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The Garden

What Are We Looking At

by Chris Wu


I’m sitting in the chair, looking in the mirror. There is nothing else to do but look. I always get the stylists who hate talking. Which is fine by me. I could use the time in silence. Pretend to meditate. Lower my heart rate.

Since I started getting haircuts on my own, I’d have anxiety. I would boil underneath the robe. The robe covering everything underneath, so that I was just a floating head. The great and powerful Oz before it was a show about men getting raped in prison. I’d worry if there was an earthquake and the stylist would lose her balance and stab me in the neck with scissors. Or if the stylist was having a shitty day or didn’t have a good night sleep, and slips up by cutting off my ear.

I once got stuck with a stylist who started out chatty. She had blue hair and shook my hand with a broad red smile. She told me her name and asked for mine twice. She wanted to know everything about my life, but I’d only answer in clips. I felt her expectation, it was an overwhelming burden to continue the conversation. Soon the words came to a halt. And her resentment filled the space like hairspray. I’m in a torture seat, restrained. And she has an arsenal of sharp weapons.

From the author:

"Getting my hair cut has always been a terrifying experience. I get very anxious sitting in that spinning chair, with the robe constricting my neck and a person standing over me with a sharp pair of scissors."

"I also stay in my head a lot during haircuts. I think having a mirror in front of you with what looks like a detached floating head of yourself might do that."

Today is an acceptable result in stylist roulette. He is Asian, white t-shirt and jeans, teetering on the border between hipster and FOB. His name is Joey, but his License from the Department of Consumer Affairs, the flimsy piece of paper that they all tape in the bottom corner of their mirror, has the name Jinho Park.

I lucked out. He doesn’t feel the need to talk. I feel no pressure. Maybe he has trouble with the art of conversation in English. In any case, he asks me how I like my hair. I tell him I’m not sure, even though I’ve been getting my hair cut the same way for the past decade, and I say that I usually like the sides short, like maybe a 2, even though I know I want it exactly at 2, and to just take a little bit off the top. He asks me when the last time was that I cut my hair. I remember exactly it was the day of my father’s birthday, and I was planning on calling him after my haircut, because it was always stressful to talk to him and so I wanted all of my obligations out of the way. But I overstate the time by a few weeks so that he might think he would need to cut more than he should. Because the last thing I want is to be here all day, with him spending all this time getting my hair perfect, then asking what I thought and it looks too long and I don’t say anything because I would just rather leave. So he folds the piece of toilet paper around my neck and places the robe over me and I sit there and watch my face.

I’m surprised to see an Asian face. Even though I know I am Asian. It’s a sad moment. My face looks swollen, like it’s soaked in a tub of water for too long. My nose squashed. Acne scars mock my face and two small pimples already are looking to add insult to injury. My eyes look heavy. I open them wide like I’m holy cow shocked. Stretch my eyelids open a bit, maybe they’re tight and just need a little loosening up. My eyes wander down below the mirror. The wall is plastered with cut-outs of models from magazines. Most of them are shirtless men. Afterall, we are in West Hollywood, right by my apartment. My eyes caress over their sculpted bodies and land on their faces. Familiar faces. Not recognizable in person, but recognizable in parts. With their chiseled jawlines and straight noses, eyebrows that form over the ridge of piercing blue eyes. I feel a lump in my throat, one which punches the roof of my mouth and sends my eyeballs back up to the mirror. Where I see my face again. And in relief contrast, I see a model portrait of imperfection.

The first time I studied my face, I was getting terrible acne. I had been washing my face with bathroom soap, which left my face dry and peeling. I had even been using body lotion on my face, which inevitably made my face break. Completely broken. I didn’t know any better. My parents never showed me proper skin care. I placed my face right up next to the mirror, millimeters from touching, and I’d inspect the landscape of it. Way up close. My eyeball searching. Like I was looking into a microscope. I was shocked to find that there were holes in my face. Massive pores clogged with gunk. I was disgusted.

Since then, the mirror has been a reluctant friend to me. Cruel and abusive, but ultimately telling me the hard truth. When I was in college, getting a haircut, I noticed a mole formation on my face that looked like a constellation. Five small moles in a row. Orion’s Belt. I had never noticed them before in my life and I was getting worried that they popped up overnight. I began to wonder if people had always seen them and been woefully silent. Out of respect. Or pity. How could these moles be right there and yet I had never seen them?

"I don't particularly like talking while getting a haircut, either, so I have a lot of thoughts I keep to myself. I think this story might be what I would say if I really just let everything tumble out at the barber shop."

"I remember once giving my younger brother a haircut when we were still teenagers. My parents were out of town and he couldn't wait another day for my mom to return and give him a haircut. So I offered to try. I had never cut hair before but I thought it couldn't be too hard. For some reason he agreed with my logic and let me touch his hair with the hair clipper my mom always used on us."

After I moved to Los Angeles, a barber asked me during a haircut how long I wanted my sideburns. He gave me a high option and a low option. I didn’t care, so I compromised and said half-way. He measured using his comb as a benchmark, from each ear lobe, then shaved off the right amount on each side. He stood back and looked at me, the way my mother would do when she used to give me haircuts, and he kept going back to adjust my sideburns. I wondered what he was doing. Afterwards, alone, I stared in the mirror. I realized that my left ear was a millimeter higher than my right ear. My face wasn’t perfectly symmetrical. Well there went my modeling career.

Joey used the electric razor on my sides. He did so quietly, without any words. Every now and then, he would gently put his middle fingers on either side of my head and pull my head up. It was the same thing my mother used to do. Until I left for college, my mother would cut everyone’s hair in the family. My father, my brother, and me. In our tiny laundry room, she would lay down newspapers, then have us sit on a stool she kept in the garage. She would wear a ratty nightgown that she didn’t care about and would cut our hair. She would never talk, just circle around me with her electric razor. I would sit there, sometimes getting sleepy, sitting on the stool, no back support. I’d start sinking and she would take her middle fingers and pull my head back up. When she was done, she’d put her face up to my face, studying my hair like she was looking into a microscope.

Ching ching,” she’d say. Which was actually not a real Chinese word, but just something she made up for my brother and me to mean “cute.”

I was 18 the first time I got my hair cut by someone other than my mother. I was in college, and through word of mouth, I found a guy who had a small space underneath a small boutique hotel where he’d cut hair. His name was Matthew. He was a nice enough guy, short and scrappy with dark frame glasses. I was nervous. A bit excited. He started talking to me, which made me uncomfortable. He’d ask me a question, and I didn’t want to respond. I didn’t want to move my head. I was certain as soon as I started talking, my head would flap up and down like a muppet, and he’d accidentally cut me. I’d answer with very terse answers. Yes. No. Texas. Cool.

It made me wonder why my mother never talked to me when she was giving me haircuts. Maybe it was a cultural thing. Or maybe she was focused too much on the haircut. Afterall, she wasn’t a professional. She only cut three heads of hair once a month. I’m sure if she was doing it fulltime, maybe she would’ve started getting bored and started chatting.

"My first swipe on his head, I took way too much off. My brother got so pissed he was yelling at me. I couldn't stop laughing as I continued butchering his hair. Finally we both agreed we had to just buzzcut all his hair off. He didn't speak to me for weeks after that."

I always got the same haircut, the one my mother did for us. It was the same type of conservative Asian haircut, parted to one side, faded on the sides. I really didn’t know any other way for my hair to look. And I never liked the idea of having hair that was too long. So I kept the same hairstyle when I started going to a barber.

One day, I was in the waiting area outside of Matthew’s haircut room, buried in my econ textbook.

“Jackie Chan!” I heard from a young child’s voice. I looked up and noticed a black kid sitting on the bench across from me. “You’re Jackie Chan!” he yelled, pointing at me. I smiled uncomfortably. He proceeded to make cringe-worthy kung fu noises while doing sloppy karate chops. “Hiya! Hua! Eeya!” An anger simmered. I knew this was just a kid, but that made it worse. I couldn’t stop him. I awkwardly said to him, “Hey, how’s it going? I’m not Jackie Chan. My name is –” But he didn’t stop making the sounds. I sat there and waited until something else overtook his interest. After a while, a black woman emerged from the room. I thought of saying something, but I decided against it. Matthew sat me down.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“Great.”

“What are we looking at?”

“You know, I think I want to try something different this time. Think you can switch it up?”

He did something bold. Instead of the conservative side part and the combing to the side, he flipped the front, forming a little peak. It made me look younger, which was never really a problem for me. But it did make me feel gayer.

He leaned me back and cradled my neck in the plastic lip of the washing basin. He rinsed out my hair and squirted shampoo in his palm. He rubbed the shampoo in my hair for about a minute. Working up a lather, working my scalp. It felt good. It made my eyes droop a bit. I looked up and noticed his arms. His biceps flexed as he was shampooing my hair. I couldn’t help but feel an extreme attraction in the moment. He was touching me so intimately. My throat was so exposed to him. I was so vulnerable. And I felt safe with his strong hands grappling my head. I wished my mother could touch my head and stand back and look at my face and say something to me. It wouldn’t even have to be “Ching ching,” since no one said that anymore.

I walked up the steps under the boutique hotel. It was a cool October day. The wind swept around my head and I felt refreshingly naked. As I made my way back to my dorm, my eyes watered a bit. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was feeling so alone.

Chris Wu grew up in suburban Texas with Taiwanese immigrant parents. He studied economics at Yale and USC, and after a brief stint working in corporate finance, he decided to become a writer. His work can be found in Litro Magazine, Chicago Literati and Star 82 Review. He has also written for the television series The Man in the High Castle on Amazon.


One comment

  1. Marquis de Shade ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

    I hate getting my hair cut. I pretty much just end up sitting there in silence the whole time. And yes that’s why my beard is so long lol

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