Field Notes From Rural Africa: Do Asians Care Too Much About Physical Looks?

Field Notes From Rural Africa: Do Asians Care Too Much About Physical Looks?
Photo Credit: James Emery@Flickr CC BY 2.0

By Xiaochen Su (Su is a Chinese-American currently based in Iringa, Tanzania. He has lived in places including China, Japan, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and the US. He currently works for an NGO that supports local farmers in Tanzania.)

I live in Iringa, Tanzania, a little highway stop on the cross-continental highway linking the big ports of the African east coast with the mining districts of the continental interior. Here, drivers of long-distance trucks usually take a break and grab a bite in one of the myriad eateries on the town’s dusty two-lane main street.

Sometimes, before they head back out to the highway, they drop by one of the barbershops in the back alleys (luxuriously termed “salons” in local lingo), to polish, from the perspective of a non-local, an already cleanly shaven head.

Indeed, local males display great concern for the amount of hair (or lack of) on their heads, and it seems not uncommon for many to pop by the barber once every week to get rid of excess hair. It may be also because there are so many “high-end" male salons in town, where customers are treated to leather sofas and personal TV screens in air-conditioned rooms, as heads are being shaved and then washed.

Photo Credit: David Rosen@Flickr CC BY 2.0

Photo Credit: David Rosen@Flickr CC BY 2.0

In my eight months of residence in this truck stop, I have been an occasional customer to these “high-end” salons, much to the confusion and horror of the barbers manning their stations.

The reason for the their dismay is simple. When the Asian sits down on the leather chair, shoving his head of full of soft, curvy hairs under the gaze of the entire salon, the barber suddenly realizes that, he, going through dozens of heads a day, has no idea how to go in, where to start or what to do.

After all, no matter how luxurious the salons are designed to be, the local haircuts remain uncompromisingly humble. The barber never uses more than an electric shaver, and the techniques are never more complex than continuously running through the hair with the said shaver.

People come in with similar haircuts, and generally leave with a similar cut, only slightly differing in length on the top, sides and back. Sometimes hair oil is applied at the end, but most times, the cut is completed with just a simple shampoo scrub. There seems to be no customer dissatisfaction with this modest treatment.

That is not to say the local barbers are fundamentally unskilled. Instead, it has more to do with the fact that the average African’s hair is not particularly suitable for styling. The hairs are genetically hard and not so malleable, so attempts at being creative with what is on top of one’s head often involves donning a stylized wig.

Of course, for most local males, who neither see the need nor have the financial resources to keep up with such superficial pursuits, the average haircut becomes not much beyond shaving off extra hair with an electric shaver. So, local barbers never really needed to learn any other haircutting techniques.

With foreign clientele so few and far in between, foreign males pretty much get the same treatment.

Photo Credit: joepyrek@Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo Credit: joepyrek@Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Today’s haircut I received from the barber was no different.

After sitting me down on the chair, the clearly nervous barber hesitantly made some hand gestures to inquire how I would like to have my hair done.

“Very short on the sides and back, slightly longer on the front,” I casually quipped back in broken Swahili.

The vagueness of the comments obviously stumped him, as he went to grab his electric shaver by near-natural reflex. He did not do anything spectacularly differently though. It was still running the shaver through the hair, but he carefully kept the shaver hovering a few inches above my head, as opposed to putting it right next to the skin, as he would do for a local.

20 minutes later, the result was a still humble haircut, a round shave, but with a few inches of stubble evenly across my head. It was achieved at the expense of the barber’s still shaking right hand that had tried its very best to remain steadfast in its mid-air hovering. Only with my verbally expressed gratitude for the tremendous effort did the barber’s perpetually nervous expression finally dissolve into a genuine smile of relieved happiness.

For me, being used to living in big Asian cities, the local salon’s humble haircut is an interesting point of reflection.

Asian cultures place a high premium on distinctive physical attractiveness because it is a weapon in competition for not just better mates, but better jobs. To create individualized sense of beauty, hair styling has involved into an art where anything short of perfection in catering to customer demand often spells doom for the salon in question. Customer complaints are rampant and words of mouth can easily put a perfectly adequate barber out of business.

New Asian immigrants have no qualms about taking their extreme care for hair where they went. As (East) Asians typically separate themselves from other races, so do salons catering to Asian clientele. There is never a shortage of Asians living abroad who explicitly opine on non-Asian barbers to be “ignorant of specific needs in Asian hair."

Yet, getting another “humble" cut from the local salon today, I wonder whether the Asian “one-upmanship" regarding physical beauty, in particular their hairdo, is really that worthy of close adherence.

Sure, expats of all backgrounds tend to note that the same concern for beauty is not necessary in these parts of rural Africa since “there really isn’t anyone to impress." But would the lack of a perfect haircut really appall others so much in a major Asian city that one would fundamentally be at an irreversible disadvantage in any socio-economic setting?

Here, as anywhere else, a certain amount of good physical presentation is needed to make good impressions on others. But locals have shown that good presentation does not need to be elaborated. For the average male, a clean, evenly shaved head can be just as presentable as a full head of hair custom-trimmed, colored and gelled to perfection.

This focus on the superficial presentation of the crafted-to-be-prefect physical facade permeates all parts of Asian culture. As everyone attempts to achieve the next level of perfection in their physical outlook, less and less resources and time are devoted to more productive efforts to improve what is within.

Becoming content with a simple buzz cut for the hair could be the first step to break that spell of Asian societies’ collective mentality to demand better looks at the expense of substance.

Ultimately, it is not the perfect haircut that defines the person, but how one handles the not-so-perfect reality going on right below that haircut.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Joey Chung

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published on the author’s blog here: Questioning Asian Physical Vanity in the Context of an African Hair Cut