Back to the Barbershop…A Haircut in Chinatown

Posted in Barbershop, Culture Clash, Down in Chinatown, Personal Anecdotes at 5:56 am by Benjamin Ross

After spending the majority of the past two months in my hometown of Kansas City, I am now in Chicago beginning the next phase of my re-entry into American life. One of the reasons I chose Chicago was because of its ethnic diversity. As are most larger American cities, Chicago is full of ethnic enclaves scattered around this city. One of which is the Chicago Chinatown, home of the much of Chicago’s Chinese population as well as numerous restaurants, groceries, boutiques, and small businesses.

After my experience working in a Fuzhou barbershop last May, I thought it would be only fitting for my first experience in Chicago Chinatown to be a haircut. There are actually several barbershops in the Chinatown, but I chose one called “Urban Roots,” because it most closely resembled a “middle class” Chinese barbershop, like the one where I had worked in Fuzhou.

urban roots barber shop Chinatown Chicago
“Urban Roots,” one of Chinatown Chicago’s finer haircutting establishments

With its bright colors on the wall and the mellow sounds Chinese pop music, the interior of Urban Roots looked and felt nearly identical to a Chinese barbershop (Chinese in the sense of actually being in China). The entire staff was Chinese, as were all of the other customers, and by the subtle look of surprise from the boy behind the counter, I am guessing they do not get too much non-Chinese clientele. Walking through the door, there was one blaring difference. Rather than being greeted by a chorus of “Huan Ying Guang Lin!” from the entire staff, a young boy behind the counter casually asked me, in accented English, “How can I help you?”

After telling the boy I wanted a haircut, I was led to the back of the salon by a woman in her mid-thirties. She sat me in a padded chair and leaned my head back into an attached sink, and began washing my pre-cut hairwash, just as they do in China. Conveniently located on the wall, at a perfectly aligned angle from where my head was tilted back, was an LCD screen playing Chinese karaoke videos. As I sat there, I felt for a moment as if I had been teleported back to Fuzhou.

The hair wash woman didn’t speak much English, so we chatted in Mandarin, and she told me she was from Guangzhou and had lived in Chicago for around 7 years. I told her how I had lived in Fuzhou for 3 years, and we exchanged stories and feelings about our years living in each others’ respective countries.

Throughout our exchange, one thing stood out as a blatant difference from China. That was that a woman in her mid-thirties was washing my hair. In China, working in a barbershop is a position considered to be low on the totem pole of social status. Furthermore, the job of a hair washer (or little brother/sister) is even lower than that of a barber. Most little brothers and sisters in Chinese barbershops are fresh out of high school, (or sometimes middle school) and rarely, if ever, older than their early twenties. Additionally, hair washing and cutting in China is a field still dominated by men, as many Chinese women stay at home to fulfill domestic responsibilities, especially those past child bearing years. Seeing a woman in her mid-thirties washing hair in China would probably be even less likely than seeing a 6 foot gringo from Chicago doing the same job. It would simply involve too much loss of face.

In China, face is a factor which can often determine which jobs are acceptable and which are not. Working as a businessman in a large company, a teacher in a university, or a government official comes with it a high degree of face. Work as a commissary employee, construction worker, or hair washer does not. This is why virtually none of the thousands of barbershop employees in Fuzhou are actually from Fuzhou. Rather, they come from small townships and rural areas in Fujian and surrounding provinces. A Fuzhou city native might consider working in a barbershop in say, Shanghai, but doing such work in their own hometown would cause too much loss of face. It would not even be an option.

When Chinese go abroad however, all of these rules are thrown out the window. Once in America, working in a barbershop, a restaurant, or a laundry service does not bare the embarrassment it would cause if such jobs were worked in China.

A close Chinese friend of mine, who comes from a wealthy family in Fuzhou, explained it to me like this, “If I went to Hong Kong, or England, or the United States, I could work a part time job such as one in a barbershop. But I could never do such work in Fuzhou. It would bring too much embarrassment to my family.”

One component of this is financial. Wages in Western countries are many times higher than those in Mainland China, and blue collar work in the West can lead to a life of comfort and luxury in China. Would an upper-middle class American with a college degree feel comfortable working as a cashier at McDonald’s? Would it be a job that he would want his friends to know he was working? Not likely. Now, imagine if McDonald’s restaurants in Canada were paying $250/hour, but Canada’s borders were closed, and only 5,000 Americans per year could emigrate to Canada to work. Suddenly the job, and the status which comes along with it, becomes more appealing.

After my hair wash, I was lead over to the barber chair to meet my new barber, a Chinese man, also in his mid-thirties. I greeted him in Mandarin, to which he replied, in English, “I don’t understand Mandarin, only Cantonese and English. I’m from Hong Kong.” Like the situation with the woman who had washed my hair, you would never see a Hong Kong native working in a Chinese barbershop in mainland China. Hong Kongers in mainland China find themselves propelled to the top of the social ladder, and certainly would not be cutting hair in the mainland. (I can’t comment on how this would play out in Hong Kong itself, since I haven’t spent enough time there). However, in the US, this job is perfectly acceptable by Chinese social norms.

After my haircut was complete, the woman from Guangzhou gave my head another wash, thus completing a process which was nearly identical to that which I had received so many times in China. The only major difference of course was the cost…a walloping 26 dollars, not including the 4 dollar tip I gave the barber. In Fuzhou, the cost of a haircut at my barbershop was 30 RMB (aprox $4), and as is custom in China, there is no tip.

My experience at Urban Roots not only gave me a sentimental throw-back to China, but it served to reaffirm a good lesson for all those coming from China to the United States. Here in Chicago I can have an authentic dim sum lunch, watch CCTV, and get a Chinese haircut complete with 2 washes and karaoke videos, but life in the US is not the same as it is in China, and this applies for both Chinese and laowai (which by the way, we are also referred to as by Chinese in the US). Long-standing beliefs and traditions, such as the concept of face, can last for millennia when maintained within their native countries. However, when exported to foreign lands, they are often no match for the social and economic forces of life abroad. And who knows?…Maybe someday doctors and lawyers from Chicago will emigrate to Fuzhou to cut hair.


  1. canrun China said,

    November 3, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    Excellent post. It will be interesting to see what kind of jobs will be “acceptable” and “unacceptable” to my college-educated Chinese wife once we move back to the States for good next year…Big Mac anyone? 😉

  2. Anqi Dai United States said,

    November 3, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    Thank you for the interesting topic!
    I went to nursing school in the US and became a male RN in the hospital in the North Kansas City .
    Working 36 hours a week and making more than $60,000/year. You know what ? When I went to Nanjing/Shanghai to visit, I was told by my family not to tell my relatives that I was a nurse in the US.

  3. owshawng United States said,

    November 4, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Interesting post. I noticed I’ve only seen under 30 year olds working in hair salons in Taiwan, but in the asian hair salons in the US and Sydney any age goes.

    Another thing with the US is that the US doesn’t seem to honor all credentials for professional fields from other countries. So some immigrants have to either change fields or go back to school for years to get accredited.

  4. Bright China said,

    November 4, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    Good! Every day i look forward your next text!
    Come on!

  5. Another Ben R. from Kansas City living in China China said,

    November 4, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Man, you should write a book. You write very clearly about
    interesting topics.

  6. Alan United States said,

    November 6, 2007 at 2:47 am

    Ben, I am very curious to find out what (nature of your job) you would end up doing after such a rich cross-cultural experience you have had from China. Many big corporations can use your experinces and knowledge of China.

  7. summer China said,

    November 6, 2007 at 12:01 pm


    yep.it’s a serious phenomenon in china …chinese always said ,”no ,i won’t do that,otherwise will lost my face .” ..”face” ..this word…..这样做让我很没有面子的。。。

    always concered ur issues..expecting ur next story..

  8. Rebekah Pothaar China said,

    November 7, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    Brilliant! I love all of your plays with the contrast of your before and after experiences.

  9. danjo China said,

    November 8, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    When I visited home after my first year in China, I noticed a funny thing: every Chinese-American who had emigrated from China I met was completely unimpressed by my ability to speak Mandarin, whereas of course in China most people gush over the ability to speak even a few simple sentences. I would have originally assumed that a random white kid speaking Chinese in America would be more unexpected than a teacher actually living in China learning the language. The only person in America actually interested in Mandarin conversation that I met (to be fair I didn’t meet all that many Mandarin speakers during my stay) was a grandmother from China who was just visiting family in Florida for a couple of weeks.

  10. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    November 8, 2007 at 11:09 pm


    I have noticed this exact phenonemon as well. My explanation is that it may be that Chinese people in China are simply more extatic over meeting a foreigner than they are of hearing a foreigner speak Mandarin. Afterall, I have also encountered many Chinese people who seem to be most impressed with my ability to use chopsticks, never mind we have been speaking in Mandarin for half an hour. So I guess it would make sense that for Chinese living abroad, the novelty of meeting a “foreigner” has since worn off. On an even deeper level, I think when you are in the US, Chinese strangers treat you just like they would Chinese people in China, which is not too friendly, maybe on par with your typical New Yorker.

  11. Paul Malaysia said,

    November 10, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    I think for us over here in Asia, giving a tip seems almost foreign.

  12. Diana China said,

    November 13, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    I remember going into a NY Fujianese salon in Chinatown and getting a haircut plus a 45-min head and neck massage for about $15. The total time it took to massage and cut was about 1.5 hours, and nobody else was in the salon at the time. It seemed like $15 was an awfully low sum of money to pay, seeing that it went towards two people’s wages for an hour and a half of work, and the running of the salon during that period. And while a haircut in China is a lot cheaper, the cost of living in NYC is higher. I am always just amazed how Chinese salons in the US can sustain themselves, from charging such low prices.

  13. China Law Blog United States said,

    November 17, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    It is more than just the money that changes the face equation in the US: it is the future the immigrants are creating for their children.

  14. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    November 19, 2007 at 8:07 am

    @ China Law Blog

    I agree 100%, but I would also argue that a certain (possibly major) component of the notion of creating a better lives for their children is also based on money. Afterall, in China your children are, in effect, your social security.

  15. Jeffrey D China said,

    November 19, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Personally my experience with speaking Chinese in the US is Chinese people just can’t believe it. I wouldn’t say people flip out, but it definitely catches people off guard, about the same as in Shanghai. I spoke it with some people who don’t speak English, parents of friends – they were really enthused about speaking da kine actually.

    Actually I don’t use it often in the US, but I’ve seen it happen where people do flip the fuck out – notably Oakland’s excellent Yung Kee, where a white-guy construction worker loudly ordered in Cantonese. I think every single person in the restaurant stopped eating and just stared in disbelief…

    On the other hand, in the US it’s mostly Cantonese that I hear, and almost always traditional characters that I see…

  16. Katherine.Shen China said,

    November 24, 2007 at 9:23 am

    一直以来都很喜欢看小本老师的博客,写的很好也很中肯,小本老师是一个很特别很有思想的美国青年,跟我认识的很多美国人不一样。你是我大学四年里最喜欢的外国老师,至少我问过很多同学多是这样认为的。I always like reading Ben’s blog, your winged words,hit the right nail on the head,and very are meaningful and thoughtful. You are very different from most of the Americans i know. I am very proud to have such a teacher in the college, You are the one i like most among the other foreign teachers and most of my classmates keep the same idea as mine. Thank you Ben for your wonderful blog and welcome you to China again!

  17. lei United States said,

    December 30, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    i was just there at Urban Roots today, got a haircut. w00t.

  18. Liuzhou Laowai European Union said,

    December 31, 2007 at 4:51 am

    “Additionally, hair washing and cutting in China is a field still dominated by men”

    Not anywhere I have been in China. I’d say that the vast majority of hairdressers are staffed by women.

  19. Online kaufen New Balance Herren China said,

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  20. Benjamin Ross United States said,

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