1). This is analogous to the euphemistic differences between “barbers” in a “barber shop” and “hair dressers” in a “salon.” This means that most of our clientele are rich, but not so rich that they need to have the same hairdresser who once gave Jackie Chan a foot massage. A hair wash is 12 RMB, and a haircut is 30 RMB (50 if Mr. Zheng does it himself). Customers expect levels of sanitation higher than what you would you would get in a 10 RMB barbershop…or from those barber shops with the red lights that don’t actually cut any hair.

Carrottop (now with purple hair) scrubs the floor during out late night cleaning routine.

I must say that of the various service industry jobs I have worked (all in the US), the barber shop is probably the cleanest environment I have ever worked in. Every evening from 10 to 10:30, Mr. Zheng has us 做卫生 (zuo4 wei4 sheng1), the Chinese word for “clean up” which literally means “do sanitation.” All of us little brothers and sisters have to meticulously clean every nook and cranny of the shop even though it is just going to get covered with hair again the following morning. We sweep the floor, scrub all the sinks with detergent, tidy up the bathroom, and clean all mirrors, windows, and machinery. The whole cleaning routine goes a bit overkill, but since there are no hourly wages, Mr. Zheng has little incentive not to make use of the excess labor that he has on hand. He is particular about all the cleaning, and inspects everything before we leave. One evening he determined that the floor hadn’t been properly cleaned, and made us stay late to do it all over again. Because of the wage structure, this does not cost him any extra money in overtime, as it would in the US.

“Every nook and cranny” includes the area under the AC, which is usually full of hair.

All this being said, there are still a few token areas of concern when it comes to cleanliness and sanitation. The first is the towels. When a customer comes in for a wash, a towel is placed on their back before they lie down on the washing bed to protect their clothes from any misguided water. Another towel is used to wrap their hair after the wash is complete. After they finish their post-wash massage they are guided over to one of the barbers, who blow dries and styles their hair. Before this happens the towel used to wrap the hair during the massage is discarded onto a nearby chair. Part of my job is to collect the discarded towels. If they are thoroughly wet I throw them in a tub and they go home to Mr. Zheng’s washing machine. If they are dry or only somewhat wet, I put them on top of the wet face towel heater to dry them off. They are then thrown into a bucket, refolded and used again. So in theory, the towel that is being used to dry off your hair could have already been used on three or four different heads that day, granted they were all freshly washed heads.

The next area of concern is of sterilizer for the hair cutting utensils, which is…never used. This may sound gross to us mysophobic Westerners, but I’m not convinced how absolutely necessary it really is. When I get a haircut in the US, my barber always meticulously sterilizes all of the utensils before they touch my head. However, he also does not wash my hair first. It’s feasible a customer could have weeks of oil, dirt, and germs built up in their hair which then comes into contact with the utensils. In our shop every customer is given a thorough hair wash (2 rounds of shampoo, plus a shot of conditioner) before and after every haircut. While this probably does not kill as many germs as the sanitizer, I’m willing to accept it as clean enough and leave the rest to my immune system.

Other than these 2 areas, I have yet to notice anything else which may be of concern from a sanitation perspective. The floor and barber chairs are always spotless, the sinks are as clean as they could be for receiving as much use as they do, and the bathroom is always spotless. Now, if only I could say the same for Chinese restaurants.

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More Comments/Limitations of the Project

Posted in Barbershop at 2:32 am by Benjamin Ross

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This past week, my blog has received more publicity than I ever anticipated. There have been many comments around the net, including a lot of support, a good amount of constructive criticism, and apparently some individuals whom at some point I must have run over with my bicycle and never given proper compensation. Several of these comments raised questions about limitations of my barbershop project and I wanted to post them here and reply on this site because they raise some interesting questions.

Josh writes on Sinosplice:

While I do admire him doing this to have a bit of an idea of what it’s like, it feels rather cynical as well. I can’t really explain why I feel this, it might be part of the doing it for only 1 month as he doesn’t really have to live on the wages that he’s earning from the job. It’d be much better if he had to live on the wages that he was earning, lived in the dormitory etc. and immersed himself a lot more in it.

And the photos as well seem to be ‘look at me clowning around with the low paid Chinese workers.’ I think it remains to be seen whether this ‘experiment’ will change his life in any way shape or form…..


To conduct this project with the highest possible degree of immersion, I would need to spend a month sleeping in the dorm every night, live off 600 kuai, and cut off all contact with my Western friends. As for the dorm, the main reason I am not living there is that a big part of this project was that I wanted to write about it. I spend 11 hours a day at work, 8 hours a day sleeping, 1 hour commuting by bicycle, and the rest is usually spent in front of the computer. I did not want to sit up in the dorm all night with my fancy laptop ignoring my colleagues, nor did I want to save all my writing until the month was over and my memory had turned foggy. Therefore, I thought living in the dorm would be detrimental overall to the project. That being said, living in the dorm certainly would have constituted a more immersed and authentic experience. In terms of money, I have not been keeping track, but excluding my rent, I probably will end up spending less than 600 kuai this month anyway. It is amazing how easy it is not to spend money when you are at work 11 hours a day.

I would be telling a big fat lie if I denied that a good portion of my day, as well as that of my coworkers, is devoted to pure, unadulterated, horsing around.

You also mention that many of my photos seem to be ‘look at me clawing around with the low paid Chinese workers.” Glancing back over what I have posted over the past month, I understand why you have this impression. However, I do have to counter that a good 30 to 40 percent of the typical Chinese barbershop employee’s work day is spent clawing around due to the massive amounts of idle time. So in this respect, I think that the goofiness represented in these pictures is consistent with Chinese workers’ lives.

In regards to your final comment, I do not anticipate that this job will change my life, but I do think it has been giving me considerable insight into the Chinese working class, and China as a whole. However, as you point out, there is room for more immersion.

Mike writes on danwei:

from a novelty perspective, this is interesting.

however, from an anthropological perspective, I don’t get it. Apart from phd-defining observations about wages and conditions as detailed above, what does he hope to get out of this?

he will always be a foreigner working in a Chinese barber shop and will always be treated as one. he cannot hope to assimilate and truly experience what a Chinese worker would experience, so what is the point (apart from being able to write a blog and improve his Chinese)?

but if he is doing it for the novelty and for something to tell his friends back home, then great and good luck


As you imply, no matter how much Chinese I learn or how long I spend in China, I cannot change the fact that I spent my formative years being socialized in the United States. I am a Westerner and this is always how I will be viewed and treated by Chinese people. I will say there is a grey area in between…for example a foreigner who speaks Chinese and has adopted local culture and mannerisms to some degree will get treated more like a Chinese than one who is just in for the week visiting. That being said, this does not change the fact that I still am not Chinese and never will be. This presents obvious limitations. One of the goals of my project was to experience life as a member of the Chinese working class. While my colleagues have for the most part played along, this does not mean that they can automatically compensate for their preconceived bias. In other words, it is impossible for me to completely assimilate and experience life as a Chinese worker would, and my experience suffers from certain limitations that would not be as poignant had I been an overseas Chinese. However, I would argue that this does not completely demerit the whole project. After all, few would argue for the illegitimacy Jane Goodall’s body of work on account of the fact that she was not a chimpanzee.

On the flip side, the fact that I am not Chinese, does have its inherent advantages. When I work as an ethnographer in China our team usually consists of both Americans and Chinese. Often the Americans will make observations that the Chinese have overlooked on account of the fact that they are so accustomed to their own culture. The converse holds true if we bring Chinese researchers to the States. An outside eye will often pick up on nuances that the insider is oblivious to. But as you accurately point out I “cannot hope to assimilate and truly experience what a Chinese worker would experience.”

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Long Hours and Little Work

Posted in Barbershop at 4:50 pm by Benjamin Ross

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Yesterday I was late leaving the house in the morning. The bike ride to work is about 20 minutes and I set out just past 11:43 am. I raced out of my neighborhood, and through the busy streets, dodging vehicles of all shapes and sizes, finally arriving at the barber shop to punch in at 12:01, one minute late, which will result in a 5 mao (.5 RMB) fine.

Xiao Wang taking an afternoon cat nap between customers.

I put on my apron, looked around the shop for hair to sweep or plastic cups to trash, saw none, and proceeded to join my coworkers at one of the waiting tables. Jiang was reading the newspaper. Zhen Qing was lost in a women’s health magazine. Chen Lin and Jie Lun were playing games on their cell phones. Xiao Fang and Xiao Xia were standing by the counter chatting with Lin Lin. Mr. Zheng was reading sentences aloud out of an English textbook I had given him, and Xiao Wang was sound asleep in one of the barber chairs. There was only one customer in the entire shop, and ten employees. This is the way most of my “mornings” (noon – 2 pm) go before the big 2 o’clock rush. On a previous post, Josh from Peer See commented “In my ample “per hour” employment during high school, I never once had a boss who would’ve accepted me reading magazines on the job. Being busy was encouraged. Looking busy was tolerated. Anything less got you fired.”

This is not the case in my barber shop, nor is it for most work places in China. So long as there is no work to do, we are allowed to read the newspaper, send text messages, draw, play rock-paper-scissors, take naps, listen to music with headphones, eat, smoke cigarettes, talk on the phone, take photos, and hang out in front of the shop sitting on parked motorcycles, all of this in plain view of the customers.

So why are Chinese shops so lax on this type of behavior? And why doesn’t anybody plug the obvious hole in the efficiency? Or would a better question be why are American shops so uptight about it?

Little brothers occupying themselves with cell phone games.

Part of the reason may be the sheer amount of down time at most Chinese jobs. My coworkers often ask me about jobs I have worked in the United States. One day Cheng Qing asked me “What is the biggest difference between jobs you have worked in the US, and your job here in the shop?”

Cheng Qing was referring to the minimum wage jobs I had told him about working in high school, which both socially and economically would be somewhat analogous to working in a barber shop in China.

“The biggest difference,” I told him, “is that if you were working in the US, you would most likely be working less hours, but doing a lot more work during that time.”

By my own personal observations, on an average day, most employees in the barber shop spend between 5 and 6 hours of their 11 hour shifts doing actual work The rest of the time is devoted to those activities I mentioned above.

Me trying to pass the time with the Fuzhou Strait News.

Why so much downtime? In China there are very few part time available to individuals with low education levels. In the barber shop all employees must work full time (11 hours a day, 27 days per month). Their wages are calculated on a per-task (i.e. hair wash, perm, etc.) rate plus a small fixed monthly salary. Although we clock in and clock out every day, nobody is paid by hour, and the time clock is only a means for Mr. Zheng to assure nobody is showing up late or leaving early.

From Mr. Zheng’s perspective, there is no incentive for him to allow his workers to leave early or come in late when there is no work to be done. He will not be lowering his expenditures as he would had he been paying his employees on an hourly rate. The overall result is that employees are left working long hours, during which a good deal of the time is spent doing nothing at all. This is the mentality of most Chinese small business owners who are also paying their employees monthly salaries for long, unproductive hours. The result is that at any given moment during the day in China, there are likely several hundred million people doing exactly what we do every day in the barber shop from noon to 2 o’clock.

In the US, sitting around and tending to one’s own personal needs, regardless of how few customers and how many employees there are, is unacceptable. Any of those time-killing activities listed above would have been restricted by both time (designated breaks) and place (designated break room) at any of the low paying American jobs I worked. Yet in China, this is completely acceptable, in both the eyes of both managers and clients…now if you’ll excuse me I need to get back to my game of cell phone Tetris.

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Coming to America…Fuzhou’s Main Export is People

Posted in Barbershop, Fujian, Immigration at 3:21 am by Benjamin Ross

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You’ve all heard the stereotypes. 15 Chinese workers crammed into a small room in the back of the local Chinese eatery. They never show their faces. They never leave the kitchen. They don’t speak English. They don’t have green cards, and they certainly aren’t paying any taxes. This has caused quite a stir of late as the Bush administration looks to revise the US immigration policies. Some Americans think it’s about time we punish those who have illegally entered our country. Others feel that it’s just another act of xenophobia from an already over-paranoid administration. In a barbershop in Fuzhou, this is a hot topic as well, but for different reasons.

Fuzhou is famous for its opulent banyan trees, its sugary 荔枝肉 (sweet and sour pork), and its scorching hot summers. But more than anything Fuzhou is best known for its legions of expatriates who emigrate to all corners of the world to wash dishes, cook food, and scrub the floors of Chinese restaurants. If you have ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant outside of China, chances are you have consumed food prepared by a Fuzhou cook.

Estimates suggest that as many as 40% of all Chinese abroad trace their roots back to Fujian province. The vast majority of them immigrate without the proper documentation.

One of the barbers in my shop is especially interested in this topic. My first day on the job he asked me to give him an English name. I chose “Adam” because it sounded similar to his Chinese nickname.

After giving him a name and teaching him some basic English greetings at his request, I asked Adam why he was so interested in learning English.

“I have several relatives who have illegally immigrated to the United States. It is my dream to one day sneak into the United States as well,” he answered.

Adam is uncharacteristically candid for a Chinese, but dreams such as are not uncommon in the City of Banyan Trees.

Like most of Fuzhou’s illegal immigrant population, Adam is not from Fuzhou city proper, but rather from a surrounding town about two hours away. It is in these small, coastal towns where locals have traditionally looked abroad to achieve their fortunes. My first year in China was spent in one of these towns.

Fuqing is a one hour bus ride away from Fuzhou, and is not a desirable city to live in by Chinese standards. It is small, has poor public infrastructure, and few job opportunities for people with college degrees. Yet, on a casual walk through Fuqing, one will see young women wearing designer clothes, old couples living in 5 storey mansions, and men with long fingernails and hairy moles driving BMW’s. Another suspicious characteristic of Fuqing, is the seemingly low number of people in their 20’s and 30’s.

In the words of my friend Xiao He who grew up in Fuqing “There are two options for young people in Fuqing. If you can make it into college, you can get a good job and move to a bigger city. If you don’t get into college, you just sneak into Japan to work for 5 or 10 years” According to Xiao He, of his 41 high school classmates, 11 of them are currently working in Japan, all illegally.

Each little town outside Fuzhou has a corresponding country in which its locals have existing connections and tend to immigrate to. While Fuqing’s expatriates can be found mostly in the kitchens of Tokyo’s Chinatown, New York City’s Chinese restaurants are mostly staffed by immigrants from Lianjiang and Changle, two other small towns just outside of Fuzhou.

The reason people go abroad is simple…money. Most of them spend their entire time working (often up to 13 hours a day), have meals and housing provided by their employer, and rarely go out or spend any money. This lifestyle is strikingly similar to that of barbershop employees in China.

After I initially figured out the hourly salaries of the little brothers and sisters in the barber shop, Adam asked me to calculate what he would be making had he been working in the United States rather than China.

Using the minimum wage of my home state of Missouri ($6.50 per hour) the same schedule as worked by Chinese barber shop employees would net $23,000 per year (before taxes which likely aren’t paid anyway). In China that comes to around 14,500 RMB per month, a salary which easily catapult a worker into the Fuzhou upper class. Looking at these figures, it’s not hard to understand why there is such a draw towards illegal immigration.

This is exactly what Adam and many other Fuzhou people are thinking when they look for opportunities to go abroad. Either way, he will be working 70 hours a week and living in cramped living quarters. It’s just a matter of whether he will be making 50 cents an hour or $6.50.

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More facts and figures: Money

Posted in Barbershop, Business 'n Economics at 2:39 am by Benjamin Ross

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The other day I compared the hours worked between a job in a Chinese barber shop, my old American job, and my job as an English teacher in China. Here were the results in case you missed it. As an foreign English teacher in a Chinese university I was working 919 hours per year. As a white collar employee at an American company in the US I was putting in 1936 hours per year. And as a full time barbershop employee for a year I would be clocking 3542 hours.

The little brothers and little sisters keep busy doing hair washes. Each head nets about 32 cents.

Now I want to take a look at the pay if I were to actually work all those 3542 hours.

Most of the income of a little brother or little sister is not fixed. They get 150 RMB ($20 USD) per month in base salary, and the rest is based on how much work they do. The price charged to the customer for a hair wash is 12 RMB ($1.40 USD). Of that charge 2.5 RMB (32 cents) goes to the little brother or little sister who performed the service. Each hair wash service lasts approximately 35 minutes and also includes a massage.

On average each little brother or little sister washes about 150 heads per month, and average pay for a beginning worker comes to between 500 and 600 RMB per month (roughly $70 USD). Bear in mind, this is for a 70 hour work week.

I also should add that when a little brother or little sister begins work at the barber shop, they must go through a probationary period, during which they do not get paid. Once they have become competent at doing hair washes and massages, they can become an official employee and start making money. According to Mr. Zheng this takes anywhere between 2 weeks and 2 months depending on how fast the new worker learns.

Little brothers and little sisters can increase their incomes by learning additional skills. Those who have worked in the shop for several years and can do dyes and perms earn 6% of all the charges for the services they do. So for a 300 RMB ($40 USD) dye, there is a payout of 18 RMB ($2.40 USD). Therefore the higher ranking little brothers and sisters are able to make around 1000 RMB per month ($131 USD) per month.

Would I really want to do this 70 hours a week for 24 cents an hour?

If we use myself as an example, and assume I were to work at the barbershop for one year, making 600 RMB per year and accounting for the first month going unpaid, my hourly rate would be 1.86 RMB per hour. That comes out to a walloping 24.47 cents per hour.

I should add that even though this job pays less than a quarter an hour, by all my observations so far, it does provide what I would consider a living wage to its employees. This is assuming they do not have any dependents, which none of the little brothers and sisters do. Employees are all offered free housing in an 3 bedroom unfinished apartment which serves as the “dormitory” for the barbershop. Currently 8 of the 10 little brothers and sisters plus the 2 managers and 1 of the barbers live in the dormitory. One little brother and one little sister live with their relatives, and 4 of the 5 barbers rent their own housing. While 11 people sharing a 3 bedroom unfinished apartment with one bathroom may sound like unbearable conditions for us Westerners, this really is not that out-of-the-ordinary in China.

To be fair we also need to consider that living in China is much cheaper than it is in the US. For food, Mr. Zheng hires an “a yi” (maid) to cook meals for the employees. For a fee of 200 RMB ($26 USD), per month the employees get lunch and dinner every day of the week. That comes to 3.33 RMB (40 cents) per meal. For comparison sake, when I was working my job in the American company, I would frequently eat lunch at the Lucky Dragon Chinese Buffet. The cost was $5.99, which plus tax and tip usually came out to $8 per meal.

Another big question which might arise out of this is what about healthcare benefits? This is a big problem for us Americans, a non-issue for Canadians, and one which certainly pertains to China which does not have government provided healthcare. Living in the US we are accustomed to astronomical healthcare costs, which when paid out of pocket, can easily bankrupt an entire family. While I do not want to say healthcare for Chinese people is cheap (it definitely is if you are on a Western income), the prices are not as astronomical as they are in the US, even when you account for income differences. In the case of an unexpected medical expense, typical protocol is to borrow money from a family member.

So what does these figures tell me? Working as a little brother or little sister in the barbershop provides just enough money to survive off of, but certainly not much more than that. My coworkers are able to take occasional trips to the net bar, go out for a nice meal once or twice a month, and maybe save 100 RMB here and there, but they also only have 2 or 3 sets of clothes, sleep on beds without mattresses, and never have the means to take a vacation.

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Corruption in the Barbershop

Posted in Barbershop, Society at 2:27 am by Benjamin Ross

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A few days ago a Chinese friend (let’s call him Xiao He) came into the barber shop for a hair wash. Xiao He is only in his mid-twenties, but was born into a rich, powerful family and now is a high ranking official in the Fuzhou city government. As his scalp was being massaged by Johnny, Xiao He mentioned to me (in English so nobody else could understand) “You know, Ben if I wanted to, I could show your boss my government ID badge and insist on not paying the 12 RMB for this hair wash. Your boss would not object, and I would be able to get a free wash.” This is not what Xiao He was planning on doing. Instead he was bringing it up to me to illustrate an example of the extent to which his power could go if he so chose.

The topic of corruption came up again yesterday as I was chatting with Jiang (the barber) outside of the shop. “You see that guy in there?” he said pointing to a man inside the shop. “He is 当官的.”

当官的 (dang1 guan1) refers to those leaders who are of a high enough position to use their authority to obtain discounts on everything from KTV rooms and prostitutes to haircuts and parking tickets.

“Whenever the 当官的 come in the shop, they get everything for free…haircuts, dyes, perms, nothing is charged.” Jiang continued. “Especially for the tax collection bureau. It works like this. If Mr. Zheng doesn’t give the tax collectors free haircuts, then when it is time to pay taxes, he will have to pay the full tax. However, if he gives them free haircuts and dyes, then they will give him a discount. Say he owes 1000 RMB in taxes. They will only make him pay 600 RMB. This is the only way to do business in China. If he were to pay the full tax, there is no chance his business could be successful.”

I had been aware this system applied to bars and brothels, but did not know that it trickles down to small businesses as well. Next time a 45 year old man wearing Giorgio Armani and driving a Buick comes in for a 500 RMB perm and doesn’t pay, I’ll know why.

FYI: I also asked Jiang if Mr. Zheng has to pay off the mob. To this he answered, “No, that’s only for the bars and brothels.”

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