Shear Terror

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Shear Terror

Part of the adventure of living overseas, I've discovered, is trying to find a common thread. Take barbershops, for example. After sitting in barber chairs abroad for several years, I was just about convinced that I would never find a hair-cutting emporium like those back home.

For someone like me, who has less hair than a floor tile, any barber would seem to do. But that's like saying any surgeon will do, even the fellow who operates out of the back of a Buick LeSabre. I don't merely want the cutting; I want the packaging.

The pleasure of going to a barbershop in the United States has always been for me in the familiarity: the dog-eared supermarket tabloids ("Michael Jackson's Secret Date"), the chitchat about the Yankees (or Packers or Lakers), the smell of talcum powder.

After I started inhabiting distant lands, though, I decided that a foreign barbershop would always be just that: foreign.

When I resided in Japan, my barber was a confounding gent named Tomo. As soon as I sat down, Tomo would always whisper the same thing: Manicure, no? And I would always answer yes, which would cause Tomo's wife to immediately appear with nail files.

Like most foreign barbers, Tomo couldn't lay off the clippers. If I asked Tomo to please use scissors, he would whisper that he simply wanted to use the buzzer to trim a little here, at the base of my neck. Next thing I knew, he had strip-mined my noggin.

Whenever Tomo finished bushwhacking me, he would pick up a pair of eyeglasses from a shelf behind his barber chair. There were several pairs there and one pair, he was certain, belonged to me. Even as I shook my head and said I didn't wear glasses, Tomo would slip the specs on my head so that I could inspect his craftsmanship.

The first time I went into a barbershop in Romania, I told the haircutter, a tall woman with a flourishing moustache, that I wanted "mic." I had just begun to study the Romanian language and I wanted to show off. Mic means a small amount. I held my fingers a half-inch apart. Just take off a little, I gestured.

After giving those instructions, I opened the John Grisham novel I had brought in with me. A few minutes later, the woman, using clippers, of course, had cut my hair to within an quarter-inch of my scalp. I had wanted only a little removed; she thought I wanted only a little left.

I read a lot while in Romania. One book was Ted Simon's 1980s cult classic, "Jupiter's Travels," the story of Mr. Simon's four-year journey around the world on a motorcycle. Mr. Simon tells how on that odyssey he learned that most clippers used by barbers have four blade settings. No. 1 gives the closest cut, with No. 4 removing the least amount of hair. If you wanted a moderate haircut, the author says, simply hold up two fingers and any barber in the world will understand.

When I tried that in Romania, my bushy-lipped barber gave me a strange look, then nodded. I received one haircut, followed immediately by a second. I've seen more fuzz on a snake.

The barber I patronized in France was a hulking, sour-looking fellow who understood my blade signals and adjusted his electric clippers accordingly. He refused to adjust his smoking, however. A Gitanes clung to his lower lip as he zipped his shears across the sides of my head, spewing gray exhaust in my ears as he mowed. I was pretty sure that if I asked him to stop smoking I might get one finger in return.

In Seoul, my local barbershop is called the Blue Club. Like a lot of English names in Korea, this one has no apparent meaning to me and perhaps to anyone else. The two barbers on duty at the Blue Club consider themselves hairstylists to the stars. Trouble is, there are no stars in the shop; almost all the clientele is college students from nearby universities who like the 4,000 won ($3.10) price of a haircut. That doesn't stop the two barbers I call them the Han-dee boys from turning a regular haircut into a Hollywood spectacle. They wave their barber sheets like matadors' capes and flash their scissors scissors! as if picadors.

More than any overseas joint I've visited, the Blue Club reminds me of barbershops in the United States. I can always find a soiled sports newspaper at the Blue Club, and when I pick it up I know there will a story on the front page about the social life of Korea's most famous athlete ("Park Chan-ho's Secret Date"). There will be talk in the shop about Korea's professional baseball teams (Bears, Eagles, Unicorns. Unicorns?) And the smell, ah, the smell. It's talcum, I think, but cut with garlic.

As I sat in the Blue Club not long ago, I thought of those other foreign barbershops I had been to. I smiled at their peculiarities until I realized I had continued to return to those shops again and again (which for me isn't very many times).

In their own offbeat ways, those barbers and their places of business had become familiar to me. Turning the uncommon into the common, into the comfortable, that's the real adventure of living abroad, and that's why I like it.

The Han-dee boys like me. At least, they like to see me coming in, for I tip. No one tips barbers in Korea, but I enjoy rewarding these two for their labors. After all, who else would make such a big production out of such a little job?

"At Home Abroad ... in Korea" is a monthly feature. We invite our readers to share their experiences ?for publication or not -- and to suggest topics for exploration. Please respond to

by Toby Smith

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