How I Discovered Neighborhood and Care in Vietnamese Hair Salons


This 12 months, I returned to my hair salon for the primary time since November 2019. The decor was utterly revamped, with a grunge-retro vibe that felt barely too cool for me. My stylist—a pleasant, shag-haired redhead who I’ve seen off-and-on since my grad college days—peered at my ends. She’s gracious, however I questioned if she observed the wreckage I might left after three years of at-home cuts. Through the pandemic, I informed myself, “It is simply hair. It’s going to develop again.” However after all, it wasn’t simply hair in any respect.

Like different Individuals of Shade, many Vietnamese ladies have an advanced relationship with hair. Joyful and exuberant at occasions, but additionally edged with trauma. In some novels, particularly these of a post-Vietnam-Battle period, you will learn descriptions of East Asian hair uncomfortably near fetishization—lengthy, silky, gleaming, blacker than evening. The darkness of East Asian hair is handled as a metaphor for inscrutability, and in some instances, for seduction—image a femme fatale striding throughout a room in a crimson gown. It is a look that, for some, has turn out to be a shorthand for Orientalism. Add bangs, and also you would possibly transfer into the territory of manga schoolgirls briefly skirts. Reduce your hair right into a bob, and also you would possibly turn out to be relegated to matronly auntie standing. One ex-boyfriend would inform—warning—me that he would not discover me as engaging with brief hair. He mentioned, “I might really feel such as you had been turning into your mother.” For a lot of East Asian American ladies who discover themselves frequently brushing in opposition to stereotypes, hair issues.

The ladies in my household are obsessive about hair. After they watch Korean dramas, they observe the shine and shade of the actresses’ locks. Whereas visiting, if I sit nonetheless for too lengthy in a single place, my mom or aunt sits subsequent to me with the barber’s black comb they carry on the lounge finish desk, operating it by way of my hair. They have been recognized to drive an hour or extra to go to their favourite Vietnamese stylists. As of late, they lower one another’s hair as a substitute of constructing the trek. The heyday of the hair salon, like so many rituals from my childhood, is a factor of the previous. And but I bear in mind it vividly.

Hairdresser applying heat protecting spray on hair of female client before making curls with hot tools

Saturday mornings in Florida, my grandmother hauled me away from bed and pushed a frilly gown in my palms. She tightened my hair into two buns on all sides of my head. The ladies in my household would emerge in clothes normally discovered behind their closet—those they could not put on at their weekday manufacturing unit jobs. They emitted a fog of fragrance—scents from Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder, and Clinique stuffed the room. Their hair was immaculate. As soon as I requested why they took a lot time on the point of go to a salon and bought a unclean look in response. The implicit message: We don’t give our second-best to our group.

We drove an hour to St. Petersburg, the place there was a big Vietnamese American inhabitants. My grandfather and uncles dropped us off on the salon, then sped off to the cafes the place they might drink bittersweet cà phê đá or smoke outlets the place they purchased the forbidden cigarettes their wives hated. Whereas the ladies in my household waited for his or her flip within the salon chairs, I sat close by with a lychee-flavored soda purchased from the grocery subsequent door. As a toddler, my grandmother normally lower my hair on a kitchen chair within the yard, by no means aspiring to waste cash on a child’s lower.

So, for years, I used to be a spectator on the Vietnamese salons.

I watched ladies shooing youngsters out from underfoot, typically bribing them with individually wrapped fruit gummies. They might commerce gossip and recipes, typically leaving out an important secret ingredient, as a result of generosity is aware of some bounds. They complained about bosses, celebrated their youngsters’ acceptance into elite faculties, and typically bemoaned husbands who didn’t deal with them because the queens they had been. When discussing their troubles, they hissed, “This is able to by no means occur in Vietnam.”

Within the background, Paris by Night time, a Vietnamese selection present, performed. Typically the stylists would sing alongside as they streaked dye into the hair. Normally, somebody was reheating a plate of cơm tấm within the again, which made the salon odor heavenly. Whereas ready for the dye to set, a grandma sat placidly dipping her spring rolls right into a plastic container of peanut sauce. These haircuts had been an inexpensive value to pay for a day within the firm of girls who shared your historical past—a luxurious for my circle of relatives, residing so removed from their homeland.

These haircuts had been an inexpensive value to pay for a day within the firm of girls who shared your historical past—a luxurious for my circle of relatives, residing so removed from their homeland.

Whereas the stylists completed their hair, I flipped by way of vogue magazines like VogueGlamour, and InStyle. The standard cowl celebrities had been Christie Brinkley, Gwenyth Paltrow, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. If there was somebody who seemed like me—East Asian, not Vietnamese, as a result of I didn’t hope for the specificity of that illustration—they may seem in a cut-out silhouette on a avenue type web page. It is disingenuous to say that I processed any of this at seven or eight. I do not suppose I noticed the dearth as certainly one of cultural illustration however as an inner lack. I wished to look extra just like the individuals I noticed within the magazines: cool, aloof, and indisputably glamorous.

So after I was allowed to perm my hair on the Vietnamese salon on the age of 9, I couldn’t sleep the evening earlier than out of pleasure. After we arrived, the stylist whisked me right into a silver chair with a plastic cowl that smacked in opposition to my thighs each time I moved and draped me with a skinny plastic apron. It was unbearably sizzling that day, however I bit down any complaints, grateful to have this wedge into maturity. The chemical compounds stung my scalp, and the warmth of the overhead lamp meant for setting the curls felt prefer it was baking me alive. And but, I stayed put and continued to web page by way of my magazines. Two hours later, my hair was dried and sprayed inside an inch of its life, reeking of chemical compounds. It was additionally 4 inches shorter because of the spring of the curl. The ladies within the salon gushed over me. “She seems to be like Mariah Carey!” they mentioned. “So grownup,” my mother informed me, virtually wistfully, cupping the ends of my hair along with her palm. If a fourth-grader may strut, I strutted.

Hairdresser applying smoothing, hydraiting mask that provides great moisturizing benefits on damaged hair of female client

Monday at college, I glanced out shyly behind my curtain of curls (now somewhat flat and fuzzy on account of my incapacity to type it). I hoped for compliments, any brush of approval over how totally different I seemed. As a substitute, a trainer gave me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “Too brief, huh? It’s going to develop out, honey.” She mistook my eagerness for disgrace, and someplace alongside the best way, I accepted that disgrace and clipped it to my expertise of hair.

All through school, graduate college, and shitty first jobs, I spent far more cash than I ought to have on hair. It was dyed each shade (from mahogany to violet), lower in bangs, shortened to pixie-length, waved, and straightened. I visited many stylists through the years, a few of which had been one-time affairs, whereas others turned longer relationships that fizzled after I moved to a different metropolis.

However I’ve hardly ever been glad with my haircuts, regardless of the prowess of my stylists. It is limp and by no means appears to collect sufficient form round my spherical face, except I take an hour or extra to wrestle it into waves. I as soon as requested my good friend, an exquisite Korean American lady with a simple coiffure she hadn’t modified since highschool, what her secret was. She mentioned, slowly and patiently, “Effectively, you discover an Asian hair stylist, after all.”

Hairdresser applying shampoo diluted in water and washing hair

I sought out Asian American hairstylists, who all did a terrific job, however I discovered not one of the experiences compelling sufficient to repeat them. Many of the salons had been the identical: impeccably clear and gleaming with silver fixtures, but chilly and impersonal. Nobody talked to one another. The music was low and tinkly. I could not odor a whiff of anybody’s lunch. In fact, I believe most individuals need the sterility of a contemporary salon.

I spotted that possibly it wasn’t my hair or the haircuts that summoned such vacancy within me. I used to be lacking the Vietnamese salons themselves. My thoughts jogged again to the cacophony of voices, the best way all my senses lit on getting into. What I felt—what the ladies in my household felt—once we opened these salon doorways was hope. They had been investing in themselves for a number of hours, away from the calls for of jobs, childrearing, and operating households crowded with generations. Positive, it was only a haircut. Nevertheless it was additionally a chance to be nonetheless and served for as soon as. They might have gone to the native Supercuts and gotten a trim for a fraction of the worth and problem, however they selected to make that drive each few months anyway. Typically we’ll journey far to seek out group, even when the promise is fleeting.

I have not discovered the identical expertise anyplace within the Midwestern city the place I dwell now, which has a 6% Asian inhabitants, however I have not stopped trying. And typically, the intimacy of the Vietnamese salons of my youth unexpectedly finds me.

Typically we’ll journey far to seek out group, even when the promise is fleeting.

Lately, my mother came visiting for every week. She tagged alongside when my six-year-old daughter bought her hair lower to her shoulders, oohing and ahhing over the change in her child face, abruptly lengthened and formed by the brand new type. That afternoon, Mother requested if I’d give her a trim, saying she did not wish to pay anybody to take a few inches off. I settled her in a chair within the yard and bought out a pair of kitchen shears. I snipped somewhat right here and there. I used to be scared of reducing an excessive amount of off.

Quickly, my daughter burst out of our facet door to satisfy us within the yard. “What are you doing?” she requested. “Can I assist?”

I informed my daughter she may maintain Grandma’s hand. “Ensure it is even,” my mother mentioned. Her fingers itched to take the scissors herself, a gesture of cussed self-reliance I acknowledged in myself.

“Sit nonetheless,” I informed her.

I checked the ends repeatedly. Then, once we had been all happy, I brushed the strands from my mother’s shirt. She stood, admiring herself with the hand mirror I introduced out. Her different hand nonetheless held my daughter’s tightly, the early morning solar shining on their new cuts—one shaded the colour of a crow’s wing and one the deep, heat hue of roasted chestnuts. My mom and my daughter twirled somewhat within the grass. Round us, pushed by the gust of wind, hair clippings scattered. They edged previous our ankles, into the rocky path close to the patio, up across the low-hung birdhouse full of twigs, and past the fence separating us from the surface world.


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