Growing up in the Midwest and attending the fine public schools of Shawnee Mission, KS, I never had the experience of a sleep away boarding school as a teenager. And I didn’t really expect to have it either. That is until Sister Xie, one the owners of the hairstyling school, a peppy businesswoman in her 50’s, discovered I had spent my first night in a local hotel, and insisted I move into the school. “The conditions aren’t great, but you can stay here for free. It will be better for your research too. When you come to Fuzhou, you stay with us! We’ll take care of you. Otherwise we aren’t friends anymore!” she told me with only a slight hint of sarcasm.
Since many of the students are not from Fuzhou, providing accommodations is a necessary component of the barber school experience. Since my main reason for being in Fuzhou was to spend time at the school, living “on campus” has given me extra unexpected access to my field site. The “dorm” is located in a hallway just above the school, with about 7 or 8 rooms for students. Each room has 3 bunk beds, accommodating up to 6 students. Students pay 10 RMB (just under $2 USD) per night for lodging. The bathrooms are communal, and located on the first floor of the building. The school employees an “Ayi” (auntie) who sleeps at the school and does chores round the clock. She is responsible for collecting boarding money from students, acting as the front desk’s night watchman, and keeping the school in a constant state of hyper-sanitation throughout the week. Ayi provides a washbasin, and a few hangers for each students which they can use to manually wash and dry their clothes. There is no lock on the door, but students have access to small lockers which they can use to secure any valuables they may bring.
It’s a slow season for the school, so on many nights I have my room to myself. However, for 4 nights, I did share it with 5 teenagers who were in an intensive weeklong hair dying clinic. Most of them had been in the industry for only a few months, and were undergoing training in order to expand their repertoire of skills, which translates to better monthly take-home pay. Sharing a room with a group of rural Fujian teenagers has both its perks and drawbacks. The perks include the obvious entrée it gave me into the lives of the stylists, plus a lot of streetfood and unsolicited cigarettes (cough, cough). The drawbacks were a constant orchestra of cell phone noises and music throughout the evening, as well as the fear of sudden inferno, which comes with sharing a bunk with a roommate who has no qualms about smoking in bed. (I had to pre-think my route in case the entire room were to go up in flames.)
It’s no Shangri-La, and it ain’t New England Boarding school…but hey, it’s clean, and comfortable (enough).