Sunday, January 31, 2010


Nothing is better than having my hair shampooed at a salon. Hands down, it is one of my guilty pleasures up there with peanut M&Ms and gloppy BLTs ... and well, you know! I look forward with eager anticipation to my monthly visits for reshaping my tresses. Recurring scheduled appointments made way in advance. Reserved on my calendar a quarter at a time. The village salon over the yoga studio and mariner insurance agency where I am coiffed like Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and friends in the Emerald City. A buff-buff here. A buff-buff there. Crazy, right? Not to me.

Popping out of the car I focus only on the relaxation awaiting at the top of the wide wooden stairs. Poor (wo)man's therapy. My muscles uncoil, my breathing relaxes. A shimmery cape is draped over my shoulders and the narrow towel of soft cottony terry cloth loops tucked elegantly like a silk Hermes scarf at my nape. Drifting I lean back into the porcelain sink. My head rests gently on the foam pillow in the curvature of the bowl my neck fitting comfortably. Eyes close. Ah. Warm spray sudses the shampoo into billowy lather. My scalp tingles with the gentle pressure of shampoo being massaged into my thick chestnut hair. Stress streams with random to-do lists into the soapy water swirling to the drain at the bottom of the black porcelain sink and out through pipes to nowhere. Blissful! What's not to love?

Transition to a very hot, humid and way too polluted day in Beijing last summer. Which parenthetically trumps LA brown auto-emissions smog in the 1970s and coal black Pittsburgh steely haze before the Golden Triangle was developed. Filthy air. I am so not sure how the Summer Olympians were able to breathe much less perform their personal best. The sun might be shining brightly but who the hell would know it? Nary a blue sky on the horizon. Ooops. Off point. Way. Back to hair.

Beijing's intense July heat, oppressive humidity and off-the-chart pollution have taken root in each of my too-many-gazillion strands, soaking deep into the follicles. My hair a dirty, swollen tangle. My very own Forbidden City and Birds Nest gnarled into one. I needed a professional shampoo. Badly. A much deserved hour luxuriating in an Asian salon where deep tissue massage is an artform inspirational.

Raffles, my elegant and storied 19th century five star hotel booked months before on deeply discounted (surely the result of a precipitous decline in Western tourists post-Olympics and threats of arbitrary mandatory H1N1 quarantines for foreign travelers arriving at airports with muscle aches or elevated temps) boasted a sumptuous salon and spa where a humdrum hair washing would break the bank. My bank. Ever the adventurer, I sought out a beauty shop catering to locals. The closest on nearby Wang Fu Jing Street -- a not-so-stylish pedestrian mall where sidewalk vendors hawked Pier One exports and pushcarts offered scorpion satays and melamine-tainted ice cream. A red, white and blue striped barber pole marked its entrance. The 25 yuan ($3.65) price tag lured me inside.

Every head in the grey walled, hair dryer-dome filled room spun when I pushed open the revolving glass door. Smiling, I presented the note penned in Mandarin by a giggling Raffles' concierge: "Hair wash only. No scissors, please." I was handed a number and pointed to the row of seats not unlike the waiting room of a bus station. Nodding, I took a vacant chair among chattering ladies looking curiously my way. I kept smiling. Looking around. Taking it all in.

I felt a nudge on my arm. The customer seated across from me with wet hair wrapped in a turban signaled to the petite lady standing in the doorway to the salon. My three-digit number had been called. I was the next patron. I motioned a thumbs up indicating my understanding to the ladies now staring at my every move. Grabbing my purse, I followed the attendant inside to another row of chairs in front of a mirror running the length of the room. No shelves for tools of the trade. No fancy swiveling salon seats with lifts. Just four-legged straight backed chairs. Curious, I sat and faced my reflection in the looking glass.

A slippery cape and a hand towel were causally tossed over my shoulders. Shampoo was drizzled on my head, then warmish water squirted from a clear plastic ketchup bottle and my hair was lathered it into a frothy heap. No sink. No sprayer. No serenity. I expected more from the Chinese. Where was my Oriental head massage?

The rest of the process was similar. Redundant actually. The bus terminal seats. A tap on my arm when my number was announced. A neighboring client motioning me to follow the attendant to the next step. And the next. Smiles and thumbs up from me at each juncture. Giggles from them.

I relaxed. Nary a scissors in sight. No wire curlers the size of D batteries. And to my delight, no helmet spewing a hot dry blast from an ancient row of hair dryers. My stylist deftly blowdrying my thick hair into the ubiquitous page-boy. Close enough. I smiled. Paid at the front desk and pushed open the revolving doors and ventured out into the bright noontime sun. Turned to my left and strolled nonchalantly along busy Wang Fu Jing back to my shi-shi hotel. Hair clean, coiffed and shiny. Thumbs up.

With a flip of my hair ... cheers until tomorrow.

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