Me the Xiao Di

Posted in Barbershop at 10:25 am by Benjamin Ross

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It’s 11 PM, and I just got home from my first day working the “late shift.” There are two shifts per day, one from 9 am to 8:30 pm and the other from noon to 10:30. So for most of the day everybody is on the clock, with some workers arriving early and others staying late.

As I mentioned in previous entries, I think the most difficult obstacle to combat during this process is going to boredom. I spend at least 75% of my time sitting on my ass, reading magazines, and cracking jokes with my co-workers. This may sound like an easy job, but in all honesty it would be much easier to pass the time if I were busy. One advantage of this arrangement though is that I am really getting to know my colleagues on a personal level, since we have so much time to sit around and chat.

Part of my daily responsibilities include folding the towels. As you can see, I’m really putting that anthropology degree to good use.

Based on my understanding so far, the employees are divided into three levels, the lowest of which are what I call the 小弟 (xiao di) and 小妹 (xiao mei), or little brothers and little sisters (a common local word for young service people). The little brothers and sisters are responsible for washing hair, giving massages, sweeping the floor, folding towels, and any other odd jobs which come up. Unlike the other workers, the little brothers and sisters have to wear black aprons. Since I have just recently started working, I am a xiao di as well. Most of the other xiao di and xiao mei are just a few years out of high school. Their grades were not good enough to get into college, so instead they left their hometowns in the countryside and came to Fuzhou to find work. (As I mentioned before, nobody in the barbershop is actually from Fuzhou).

One of the xiao di who is especially entertaining is an 18 year-old kid from Western Fujian. He has a hairstyle which comes straight down on all sides, but short over his face, and increasingly longer as it goes to the sides, making him look like a girl. Actually, I thought he was a girl when I first met him, and didn’t say anything until I heard other employees try to convince customers that this was the case. The first day, he asked me to help choose him an English name, so I gave him the name “Johnny” because it sounded similar to his Chinese name. (Out of respect for privacy, I will not be using any of my co-workers real names on this blog).

Johnny was one of the first employees to open up to me, partly because he is still only a trainee, (which means he still is working without pay) and because of this still seems to be somewhat of an outsider in the eyes of the other employees. The first day I worked with him he told me how he had been in Fuzhou for less than a year, but had already worked 6 or 7 jobs. Seeing him in action made me realize why this was the case. I often see him sweeping the floor with the angst of a teenager forced into a job he doesn’t want to do, missing giant gobs of hair, and then rushing back to his magazine as soon as it appears the job is done. I’ve also already seen the boss chew him out on two separate occasions for not memorizing all of the prices of the shop’s services and products. My prediction is that he will be fired before my month is over.

If the little brothers and little sisters do well as hair washers and massage-givers, they can begin studying hair dying and perming. If this goes successfully, they can eventually train to become barbers, and thus rise to the next stratum of the barbershop food chain. Although there are special barber schools in China, all of the barbers in my shop worked their way up from little brothers and sisters. As barbers, they only have to wear nametags, instead of aprons, and they are exempt from all the bitchwork that us underlings are responsible for. Most of the barbers are more or less my age, so it is this group that I find myself relating with the most so far. Although their salaries are higher than the little brothers and sisters (I don’t have exact figures yet) they work just as long hours, and have equally as demanding lifestyles.

Today I was sitting with one of the barbers named Jiang (again, fake name). As we were waiting for customers, I saw Jiang smiling as he watched a video on his cell phone. I looked over at the video and saw a small boy rolling around on a bed.

“That’s my son. He doesn’t even recognize me,” Jiang told me. “My wife and I both work in Fuzhou, but since we are both so busy, our son stays in my hometown with my parents. I only see him a few times a year, and he doesn’t even know I’m his father.”

Although this might come as a shock to Western ears, this situation is not uncommon in rural China, where parents often have to leave their children and go to the city to make money. I asked Jiang how he felt about the situation, and he told me he regretted not being able to spend more time with his son, but that this arrangement would give his family the best chance of a better life.

The dream of most barbers is to one day open their own shop, and my boss, Mr. Zheng (fake name) is an example of this. He’s a handsome man, probably in his late thirties, and he carries himself with the humility that he still is a member of the working class, but with the confidence that he has ascended his way up from the bottom, and made a good life for himself. He too began his career as a xiao di, so he knows what it is like to work long hours for little pay and live in a dormitory with all of your colleagues. Although he frequently asks me “How is this job going to help you?” I think he is starting to realize why I am doing it, and one of my ultimate goals is to gain his respect.

While it certainly is not my goal to work my way up the ranks of the Chinese hair salon industry, it is going to be interesting to see how the process works for my colleagues. They are all part of the massive population of rural Chinese who migrate to the cities in search of better work and opportunities.

While I was at work today I got a phone call from the Fuzhou TV station. They want me to do another TV program. It will take half a day to record, and if I am able to get the time off work, I will make more money in that day than the little brothers and sisters make in a month of working eleven hour shifts…really puts things back into perspective.

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  1. Poagao Taiwan; Republic of China (ROC) said,

    May 9, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    Yeah, when I was in the Taiwanese army I was on the clock all the time, but I got used to it after a few months.

  2. Ray China said,

    May 9, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    TV show star will come into birth soon,if u like it,just keep it up,maybe u can be a big star on tv.:)

  3. James Chiang China said,

    May 10, 2007 at 10:11 am

    我觉得你的描述似乎有点像是Charles Dickens在描述19世纪刚进入工业化社会不久的英国。的确,中国也刚进入工业化社会,现在你的这次经历在美国肯定是体会不到的吧,你会不会有种时光倒流的感觉。我想,再过30年,说不定中国也不会再有这种环境了,希望如此。

  4. Benjamin Ross China said,

    May 10, 2007 at 10:58 am

    James says-
    I think what you are describing is a little like how Charles Dickens described England in the 19th Century when it had just become an industrial society. China has also just recently become an industrial society. This experience you are having certainly could not happen in the US today. Do you feel like you spend the entire day working? (any help on this sentence?) I think in thirty years China will not have these kinds of conditions anymore. I hope this comes true.

  5. James Chiang China said,

    May 11, 2007 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for Ben’s translation. I think this sentence “你会不会有种时光倒流的感觉。” may mean “Do you feel it like the clock is turned back.”

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