I’ve been getting my hair cut every Friday by the same person whenever I’ve been in France over the course of the past two years, but I still can’t get her to cut it as short as I want. I’m an old man and am mostly bald, and my preference is to have every bit of hair removed. However, Nadine always sends me out the door with some very short hair left. At first, I thought it was because my French isn’t good enough to explain exactly what I want. However, one day I was sitting in the chair. Nadine cut my hair as we chatted about tout et rien–nothing in particular. Suddenly I realized that she understands what I want just fine–she just doesn’t agree that I should wear what little I have left that short. Cutting hair is her métier, and she knows what looks best, right?
In general, you can get what you need in life most places, even if you don’t speak the language–pointing at things and a friendly smile will get you a long way. Since I like to be totally bald, I need to get my hair cut frequently, and since I’m on the road a lot, that means that I have gotten my hair cut all over the world. I’ve come across a way to explain what I want without words: I carry a picture of Yul Brynner on my phone, and I just point at it, point at my head, and of course smile politely. At the moment I’m in a little town on the west coast of Japan, and I was feeling kinda shaggy, so I snuck out at lunch today and walked to a little barbershop down the street. The interaction went like this–if it’s in italics, it happened in Japanese, which you’ll soon see that I don’t speak at all:
Me, entering empty little shop: Excuse me?
Little old lady comes out, sees me, immediately looks worried, and disappears. Young lady comes out.
Me: English-language-do know-do question?
Her: aaaah, I’m sorry, no.
Me: pull out phone, point at picture of Yul Brynner, smile.
Her: ah, OK. あなたが散髪をしたいですか？
Me: Excuse me, Japanese-language-do know-not.
What followed was a wonderful experience. Getting your hair cut in Japan can be really nice, and I highly recommend it as a non-touristy sort of experience. The routine can vary, but my haircut today involved warm shaving cream, hot towels, a razor, and a backrub–not an unusual sequence of events in a Japanese barbershop.
Her: Do you like it?
Me: This-do, enjoy-is!
Her: You speak Japanese so well!
Me: No—skill yet is-not!
(In many, many, many cultures, the right answer to You speak X well! is always, always, always some version of no, I don’t! Thanking the person for the compliment just reveals a lack of understanding of the culture. Japan is one of those places.)
Smiles all around. I paid, her toddler came out and we waved bye-bye a lot–cute is the case, isn’t it so?–pretty much the most useful Japanese expression I know–and back to work I went.
It amazes me that despite the fact that I’ve spent a grand total of 11 weeks of my life in Japan over the course of the past 15 years or so, I’m able to pretty much get all of my needs met here despite not speaking the language at all, while in France, I remain befuddled by the most basic tasks–getting phone service, keeping phone service, buying a nail file, figuring out how to get to work when there’s a train strike. I have to say, though: I love the challenges. Accomplishing the tiniest things in France can give me enormous satisfaction, and really adds to my enjoyment of the expat experience. Check it out–there can be something liberating about being completely dans le brouillard–“at sea.”
Useful Japanese vocabulary:
- kawaii, ne! Cute, huh! Use it for kids and dogs–great conversation-starter. Yes, the ii has to be long.