Yesterday I visited a barbershop in the TuanJieHu neighborhood of Beijing. I had been told about the place from a stylist I know from Fujian. In his early 20’s, he had migrated to Beijing, and worked in the TuanJieHu barbershop for several years, before returning home. When I was in Nanping, he had given me the WeChat of his friend A Bo, who was still working in TuanJieHu.
While waiting for A Bo, I struck up conversation with a 27-year-old stylist from a village outside of Harbin. When he was 13, his parents migrated to Beijing, bringing him along. Back then, he told me, it was easier for migrants to attend Beijing schools (attending Beijing schools typically requires Beijing hukou). His parents had to pay a fine in order for him to attend, but the fines weren’t as prohibitively expensive as they are today. Beijing has some of the best schools in China, and attending one (as opposed village schools) could have been a jumping off point of opportunity. So how did it work out?
“I quit school. Didn’t even finish 初二 (8th grade),“ he told me. “I have no regrets whatsoever (一点后悔都没有). My older brother and sister, they both have college degrees. But you know what, they can’t make as much money with their jobs as I can as a hairstylist. And for Chinese people, making money is the most important thing.”
From the top down, China appears to be a society in which education is the paramount vehicle to success. The higher you score within the educational machine, the better your career will be. While this is plausibly the case at the top, encouraging immense individual educational investments in terms of time and effort, the system looks different from below.
Think of it like the NBA. The goal of an NBA franchise is to win enough games in the regular season to make the post-season, then advance in the postseason, and hopefully win a championship. But not every team can make the playoffs. For some teams, the window closes at the end of the season. For others it’s apparent almost from the start. Rather than strive to win as much as they can to close out the regular season, the lowest ranking teams may opt to drop out, or “tank.” They stop expending resources into the current season, and instead focus on the next. This is because at this point, any additional success is moral only, and doesn’t provide any tangible benefit to the goal of making the playoffs and winning a championship. However, by cutting ones losses (figuratively, not literally), a team will improve its draft position. This can put them in a better position than had they continued to ride out the rest of the season.
Such is the case with hairstylists, who operate under the same calculus. It’s rare that I meet a hairstylist who has attended attended any senior high (高中), and it’s almost unheard of to meet one who has graduated. On the median, most Chinese hairstylists probably leave school during either the second or third year of junior high (初中). By that point in their education, they are literate and as institutionally competent as will ever be required in the service industry. They recognize that even if they continue to push through the educational machine, they won’t reach high enough to make much tangible gain. It would be like striving to go .500 and get swept in the first round of the playoffs, and in the process missing out on the chance to build your team with high draft picks.
Hairstyling is a craft (手艺) which takes time to develop, often 2-3 years before a stylist can earn an income much higher than subsistence level. Beginning the process at age 15 as the stylist quoted above did will lead to quicker success than investing further in education, when it is apparent a higher degree is not a possibility. And sometimes it even beats out a higher degree as well, at least according to this stylist who is seeing more returns on his training than his college educated older siblings. Do you wanna persevere in order to still miss the playoffs? Or would you rather cut out early for the chance at the next LeBron…or Darko Milicic?