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Challenging Ralph Lauren to a fashion duel

In the two years I lived in Guangzhou, I kept meaning to have some tailor-made clothes done, but just never got around to it. However, once the move back to Hubei started looming larger and larger this summer, it seemed time to hit the Haiyin cloth market and find a good tailor. Although prompted by many people that tailor-made clothes were a bargain here, especially suits, I don’t think I’ve worn an actual suit (and tie) in maybe 30 years. So, my personal needs were pretty simple, just some new shirts.

Besides, all the “dress” shirts I brought with me to China were no longer looking all that dressy…

After the subway got us most of the way to Haiyin, we hopped in a taxi where the driver, after much discussion, said he know a woman with a shop (likely his uncle’s cousin’s wife), which turned out to be the typical dingy hole in the wall on a dingy street. Might have been at most four feet wide and about 10 feet deep. We’d brought one of my old shirts, the “pilgrim” style that I like without the flappy collar, to use as a starting point for the design. After, again, much discussion (there’s no such thing as a short, quick answer to anything in China), the woman allowed as how she could turn out a shirt to my specs for 70 kuai, roughly 10 dollars.

But we’d have to go buy the material first (as many of the tailors don’t carry cloth) and she told us how much we’d have to buy per shirt. We hopped back into the waiting taxi, where the driver assured us he had no relationship with the woman; he just wanted to be helpful to the laowai, so I’d have a good feeling about China.

We arrived at the Haiyin cloth market where they sell every kind of material you can imagine…for clothing to upholstery. And started perambulating around the maze of shops. Since I wanted to kind of test drive the whole tailor-made process, my intention was just to buy some good quality, 100% cotton material…in simple white. We bought enough cloth for two shirts…at a cost of 125 kuai (18USD).

Along the way, though, we’d passed by tailor shops actually located in the cloth market, so we stopped in one (another hole in the wall, but cleaner and classier looking) for a second opinion. I guess it was the upscale environment because the quote was 120 kuai (17.50USD). Maybe I should have gone back and given that woman a shot at my business (and saved a few bucks in the process), but I decided on one stop shopping and tailoring…convenience over economy, which I suppose is still very American of me despite my years here.

Having always bought off the rack, this was the first time in my life that I’ve been measured for clothing. A rather decadent (but inwardly delicious) feeling. Once they’d totted down all the numbers, we went over the design details…using the old shirt as a guideline, I told them I wanted some minor changes. Make the collar “this” wide, the cuffs just “so,” an inverted pleat in the back, etcetera, etcetera. Payment upfront required, handed a receipt and told to come back in four days.

When we returned at the appointed time, I tried both shirts on…both white of course but different button-down designs. And was very, very pleased. Not just with the quality, which was excellent. But also with the fit. A true fit for me, everywhere. Wonderful!

One shirt was button down all the way. The other was more of a slip-over, only buttoning down halfway. I like both designs, but find myself more partial to the slip-over. And now that I knew I could get exactly what I wanted…time to shop for more cloth. This time…black…and still 100% cotton. No surprises here for anyone who knows me. I tend to avoid prints, patterns and vivid or loud colors. Give me a solid, pleasing color…some soft, well-worn jeans…and I’m a happy fashion camper.

I had originally planned to have 10 shirts made, but found it harder than I’d thought it would be to find colors I liked. Finding, instead, a veritable glut of pastels and/or pin-striped cloth…I suppose for the typical business dress shirt these days. Bu zhidao…don’t know.

When we came back to pick up the two black shirts, I shopped more closely and eventually picked out two other colors…a dark, olive-green and a deep maroon…still 100% cotton, but in linen. But I only bought enough for just one shirt in each color, not being overly fond of linen cloth.

Jenny, by now moderately exasperated by my color cowardice, had been encouraging me (in her quiet way) to step out of my fashion prison…in particular, trying to get me to look at the countless silk prints available. I’m not sure how often I’ll have the gumption to wear it…and probably not to work…but I did end up finding a nice print that I rather like. And it’s some of that Guangzhou silk that’s sumptuously soft as well, so it’s very comfortable.

Before we left Guangzhou, we had some friends over for a goodbye dinner and they asked for a fashion show. So, the following is me on the living room runway…

The silk cloth cost about twice as much as the cotton material. I ended up with seven shirts for a total cost of about $200. Jenny was so excited that I’d actually taken a…for me…surprising fashion dive that she was showing it off to one of the shop ladies who exclaimed, “Hao kan, hao kan!” Good looking, or handsome!

And said that I could easily sell it for 1,200 kuai (175USD). Hmmm. Keneng…maybe.

Maybe I should give Ralph Lauren a run for his fashion…


Cost of educational e(quality)

Following the pervasive, highly pressurized third and final year of middle school in China, preparing for the entrance examination, Jenny’s daughter will enter high school this fall. Top scores equal entrance to the top schools. And in China, entering the top high schools is deemed to be the best path to top universities, which all hope will translate into a “bright and happy” future.

There are two “top” high schools here in Xiangfan – No. 4 and No. 5. Though most locals appear to favor No. 5, which just completed construction of a new campus that opens this year, to the tune of 200 million RMB ($29 million). After the entrance examination is held, all parents and students hold their breath waiting to find out the results. But, even more important, they anticipate the school’s announcement of minimum entrance scores.

Not to worry, however, if your child’s score is less than the minimum, it doesn’t mean they can’t attend the school. It simply means you’ll have to shell out more moolah to secure a spot in that year’s class.

Here’s how it played out this summer…

Anny’s score was 561.5, out of a possible 600. About two weeks later, No. 5 announced that the minimum entrance score was 566. But here’s where the sleight of hand lies. Anny’s middle school is located north of the Han Jiang. There are other school districts south of the river, where the announced entrance requirement is 553. Most of the lingdao (leaders) live south of the river.

If Anny had attended school south of the river, it would have cost only 3,000RMB ($437) to attend No. 5. One of her classmates, who lives next door, scored 571, so her parents only have to pay the same, 3,000RMB. (By the way, these tuition costs are for all three years of high school. You have to pay in full, not year by year.)

This morning Jenny walked across the street to her bank and withdrew 27,000RMB ($4,000) – the tuition for Anny’s three years of high school.

Mei ban fa…

Shave and a haircut…6 kuai

Sometimes the cost of living entails more than just money…

Getting a haircut has never been one of my favorite activities…an event to be tolerated, yet I usually left (mostly) satisfied with the result back in the states. After several years in China, though, it has devolved into a particularly frustrating process.

For no matter how you try to explain what you want, even if you bring a native to speak for you…it won’t happen. Yes, you can get a haircut that includes a wonderfully relaxing massage of your scalp, neck, shoulders and arms…all for about 20-25 kuai. But you will still leave the barbershop with your hair style (if not also dyed jet black) looking like Hu Jintao.

The first time I got a haircut here, I explained I wanted it short. After six months, it was on the long side of shaggy and, besides, it was heading into summer. Time for a cooler do. Using sign language (thumb and forefinger) as I was alone and my Putonghua minimal, I showed the laoban (boss) that I wanted my hair about half an inch long, everywhere, not just on the sides. [Cultural aside: sometimes the laoban will cut your hair to give the foreigner “face,” or mianzi.]

Ta shuo, “Haode, haode, haode. Mei wen ti.” He said good, good, good. No problem.

I sat back and closed my eyes being, after all, quite relaxed from the massage. Snip. Snip, snip, snip. A few more snips. Something was wrong. I opened my eyes to watch. Snip. Snip, snip, snip. A few more snips.

“Deng, deng,” I said. Wait. He was cutting mere wisps from the shag hanging around my head.

“Wo yao duo jian dian.” I want more cut. “Zai duo dian.” Cut much more. And again with the sign language.

“Haode, haode, haode. Mei wen ti.”

Snip. Snip, snip, snip.

I would have needed a micrometer to measure the length of the cuttings dribbled around my shoulders. We went through this process four or five times. About an hour later I left with my hair somewhat shorter around the sides and a titch shorter on top…but visibly poofy, pompadourish…and looking suspiciously like the previously mentioned political leader of the Middle Kingdom.

I later decided my sign language meant one thing to me, but the complete opposite to him…in that “this much” meant merely a trim, not the whack job I had wanted.

The overall experience and the ensuing result hasn’t changed much over the years. It has been a grit your teeth, grin and bear it endeavor each and every time. Or, as the Chinese would say for this (and most every) situation, “Mei ban fa.” Nothing you can do.

C’est la vie. That’s life.

It being the height of summer now and another six months past the last fiasco, I decided it was time for an end around tactic, similar to what I sometimes did back home…drag out the horse shears, set it for a buzz cut and do it myself. I’m also painfully aware that I’m sorely in need now of a comb-over (not!) or a rug (never!), so it’s finally time to switch, permanently, to avoid ring around the pate.

[Historical aside: the first time I went home for a visit, now thoroughly “re-educated” in regard to Chinese hair fashion, I culled through my belongings in storage, found the horse shears and packed them for the return trip to China. Only to discover, much to my dismay, they powered up in a scary overdrive on the current here…even with a voltage regulator/converter thingy. On my next trip back to the states I donated the shears to what’s left of Legacy Farm.]

During the recent and rather hectic move by plane, train and automobile (taxis) from Guangzhou to Xiangfan, via Wuhan, I tried shopping several times for shears. Including going to Gome, the Chinese version of Best Buy, where they carry only one model, a Phillips brand, that looks and handles like a toy, but costs 350 kuai. I passed.

We haven’t had time yet to find the barbershop supply shopping street here in Xiangfan. (FYI, if you want some kind of thing in China…be it clothes, cloth, motorcycles, bicycles, furniture…there’s a street where that’s all they sell, in every shop on the street.) But I still wanted that cooler do, so I dragged Jenny to the nearest and cheapest barbershop. Man or woman. Long hair or short hair. A haircut is five kuai.

Before we went, I told her exactly what I wanted. So that there could be no misunderstanding, I said I wanted my hair cut like a heshang, a monk. A Buddhist monk. A Daoist monk. In any language, that’s short. Very, very short. The next closest thing to a shave, dui ma? Right?

“Keyi a,” she said. Okay. “Mei wen ti a,” she said. No problem.

Which is a sure fire omen there will be a problem…

To make a long hair story short, my hair is short now. But not monk short. I knew there was a problem when the young man started using a comb to keep the cut even, instead of simply running the shears along my scalp. I mentioned this to Luo Ying and she spoke to him. After a five minute dialogue too fast for me to follow (and there’s no such thing as a quick answer in China), he simply shrugged and said this way, his way, was better for the laowai.


Finally, if you’ve been paying attention, I said haircuts at this barbershop are five kuai, yet the title of this post suggests six kuai…for a “shave” and a haircut.

Over the past 10 years, my toufa (head hair) began migrating from the top of my head…to my beard (much heavier than in my youth), to my chest, to the inside of my nose, the inside of my ears, the lobes of my ears and (uggh!) the small of my back. And likely other destinations unknown and they can remain unknown.

The barber used a straight-edge razor to shave the hairline on the nape of my neck. He also shaved my earlobes. Definitely a first, which cost the extra yi kuai.

After we left the barbershop, despite the heat and the humidity of the night, we went for a walk in a nearby park to watch the women dancing. (More on that another time.) Jenny commented that it was the first time she’d seen me in a good mood after getting my hair cut.

I smiled and told her, “Shi ya, dang ran le.” Yes, of course. Because it was the first time in China that I managed to avoid leaving the barbershop with a “Hu do.”