Barber Shop Antics

21 May 2007

If you were one of the low-paid employees of a Chinese barber shop, would you go along with having to learn a dance routine and do it in public right in front of the shop? That’s apparently what I witnessed from my taxi yesterday:

Barber Shop Dancing Barber Shop Dancing

Speaking of barber shops, Ben Ross has been working in a Chinese barber shop. No, it’s not some kind of weird role created just for a foreigner; he’s doing exactly the same work that any young Chinese guy would. The project has taken over his life and his blog. The posts thus far are:

My new job…in a Barbershop!
First day at the Barbershop
Day 2: Exhausted
I may work in a barbershop, but I’m not a barber.
Johnny Be Good
The Huan Ying Guang Lin Meeting
The Year of the (Guinea) Pig
Snakes in a Barbershop
I get highlighted!
Where are all the women?
Miscellaneous Updates
Employee BBQ!!!
White people with big shelves
Facts and Figures: Hours per year
Corruption in the Barber Shop

I know it’s a little abnormal to post so many links to one blog all in one post, but I think what Ben is doing is worthy of all the attention it gets. To me, this kind of thing is the epitome of interesting blogging on China.

I actually thought of doing the same thing before, but I never had the time to go through with it. A friend of mine (let’s call him “J-L”) actually did the same thing once. J-L had a hard time convincing a Chinese restaurant to hire him (the manager couldn’t understand why he would want to do such a lowly job), but he finally got a position in the kitchen cutting vegetables all day… until they fired him for being too slow. So Ben’s blog series is the first time I’ve seen it done and documented so well. I have a lot of respect for Ben for sticking to it for so long (and not getting fired).

When I thought about doing something similar, I initially considered somewhere like KFC or McDonalds (OK, I’m a sucker for irony), but I guess it would be hard to work at one of those places without getting special treatment or promoted to a special position. A barber shop is somewhere I’d definitely not want to work.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Will he be tempted to cut mole hair? I would. Nice segue, John. I was all wondering what kind of dance would make me want to get my hair cut then, bam, you introduce me to a new blog.

    I read his blog and I gotta say. Nice stuff. I will be going back there for sure. Keep up the good work, Ben. and John.

  2. Checking in from Hong Kong International Airport, in between Dong Guan and South Korea. The neighbor to an “Axis of Evil” will be 3.5 hours away when I jump onto the plane in a few minutes. This airport is a shopping mecca, just checked in at Gucci, Chanel, Shanghai Tang, Sound & Vision, and about the most exciting offering was from Shanghai Tang. The food court is an entire floor and the most popular restaurant, especially with the foreigners from Australia, America and France, is a packed Burger King joint. Popeye’s Chicken is also in the house, but much less popular, even though their Cajun French Fries were looking mighty. Hong Kong and Mainland China have been fabulous a week into the Asia buying trip, so let’s aim for the same plus in S.Korea and Beijing. Looking forward to connecting in Shanghai. – wilsonRACINGMIX

  3. Jeremy Bollman Says: May 21, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    Great Blog!,.. Thanks for the introduction.

  4. I seriously think that Ben Ross blog is one of the best blogs.

    I read it today and I admire him for doing the trainee position in a barbershop.

  5. Interesting. Ben gives a good perspective on life in China. Maybe he could become the George Plimpton of China. Thanks for the links; I read them all.

  6. I thought that Ben said that there were few women working in barber shops, yet the picture that you posted shows 100% females. Maybe it’s not a barber shop?

  7. Down here in Hainan barber shops with all female staffs tend to offer…..other…..services……

  8. Nicki, but isn’t it obvious that they ‘offer other services’ due to the fact there’s a row of board looking women sitting down all the time….the pink lighting and the fact that they only open later in the day/at night?

    While I do admire him doing this to have a bit of an idea of what it’s like, it feels rather cynical as well. I can’t really explain why I feel this, it might be part of the doing it for only 1 month as he doesn’t really have to live on the wages that he’s earning from the job. It’d be much better if he had to live on the wages that he was earning, lived in the dormitory etc. and immersed himself a lot more in it.

    And the photos as well seem to be ‘look at me clowning around with the low paid Chinese workers.’ I think it remains to be seen whether this ‘experiment’ will change his life in any way shape or form…..

  9. Almost all service businesses, restaurants, clothing, barbershops do this kind of military-like drilling at the change of shifts, for example at 5:30 pm before the dinner crowd.

    I’ve seen jump roping, silly songs, yelling, and the craziest of things, sometimes the staff really gets into it! Then again, most days they seem to be asleep while the manager goes over something.

  10. doom,

    You know I’m super slick with the segues. I’ll teach you the art sometime if you’re lucky.

  11. Josh,

    While I do admire him doing this to have a bit of an idea of what it’s like, it feels rather cynical as well. I can’t really explain why I feel this, it might be part of the doing it for only 1 month as he doesn’t really have to live on the wages that he’s earning from the job. It’d be much better if he had to live on the wages that he was earning, lived in the dormitory etc. and immersed himself a lot more in it.

    Yeah, I do think that’s a valid point. No matter what, though, he could never really be treated the same as the Chinese employees simply because he’s obviously not Chinese. So does that mean he should not even try? I don’t think so, as long as he keeps his experience in perspective and doesn’t blow it out of proportion in his mind. I don’t think he will.

  12. Well no, I don’t think that he could ever be fully treated like a Chinese person but I still think that there are things that he could do that would mean that he’s less different from the people who are working there. And meaning that he has a lot less of the worries ie financial than the people who work there.

    In the UK there was someone who did an experiment a bit similar where she lived in different parts of the UK for like 3 months each time trying to live on the minimum wage and seeing how hard it was. She only spent what she earnt etc. while with Ben he is doing it for quite a short time and only having the ‘work aspect’ of it before going home to a comfortable western apartment. Anyways, that’s my thoughts.

  13. Actually, I find Ben’s blog remarkably — and refreshingly — un-cynical about “the Chinese experience” or whatever you want to call it. Too many of the China blogs I read (though not this one) let that “can you believe how crazy Chinese people are?” tone creep into – or completely take over – their writing. But Ben seems to actually be treating his fellow employees (and boss) with respect and dignity. As an American who’s about to move to China, I’m happy to read such a perspective.

  14. This all makes me wish I had kept better notes during that month I worked as a jizz-mopper in that cute massage parlor in Hunan.

    I do think Josh is right though, if Ben really wants to do this right he should burn his passport, give away all his stuff, forget he has an education, cut off all contact with his family and loved ones, change his identity, and then dedicate himself to cutting hair and living in a dormitory for the rest of his life. Then maybe he could provide us with a little insight. I hate when people are all half-assed about things.

  15. I’ve always imagined crappy minimum wage work in China is just a crappier version of crappy minimum wage work in the US. Been there, done that, don’t need no more of it.

  16. But Ben seems to actually be treating his fellow employees (and boss) with respect and dignity.

    That’s what jumped out at me. If Ben was in the US, living a normal life, would he report on his job like it was some sort of TV show or soap opera? No, just like I rarely blog about my own job, or John about his. I think you can’t say that Ben is completely immersing himself in the barbershop because he has turned it into a stage that he is reporting on. But that’s OK because I don’t think Ben would claim to be “authentic” or “native”; that’s a straw man that many people are building for their own amusement.

    I think, ultimately, that what Ben proves is what Mike said above: low wage jobs and people just gettin’ by are universal experiences.

  17. I understand that I don’t have the same views about it as the majority of people. Something else I feel is that in the beginning he didn’t mention the name of the shop and even gave his co-workers pseudonyms. He then proceeded to tell all his friends etc. to come and it’s a bit weird. I also feel that by the way that he is writing this as it happens, it means that it’s a bit like a reality tv place where people can go and see him cutting hair etc. I know with blogs people want to read it ‘as it happens’ but I think it would be much better if he blogged after he had finished the whole experiment(even if he did it on the same days as it happened etc but the next month) so there would be less ‘interference in it.

    I do appreciate that he’s working hard this month and also that his Chinese is good enough to do this, and Doom I wasn’t suggesting that he do all those things. I was saying that he is only doing it for one month and he should immerse himself more in it and try and live like the others in the shop for that month on what they earn. I seem to remember that for the BBQ they spent like 300RMB on food etc. It wasn’t explained whether they all had to contribute some money to this or whether the boss paid for this.

  18. […] wrote the following on Sinosplice While I do admire him doing this to have a bit of an idea of what it’s like, it feels rather […]

  19. I’ve had several jobs like that here in Taiwan over the years, but I wasn’t blogging about them at the time. Is there a greater distance between “ordinary people” and foreigners in mainland China?

  20. I can converse in Japanese and Indonesian as Asin Languages but I am keen to get a start on Mandarin I am going to be in Dalian and Hainan November till first week January got any advice

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