Principal Yang’s Barbershop

Xiao Zhou is crying. Big tears. The kind of tears reserved for upside down goldfish, and rooms full of finger-wagging adults. Twelve-year-old Xiao (pronounced: She-Oww but like ‘e’ and ‘o’ are one vowel) Zhou (pronounced: Joe) is dripping with blubbering, mournful, sorrowful upside down goldfish tears. To his right is a line of boys, faces splashed with increasingly frightened looks. In front of Xiao Zhou is a courtyard full of students and teachers, all curiously eyeing the spectacle. The bell rings and the teachers and students disperse, saving the other boys—momentarily—from self-imposed humiliation. Xiao Zhou, of course was not so lucky. Behind him is the happiest face a human being can make, I’m sure of it. Under the auspices of this ear-to-ear grin, Xiao Zhou makes a half-hearted attempt to depart for class. Locks of black hair slide off his body-shrouding apron.

“Are you insane? I’m not through with you yet, Xiao Zhou.” Principal Yang beams and gives me a wink before setting his shears back to work.

It’s the end to the monthly ill-fated game of cat and mouse for Xiao Zhou and most of the sixth grade boys at Sanzhuang Elementary School. A game they play relentlessly, over and over again, despite the sure-fire result that their incipient hairstyles modeled after Korean pop stars and Taiwanese kung fu heroes will be destroyed. Their adversary: Sanzhuang’s resolute Principal Yang, who waits anxiously, clippers and shears at the ready, for the day when hair becomes long enough to violate school code. He trots out tiny wannabe Jay Chous, bangs falling far short of their goal of visual impairment, and slices and dices their lettuce until they’re returned fully to awkwardly clumsy adolescence. Each time they knock on the door of teenagehood, Principal Yang mows them down with delight. And each time, they lament their elusive privilege to resemble a human mop with a whole bunch of tears.

o-BABY-MOP-facebookActual human mop

Principal Yang, for his part, is not only a despotic beautician determined to crush the follicle aspirations of China’s youth. He says if he weren’t a principal, he’d open up his own barbershop. But, I can only imagine the present arrangement to fuse cold, hard discipline with haircuts is about as close to cloud nine as Principal Yang will ever be.

“OK. Let’s take a look.” He pulls out a mirror and gives Xiao Zhou an extended look at his new haircut, providing the student a chance to confirm that he hates his new haircut. “ Wa! How about that? In like a bum out like an emperor. The guy looks sharp.”

Xiao Zhou nods, defeated. Principal Yang removes the apron and instructs the student to return to class. I move into the barber’s chair: a rickety wooden bench. He shakes out the apron and fastens it around my neck.

“You sure do look like an idiot.”

“I’m usually more accurate.”

I’d tried to cut my own hair—something I’ve been doing for years after reasoning that barbershops and hair salons are full of cheats and thieves. But, I’d really fucked it up this time, and, according to Principal Yang, the back of head looks like a mutated leopard.

“Let’s see. I’m going to give you the number one, best head in China.” (It sounds better in Chinese).

“Alright. I trust you, Principal Yang.”

“A man should trust the barber over all others.” It’s a profound statement, and perhaps partly the reason for my suspicions of hairdressers. They can strike at any moment, after all. He goes to work, seeming to express mild surprise (discontent?) that his subject isn’t crying.


It’s just he and I now, and the faint creek of his scissors against my mutated leopard head. The rest of the school is sitting in class. I look onto the courtyard and beyond it, the deep blue sky consumed by undulating mountain chains in each and every direction. Living in the constant midst of such hulking green-black barriers, it’s hard not to view them metaphorically. You’re perpetually in a world with no horizon. I don’t mean that necessarily in the bleak, hopeless way it can be construed. I just mean, you simply can’t ever see anything else from where you sit. Your view isn’t constricted by the limited capabilities of your eyes. No, it’s external, something you can’t control—something nearly impossible to blast away—and certainly, without a great deal of imagination, impossible to see through. It’s not as though some days, weather-permitting, you can see far, far, far. No, your perspective always screeches to a halt at the peak of a mountain and a few China Mobile cell towers. It’s hard to really make sense of a world that’s looking at the mountain’s opposing face. It’s hard to imagine looking at that opposing face. It’s hard not to feel frozen in space.


“Cutting hair is a wonderful thing. You can talk to the people. You can make them happy,” (An unusual result for this particular barber) “you provide and create and, of course, you socialize.”

“If you enjoy it so much, why don’t you open your barbershop?”

“I can’t do that, now. Don’t you see, no one wants an old man for a barber. They want a sharp, young guy or a slick, pretty girl.”

“You’ve got style, Principal Yang. No doubt about that.”

“Yes, yes. That’s true. I do have style. Much more than these young boys. A fact. But, besides, there’s no money in the hair world.” He says, as though repeating something he heard someone else say once. He shakes his head in lament and whirls around to tackle the stray scraps hanging over my forehead. “Ahh, being a principal is so tiring at times. So troublesome. If there’s a problem who do they call? They call me. Everyday, something. Always something. A barber—when the kids smoke in the dorm, when the education bureau comes to town, when that kid fell in the damn toilet, do they call the barber? I doubt it. They call the barber when their hair is too long.”

“Barbers have no influence, Principal Yang. They have no place in society—not like principals. No money, no influence—like you said.”

“Wa! Money and influence. All that stuff. You know, Mr. Luo, those are things so many people always want.”

“I would say you have that. Don’t you think you have that?” Being a school principal here, he definitely has that.

“Those are things everyone always wants: Why? Because no one ever has them.”

“What do you mean?” He squinted and snipped at the top of my head.

“Well… you can measure those things—and things you can measure can always be more. You’ll never be able to have all of it. Those are the things you have to get somewhere else. The only way you’ll ever get it all is if you take it from everyone else. But, what about the things you can make by yourself, without doing anything but sitting and talking to your friend or looking at those beautiful flowers about to burst—happiness, pleasant times?”

He held my head fixed and I gazed at the courtyard and out to the mountain faces.

“That’s the good stuff.”

He put down the scissors and replaced my view with a mirror. I looked at myself and the new cut.

“Wa! How about that? Now, that’s how you give a haircut.” He said, beaming.



In May 1938, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler sent a research expedition to the Tibetan Plateau. The members of the party were anthropologists, mostly German. In exchange for the resources to complete their fieldwork, the group leaders, among them critics of the regime, agreed to become SS officers. While the team, led by renowned zoologist Ernst Schafer, would carry out anthropological study, as a final kicker Himmler required that the crew search for a lost tribe of pureblood Aryans. Remember, the Nazis believed the Aryan race sprang from a pre-Buddhist Indo-Asian society. The inverted swastika, now synonymous with hate is an ancient Sanskrit symbol for goodness. The group returned abruptly in 1939—with Europe on the brink of all-out war—with some valuable new material, but to everyone’s great surprise failed to locate any pureblood Aryans.


            Much of this wayward Nazi theory derived from mystical accounts of a high Himalayan Utopia, an earthen paradise shielded from the rest of the world by soaring snow-capped peeks and, potentially, overprotective gods. One of the major components of said ideology is James Hilton’s mythologically-informed 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Lost Horizon speaks of a place called “Shangri-La.” Shangri-La is a kind of original version of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s village of Macondo. It’s isolated and idyllic, has magical tendencies, and the inhabitants seem to live unearthly spans of life. It’s as close to heaven as you can get on god’s green earth. It’s position high above the horizon, deep within the clouds, adds to its aura of Nirvana. I went there a few days ago.


            Shangri-La is not real. Or, at least, it wasn’t real. It wasn’t real until 2001, to be exact. In that year, the Chinese town of Zhongdian (中甸), located in the northernmost county of Yunnan province and firmly within the Tibetan Plateau, opted to change it’s name to Shangri-La (香格里拉). The local government claims that Zhongdian is the setting for the (not real) Shangri-La in Hilton’s novel. They also claim, more rationally, that such a name change would be a boon to local tourism. They were right. Changing a Tibetan city’s name to Shangri-La is akin to a down-and-out university in the British countryside changing its name to Hogwarts. It’s probably not illegal, and if you can fool people into belief or at least curiosity, why not?


            Shangri-La (香格里拉) is a fairly large city near Yunnan’s border with Tibet and Sichuan. It has a KFC, which is, in my estimation, evidence that a Chinese city has arrived. The existence of KFC in Shangri-La also goes a long way in validating the government’s claims that their city is indeed an earthly paradise. Shangri-La doesn’t feel any different from your average mid-sized city in Yunnan. Lots of hole in the wall restaurants with “C” health ratings. The Chinese FDA rates hygiene on a scale of A, B, or C. A is represented by a grinning ear-to-ear yellow smiley face. B is a green “hmmmm…” face and C is a red, grumbling frown. I have never seen an A. Never. There are hustling tuk-tuk drivers. There’s a bunch of be-dreadlocked foreigners that look lost or in the process of being found (or probably just on drugs). There’s a “Next Station” bubble tea chain, the pre-KFC indicator of imminent arrival of a city in Yunnan.


            The current standout aspect of Shangri-La however, is not something the government, or James Hilton, planned. This January a worker, deep in the heart of the ancient city left a blow dryer on. Due to the fact that the ancient city is/was hundreds and hundreds of years old, things escalated quickly. Today, only a few blocks remain of the old town. Walking through Shangri-La’s old city is incredibly bizarre. It feels like ancient Rome, yet the destruction took place only a few months ago. And the cause of destruction was not violent Visigoths, but a hairdryer. Centuries of history reduced to complete rubble in days. A single steel spiral staircase rises up in the middle of a field of bricks and dust.


            On our first night in Shangri-La, three friends and I decided we best sample the local nightlife. We headed for the new town. I’d feel cheated if a place that purports itself to be paradise didn’t know how to get down. We first went to your run-of-the-mill Indian-Nepali-Tibetan-Chinese-Chilean fusion spot located down the road from our hostel. The proprietor, a Chilean guy named Ricky, served us the house specialty; yak meat empanadas. Tibetan-chic. As far as I could tell, Ricky, who’s lived in Shangri-La for three years, was the only ex-pat living in the city. After a delectable, eclect-able mix of yak meat empanadas, chicken tikka masala, French fries, and Shangri-La beer that made me feel like I was in Babu Batt’s Dream Café, we headed for the local scene.


            We bought some bottles of the local version of baijiu, qingkejiu (青稞酒), at a giant supermarket. This version was made with barley instead of wheat. It was, beyond my expectations of plausibility, even worse than our local Heqing interpretation. The brand we bought came in an inauspicious bottle that looked more like it belonged in the cleaning fluids aisle than anywhere near the “things people consume” aisle. The taste confirmed our suspicions.


            We settled on a tiny second floor bar/club/lounge. We climbed the rickety steps and sat down at a table next to the dance floor. The dance floor stood in the center of the place. About 10 tables and couches flanked the front and left side. The bar was on the right. The spot was so smoky I couldn’t open my eyes without crying, like I was trapped in a room full of onion choppers. I lit up a cigarette.


            The lights were bright. On the stage were two 20-something guys in traditional Tibetan dress singing folk songs. Some people sang along halfheartedly. Generally, people just walked across the stage to and from the bar without regard. About 15 minutes after we arrived, the music cut, the (presumably) Tibetan guys vacated, and intense thumping base started emanating from all corners of the club. The strobes hit “bad news for an epileptic, and incredibly annoying for anyone” level. The first song: a bassed-out bilingual version of “Happy Birthday,” sung by what sounded like a teenage Chinese girl. Boom Boom Boom. I looked around and realized the average age was probably 18 or 19. There were definitely some older people (my age, that is), but if you’re talking simple random sample, the crowd was probably on average post-’93. I felt like I was in an Abercrombie and Fitch: surrounded by darkness, loudness, suffocating stench, (this time smoke instead of Fierce cologne) and teenagers.     

            Chinese bars/clubs are weird. Weird in the sense that I’m used to American nightlife and Chinese bars/clubs aren’t like them. When travelling outside major urban centers, you are inevitably going to see some wacky shit.


            A few years ago, I went with some friends to Hangzhou, a short train ride from Shanghai. After some sightseeing we went to a club (glorified bar) downtown. Upon entrance we were rushed to a table and given a bunch of free drink cards. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Yunnan. I won’t say it happened a lot in Shanghai, but I won’t say it didn’t happen a lot. We were three: an Italian girl, a Saudi guy, and myself.


            Anyways, you get free drinks, you get drunk. I was suitably inebriated by one or two a.m. when shit started to get out of hand. The bar started playing some hyper-paced, high-pitched English songs (sung by Chinese people of course). Happy Birthday was definitely among them. The strobe lights picked up. Five or six people dressed as giant animals appeared out of nowhere (a rabbit, a cow, a dog among others). They began dancing a meticulously choreographed program and pumping their fists/paws violently to the beat. Everyone in the crowd clapped along with unbridled passion. After a few moments they dispersed throughout the club, dancing their way between tables as the beat boom boomed and creeping the living shit out of no one except me. They ran back on stage and danced for another minute. When they finished, there was raucous applause. I wondered if I’d be allowed to go back to earth at that point. Immediately after they finished, the bar turned the lights on and everyone left. I took my thumb out of my mouth and opened my eyes.


            The bar in Shangri-La was not quite on this level of flat-out lunacy, but it was just different. You get used to a certain type of procedure. A club or bar looks like certain things. Dancing, for one (or at least what American college students like to believe is dancing). There wasn’t much of that going on. There was one guy who would come up behind people and hug them and wiggle around a little bit. He probably would have gotten bounced in the US, but everyone kind of just brushed him off as funny. But dancing, not really. It seemed like more of a place to hang out and chain smoke than an avenue for casual encounters. And that was okay.


            You get used to certain things. You get programmed. You see the weird in the different but not in the everyday. Last night, a bit further up the road from Shangri-La, we stayed in a mountainside hostel called “The Feeling of Youth.” Feeling of Youth lies many thousands of meters up in the air, bounded by whitecaps as far as the eye can see. It was cold. That high-altitude, thin cold that creeps under your jacket and goes directly to the bone. I had to use the bathroom. I walked downstairs. There were three options: Two squat toilets without doors and a pristine looking commode with a door that actually locked. I went for the commode, obviously. I sat down and my body went ice cold. I got up, opened the door, and went to the neighboring squat toilet. It felt right, even comfortable.


            Did I receive a divine message during my time in Shangri-La? No, because Shangri-La is a fake place. Did I find the pureblood Aryans? I don’t think so, but there was a blond-haired, blue-eyed European couple staying at the hostel. However, when I made the symbolic switch from the commode to the squat, something certainly happened within me, literally and figuratively. I think I realized that I’m beginning to de-exotify my situation here. What appears abnormal and strange is starting to become my everyday, not just in action, but in thought as well. I’m not abandoning my former, American self. I don’t want to do that, not ever. I like my American self. But, what I’m talking about isn’t voluntary. It’s just happening. At first, I had to get used to chopsticks, not showering for a week, brutal baijiu sessions, and drivers that round hairpin turns over 10,000 foot cliffs while smoking a cigarette and screaming into their cell phone. Now, it’s just life, I guess. Maybe it took a freezing cold toilet seat for me to put it all together. I came, I saw, I used a squat toilet on my own free will. That was my Shangri-La.