My First Official Wash!

Posted in Barbershop at 3:04 am by Benjamin Ross

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About a week ago I realized I was approaching crunch time to finish my training. The training period takes between 2 weeks and 2 months depending on the how fast the trainee learns and it was my hope to at very least get it done within 1 month. So for the past week, I have been pushing up my training schedule. The trouble is that training is done on coworkers, and there are only so many heads that can be washed. When you add to the equation that the little brothers and sisters are not allowed to receive complimentary hair washes when they are on the clock, and that the workers strictly adhere to the “one wash every other day” provision, it leaves me with only three or four heads to wash per day, tops. My massage training, on the other hand, does not suffer from such limitations, and thus has progressed much faster than my hair washing.

The Chinese word for “hair wash” is actually “head wash” and the further I get in my training, the more this terminology makes sense. Going to a Chinese barbershop for a hair wash often leaves the customers with much more than a clean scalp, as our services also include a head massage, neck massage, back tweak, and a face wash.

The hair wash all takes place lying down on a bed with the head resting in a sink. First the hair is rinsed, washed with shampoo, rinsed, washed a second time, and then rinsed again. The most critical aspect of the washing is the hand technique which in Chinese is called 抓 (zhua1) meaning “grasp” or “grab.” The 抓ing must all be done following a strict pattern which ensures that every part of the scalp is properly scratched. As a side note I now find myself 抓ing my own hair every night in the shower.

After the hair is washed twice, we add conditioner. Rather than 抓 the hair once more, we do a scalp massage with the conditioner intact. Following the scalp massage, we massage the forehead and the temples. I was a little uncomfortable doing this on other males at first, but after a few days overcame my reserves. Once the forehead is completely massaged, we move on to the neck massage, done while the customer is still lying down, and then the back tweak which requires us to reach down under the customer’s shirt and push upward along their spine propping them a few inches off of the bed. After the back tweak we apply facial ointment, and then use the water jets to funnel a stream of water over the customer’s face. Next the customer’s hair is wrapped up into a little towel turban, and they are shuttled over to a barber chair for the back massage.

The back massage consists of several motions, which can be altered based on the preference of the little brother or the customer. After the massage, the customer is led over to a master who dries and styles their hair. The whole service takes 35 minutes. All this for the low cost of 12 RMB (about $1.50 US)….article continues below

Up until today I had only given head washes to fellow employees and few massages to customers on a request-only basis. However today I hit a major milestone as I did my first full service on a paying customer, when a woman specifically requested the foreigner for her wash/massage. Although I was a little nervous, I was able to complete the full head wash and massage without any major screw ups. Afterwards, Mr. Zheng insisted on paying me the 4 RMB (50 cents) I was owed as my take performing the service. (The normal rate is 2.5, but you earn an extra 1.5 if you are specifically requested).

As you might imagine, seeing a 6 foot white guy wearing an apron and working as a little brother is a hot conversation piece among customers at the shop. Generally speaking, the customers think I have a few loose screws when they first hear what I am doing, but a good 5 minute conversation with either myself or another employee can usually convince them of my sanity. Once this done, their responses have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive of my endeavor. There are those, however, which remain skeptical. My second day on the job, I had one woman try to convince me that I was wasting my time in a barbershop. “It is silly for you to work here. You could easily find a job in a coffee house or an upscale Western style restaurant. That would be a much better experience for you.”

Then there is the financial aspect. Although this does not apply to everybody, there certainly is a sizable percentage of the Fuzhou population who simply cannot comprehend why a guy like me would work a job for one month without pay when I could be making so much more money teaching English. “There are so many options for a foreigner like you in Fuzhou. You could work for a foreign company, teach English classes, make lots of money. Working in a barbershop will not get you anywhere.” I have heard several comments like this, and they all end with “working in a barbershop…” as if I have decided to take this up as a future career path. This of course after I have already explained my reason for doing this by using my catch phrase 我想体验生活 (I just want to experience the life).

Finally there are the opportunist customers who simply look at me as an omniscient representative of the United States, available to teach their children English, or answer any questions pertaining to immigration, learning English, or obtaining an American green card. I had one woman who detained me for an hour asking me question after question about American insurance companies and the social security system.

With my month almost finished, I at least know that I will be able to finish my tenure as a legitimate little brother. Hopefully I will have a few more chances to wash heads tomorrow, but that depends on Mr. Zheng, who maintains he will still keep me on a request only basis. By the way, my ever evolving hair style had a new development today, as one of the little brothers busted out the straightening iron and some wax. This may be a new look for me. Enjoy.

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  1. doom United States said,

    June 5, 2007 at 4:44 am

    Nice job explaining the wash/massage. I was wondering how the customers reacted to your being there.

    Diggin’ the hair, too. It’s fresh.

  2. raymon China said,

    June 5, 2007 at 11:23 am

    I’ve been enjoy your blog for several weeks. It’s really good idea to “tast various life”. I may do it someday ,definitaly would have a lot fun.
    also I wanna I could learn how to do perfect massage, hopely it’s not too difficult to learn.

  3. ym China said,

    June 5, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    also a nice way to experience the life in china,wish you good luck!

  4. Justin Hong Kong said,

    June 5, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Ben, thanks to a tip from D at Mutant Palm I’ve become a regular reader of your Chinese barbershop apprenticeship and other adventures. Just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying it all; very astute, funny, and, hell yes, dare I say informative as well. I’ve been here almost 4 years (mostly Shenzhen, Hong Kong) but it’s making me wish I had the brain cells and patience left to learn Chinese and plunge in as you have. (I have to admit the baijiu ‘n’ ketamine breakfasts probably don’t help either…)
    Anyway, keep on keeping on…it’s a pleasure to read you.

  5. Jenn China said,

    June 5, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    I love getting my head/hair washed here. I almost fell asleep last time I got my hair cut.

    It’s a real skill!

  6. Jas China said,

    June 6, 2007 at 12:27 am

    Reading your article always so fun, you are a good writer!

  7. 长舟丫 China said,

    June 6, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    That was super, all of it. Looking forward to whatever extra insights you’re going to post, but for now I hope you’re enjoying a well-earned … whatever! 长舟丫

  8. Lily China said,

    June 6, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    Hi Ben, who take picture for you ? not bad!

  9. Benjamin Ross China said,

    June 8, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Lily –
    As annoying as he can be sometimes, Johnny is probably the best of the other employees when it comes to camera work. I think most of the shots of me were done by him. I took the headshot myself by using a mirror to look into the display window of my camera.

  10. ly China said,

    June 21, 2007 at 8:03 pm


  11. Aniceto Pereira India said,

    February 10, 2012 at 1:41 am

    Great blog posting. I\’ve enjoyed your entire posting on working in a barbershop and am now devouring (not literally) your section on Food and Drink in China.

    In India, the hours are pretty much the same, but the barbers are one-man shows, handling the cutting, washing, massaging; there isn\’t a hierarchy in the male barber shops, although there is one in the ladies salons here. The rates are also comparable. I like the idea of a wash before and after the haircut. It would be nice to see something like that here in India.

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