Advice for China Hopefuls

By “China Hopeful” I mean someone who is considering coming to China to study or teach (or whatever).

The advice I have to give isn’t as cliche as “bring deodorant” — I hope you all know that you should bring a year’s supply of deodorant if you’re planning to come live in China. It’s also not the “bring clothes if you’re tall or big” thing, because you’ll have a hard time finding clothes in your size here. It’s not even “study Chinese,” because nothing impresses upon you the importance of the issue as actually being here, immersed in the language. It’s something even harder to remedy once you’re here.

So this is my advice to you China hopefuls:

Before you come here, go to a good barber shop or salon in your home country. Go to some place that you know will do a good job. Some place that’s brightly lit. Get your haircut. Now here’s the key. After your haircut, take pictures of your freshly cut hair. From the front, from the side, from the back, the 3/4 angle, etc. Then, before you leave, get those pictures printed. Put them together on a special laminated “haircut card.” Trust me, you will use it.

I’ve been in China for close to four years, and my Chinese is pretty respectable. But how can I be expected to explain accurately in Chinese the kind of hairstyle I want when it’s not even the easiest thing in the world for me to do in English? It’s not just a translation issue. In any case, pictures help a lot.

To this day, I’ve never taken the advice above. That exlains why I keep getting bad haircuts. At least they’re cheap here.


John Pasden

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


  1. I found that a good trick is just to get used to having a crew cut… sure your students might tease you for looking like a monk or a gangster, but at least it’s difficult/impossible for the hairdresser to get it wrong 🙂

  2. My approach is to just wander up to one of those guys cutting hair on the side of the road, mutter something about wanting it a bit shorter round the back and sides, but leave a little length on top, and let them go to it. But then again, I once emailed home to Mum after a particularly bad haircut done that way, and her reply was, ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got curly hair. In a couple of weeks, nobody will notice.’ She was right. So straight-haired people may want to ignore me.

  3. After a year in China, having not followed this advice, I can now say that this may be the 11th commandment. The one that didn’t quite make the cut, “Thou shalt bring hairstyling pictures to China.” Every foreigner I know (especially the women) struggles with this one everytime they go to the haircutter (not just the 1st time). If you want to make a woman yell, cry, and hate China then take her to a hairdresser! At the very least bring a western magazine to the shop and point at something and say “yi yang”.

    John, excellent words of wisdom, nice catch!

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: March 9, 2004 at 10:11 am


    Good advice, but you don’t need all this bullshit. What you need is to find a decent haircut place. I was getting my hair cut every month for 9 months at this dive right by my school. I’d pay 10Y a haircut, and the Anhui barbers kept on fucking up my hair! Then I went to a salon on Sichuan Road, and paid 50Y, and my hair came out looking nice. So the lesson here: Never pay less than 50Y for a haircut in China! (Of course, I have typically straight, coarse Chinese hair, which the barbers might be accustomed to. “White” hair tend to be thinner and therefore curlier so that could be a problem. I have no advice for you if you have an afro!)

  5. Da Xiangchang,

    50rmb?! No way! A haircut is not worth that much to me. I’d rather take the “Get a bad haircut and let it grow out” approach, sort of like chriswaugh.

    Yes, you can get a good haircut if you pay enough, but you can also get a good haircut for 10rmb. The place I’ve been to the last two times is 10rmb. The first time I went I got a great haircut. The second time I went the first guy wasn’t there, so another guy did it. Even with a third guy describing the last haircut (he had seen it with his own eyes and remembered it), the new barber didn’t do a very good job.

    In a case like that, I think a visual aid would have helped.

  6. I had a dream where my hair got huge, like three feet tall. Then I figured out that there was actually all these little tree branches growing in there. so i took them out and tried to flush them down the toilet but they wouldn’t go.

    Maybe i need to cut my hair

  7. John, your hair always looked just fine to me.

    Alf, don’t forget that I am cutting your hair this time around…

  8. While I agree with John, I find that a great haircut emerges not only from a visual representation of the end product (for which a certain “mind’s-eye” simpatico is crucial) but also from a shared visceral notion of what the haircut means, vis--vis the customers lifestyle. With that in mind, I strive to present my stylist with not only a laminated picture (the “visual” aid), but also aural, kinesthetic and–dare I say–olfactory representations of my “esprit d’ coiffe” (if you will permit such a naughty linguistic transgression). In fact, nothing short of a full-blown multimedia lollapalooza, with lasers and possibly dogs, could capture the essence of my hair: highlighted, pomaded, gloriously full and disheveled.

  9. I just tell the guys on-campus “very short,” they go at me with various haircutting implements for about 20 minutes, and that’s that. They’re not bad, and they’re only RMB5.

  10. I had one nasty one at a Chinese hairdressers, and then decieded to always go to the Korean hairdressers where they speak fluent English (owner was brought up in the US). Sure it costs twice as much, but at least I dont have to walk around with a ‘bowl cut’ for 3 months.

  11. Korean hairdressers don’t speak fluent English in Korea. I know, I’ve been here 7.5 years. At least I can get a good haircut now that I have some decent ability in Korean.

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