Dispatches from the motherland: Tony and the 短碎 gang

At the beginning of the year, I go to the barbershop down the street from my rental apartment and ask for a haircut. Spring Festival is a few days out, so there is a small queue outside because it’s bad luck to cut your hair during the new year. As that saying goes, “正月剃头死舅舅”: if you shave your head in the first month of the year, then your uncle will die. 

One of the Tonys (as barbers are called here in mainland China) points out a stool for me to sit on. I watch an old man teasing a white poodle. The poodle wears a burgundy sweater and white sneakers. It seems like any dog in Shanghai smaller than a Shiba Inu will find itself squeezed into a tiny outfit, complete with matching canine Converse All Stars.

I walk past this barbershop every day. Bright LED barber’s poles flank the entrance. It’s a couple of stores down from my favorite fruit and vegetable market. After Tony stows my coat in a locker, I plunk down in the chair and ask him to cut off all my hair.

Tony: Are you sure you want to cut it? I think long hair suits you better.

Me: Yes, I’m sure.

Tony: Why do you want to cut it off?

Me: Bad breakup. Need change.

Tony: It’s too drastic.

I make the assumption that he’s had many clients in the past instantly regret when the blades go snip, so I say: I promise I won’t cry.

Tony: How about just this much shorter?

He gestures out the length with his hands. It’s a short bob, not the close crop I am looking for. At this point, I’m not good at telling people what I want, so I say: Okay, fine.

While he’s cutting my hair, he tells me about the first time he gave a woman a short haircut. She had just gone through a bad breakup. As soon as he started chopping her hair, she began to sob. When I ask how short he had cut her hair, I expect him to point to the old man next to me getting his head shaved, but instead, he tells me: up to her shoulders. I imagine her hair was down to the floor before, otherwise why would anybody cry about something like that?

A few days later, I decide this short bob is not short enough for me. I want my hair to be even shorter! I go back to the barbershop, and Tony obliges. It seems he has a handful of very short haircuts in his arsenal, all for men: the full-on buzzcut for the no-fuss grandpas and the little boys with snot dribbling out of their noses, the crewcut for the millennial office worker, and the hairstyle sported by all his fellow Tonys, which he also gives me: buzzed above the ears, but left long and messy at the back and top. The old lady in the chair next to me gushes in admiration and asks Tony what this haircut is called. 短碎, he says. I am now a member of Tony’s 短碎 gang.

When I leave the barbershop, I can’t stop smiling. I feel lighter. I feel free! What a relief it is not to have my eyebrows yanked back by my ponytail! Not to wait for my hair to dry in a cold cold room because I haven’t got a hair dryer!

But soon it strikes me that the decision to cut my hair so short in the depth of winter is not well thought-out. Especially if you forget to wear a hat. Because winter in Shanghai is very, very cold, the kind you feel inside your bones.

One response to “Dispatches from the motherland: Tony and the 短碎 gang”

  1. I remember when I was 22 and living in New York and needed a cheap haircut and I went to Astor Place Hair and the stylist was an old Italian guy (maybe his name was Tony?). I told him I wanted a short bob and he said I had the rest of my life to have short hair and that I should have long hair because I was young! I left with a short bob


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