When you’re getting a haircut in a large Chinese city, it’s a rare event for your stylist to be of local extraction. With better educational and occupational opportunities available to urbanites, few choose hairstyling as a career path. But for rural Chinese, who lack the opportunities of urbanites, hairstyling offers an opportunity for employment and a life in the big city, and the lifestyle advantages it offers them due to the (still somewhat) centrally planned economy.
In rural Fujian, career trajectories usually follow 1 of 3 paths. For those who do well in junior high school and are able to advance to senior high and college, a big city career with its benefits and stability is within reach. For those who do not, the primary option is undocumented migration to a Western country or Japan, where employment is found primarily in either Chinese restaurants or factory labor. Going abroad has become so commonplace among the rural Fujian population that UChicago anthropologist Julie Chu has coined the term “emplacement” (as opposed to displacement), for those who are stuck, left behind in their home villages.
Work in the hairstyling industry falls into a residual third category: Those who didn’t do well enough in school to get a “legitimate” job, but who also do not posses the financial and social capital necessary to finance a trip abroad (which can cost upwards of $60,000 USD). Rather than migrate abroad, rural villagers in this category typically move to a nearby larger city, often where they have a friend or relative, and search for a suitable job. This path describes the majority of the students at the barber school where I’m staying.
One of the more interesting career paths I’m noticing is that of “international students.” These students aren’t international, per se. They are all Chinese, and from Fujian. But they have spent many years overseas, and return to China to train for a career in hairstyling. Thus far, I have met students returning from Spain, England, Italy, and Canada. The common theme is that they originally worked in “less desirable” industries such as Chinese restaurants and factories, and are now looking for a change of pace. They describe hairstyling as a “clean” industry, and one which allows for more expression of creativity, especially compared to the monotony of factory piecework or cooking sesame chicken. Since the training is both faster and cheaper in China, a return home presents a practical alternative to training abroad.
But in addition to the cost and speed of training in China, the return home has another instrumental dimension to it. Most of these aspiring international barbers plan to work the Chinese circuit of their respective countries. Throughout much of the world, hairstyling is an ethnically-segregated industry, not so much out of discrimination and prejudice, but rather as a result of culturally divergent tastes and fashions. Said one student who had lived in a small town in England for over 10 years, “There is a small population of Chinese in my town, yet not a single Chinese hairstylist. My plan is to open a salon, and then cater to all of the local Chinese clients.”
For others, the aim was a job in a Chinatown. From my own experiences abroad, I am well aware of the tribulations of milking a decent haircut out from between the throngs of a language barrier. Wherever there are ethnic concentrations of folks who do not speak the local language, there will be ethnic barbershops to fill this niche.