I got my hair cut by the American Dream on Sunday. As lightly chronicled in this blog, my hair is important to me. It’s a point of self expression that I enjoy dabbling with from time to time. Unfortunately, my method of outward expression – atypical cuts and unnatural colors – gets a little pricey sometimes.
For women, the doubled up service of a cut and color often kicks the salon price up to triple digits, and the level of experimentation I’m looking for usually requires the skills of a more senior stylist. Which, of course, means even more expensive pricing. For these reasons, I am extremely picky with who does my hair. “My stylist” OhTee moved to Vegas, so the person I trust the most with my hair simply isn’t an option. I went to a stylist my friend recommended, but the stylist reeked of pot, wore a slept-in “WANNA MAKE OUT” T-shirt, and told the receptionist to bump up the Kesha when one of the songs I abhor the most came on the radio. She used up the remains of the dye I brought and charged me for materials, and tried to give herself alibis for the lifting she wasn’t able to execute on my roots – talking to me like I’d never dyed my hair before and wouldn’t know the difference.
With MAGIC coming up next week, I finally got to a point in overdue-ness that I could not ignore my raven roots any longer. I took a chance on finding my next stylist and filtered Yelp for stars, close proximity, and one to two dollar signs.
That’s how I ended up at the ghettoest hair institution I’ve ever stepped foot in. “BL,” stylist/owner/receptionist was exactly on time, almost late, to open up his shop because his car broke down between his morning tennis session and my appointment. Fake plants decorated the fuse box. Misspellings riddled the prices advertised on the window. Different misspellings riddled the price list on the wall. The salon chairs were totally movable, not bolted down to the floor. Empty bowls from lunches past sat in the back room where BL washed my hair in the single sink.
But you know what? I love the job he did! We had spoken on the phone earlier and I told him I wanted to make my bangs blue. He said he’d buy the dye and I was all set to see him the next morning. As he settled in the morning of, he rifled through a box of dyes but came up short on blue. Apparently he had used up the last of his blue on his son. I was a little annoyed, so I started calculating how much Manic Panic I had left at home, and even texted Bill to see if he could hunt down some dye for me. I was burning down my phone’s battery looking up local beauty suppliers, when I started to see this as an opportunity for positive change.
I was limited to choosing a color that would play well with the blue left over in my hair, so I kept twirling my sunglasses in my fingers as I thought about what shade would go well with my wardrobe, my industry – something that would distract outside onlookers from any potential pimples or redness that might stake claims on my face. It became obvious – teal! I researched manufacturers of teal hair dye as BL tended to one of his many other walk-in clients (That place is popular!) during my QT under the hair dryer. Lo and behold, while BL was presenting alternative color swatches to me again, his second offer was a Joico teal. (Worth noting his first suggestion was my high school signature shade of fuchsia.)
You’re probably wondering why I’d compel myself to go to a place called “Designer Cuts” and come to trust them with my hair. It’s simple. I got tired of the overpriced junior and senior stylists I was dealing with at fancier salons. While I categorize my hair’s upkeep as an obvious aesthetic luxury, I view the service itself as a utility. I don’t need fancy things during the process, I just want my hair to look great.
Turns out, taking a chance on Designer Cuts also gave me some time to chop it up with some awesome cultural conversation. BL is a refugee from Lao. He came to California thirty years ago. BL studied with Vidal Sassoon, and toured the US working for a Paul Mitchell salon. That kind of pace wasn’t conducive to raising his family, though, so he started investing in home buying and opened up his own shop. He was very open in telling me how he lost four homes because he got “too greedy” (his words), so his new approach is to focus on simplifying and doing better for his business.
BL has two sons in college. Neither of them speaks Lao, and that was an indirect result of one of his parenting decisions. In the Laotian community (as with many Asian refugee populations), there’s a lot of gang activity, and BL wanted to make sure he kept his kids out of trouble. So instead of spending the weekends at typical Laotian family and community gatherings, BL’s sons were competing in tennis tournaments, the extracurricular BL encouraged them to focus on. Even though I intuitively know that small talk is a requisite skill of hair dressing, BL’s openness was almost alarming to me. He explained how when he spoke Lao to his sons in public, their body language showed that they were embarrassed. Especially at tennis tournaments. (I can only imagine. Tennis is just a white bread sport. How often do you see Laotians on the court?)
Growing up, I was surrounded by an Asian American immigrant community, but the makeup of those Asian ethnicities weighted more heavily toward Chinese and Indian. Of the backgrounds for my friends’ parents’ immigration into the US, they were relatively privileged. Motives were usually better opportunity and education. There was very little refugee representation among the friends I knew, and Lao was a culture I was only minutely aware of in high school. In college, Lao people got lumped in with all the other oft-forgot Southeast Asian refugee cultures in Ethnic Studies discourse.
It was nice talking to BL. Here’s a guy who came here because he had to, and he now owns his own business. His frank articulateness about his past struggles and raising two children with lesser-known senses of double consciousness is probably just an adaptation. I’d think thirty years in a country you fled to would be more challenging if you weren’t up front about what you need and what your goals are. His shop is just a ten-minute walk from my place, so it’s truly local. For all the consumerist guilt I hold in the world, supporting BL’s business gives me a tinge of redemption for supporting a localized, deep economy.
I love the haircut besides, and I’ll be seeing more of BL for my touch-ups and styling.