One Lucky Escape

September 15, 2010

Do you ever have one of those days when you just have to have a haircut?  Now!  As you clear space in your day and phone around for an appointment you can feel your hair growing longer and more raggedy by the minute.

I didn’t have to wait, after all I live in a big city now, in the pulsating heart of All Is Possible.  I trotted across to the mall.  I asked client services about salons and I picked the nearest one.

Turns out it was a hairdressing school, hence the wordy disclaimer I had to sign before they would let me through the door.  For $9 dollars I could put my head in their hands.  I decided to go for it.

A young woman with works of art on her nails and a purple streak through her hair asked me to take a seat.  She also had a lot of artwork snaking its way up her arms but this did not put me off.

After a worryingly brief wait she announced,

“Who will see you now!”

There was no questioning lift at the end of her sentence.

“I don’t know,”

“I was hoping you would tell me,” was all I could muster.

She rolled her eyes and pointed at a small, muscular man dressed in black.  Not fashionable black, you must understand, but a kind of a janitor’s uniform.  He grinned at me and pointed at his name tag.


He was a bit short on the teeth front.

He led me to his work station and asked me to flip through some magazines.  He looked hopefully at the dramatic cuts but I thought it best to stick with a simple trim of the existing arrangement.

“Everything is possible!” he said and led me to the basins.

Almost as soon as he got started I knew that this was not your usual shampooing experience.  Icy water blasted me and ran down in rivulets behind my ears.  His hands gripped my skull like a vice as if his fingers were looking for purchase to rip my scalp off.  He went at my hair with gusto, until each strand must have been squeaky clean.  After rinsing with the cold jets again he grabbed handfuls of hair and slowly pulled until my eyes were the same shape as his.  It was excruciating.  I hardly had time to be relieved when that stopped because the next thing his thumbs were pressing into my ears and he yanked my earlobes downwards.

I noticed a meek-looking girl opposite looking worried but was brought back to the present by small slaps on either side of my forehead and then quite a big one in the middle.  Whack!

I opened my eyes to see Huu grinning and beckoning me to sit up.  And I have to say, my whole head felt as if it was pulsating with energy.  My scalp tingled and my eyes watered but it did feel amazing.

I couldn’t help but notice Huu’s hands.  They were calloused.  He had the hands of a farm laborer.

I looked around me at the other students.  They were mostly young girls with exotic hairstyles and unconventional makeup.  They were searingly trendy.  There was also an effeminate young man with the skinny legs and lots of chains.  He brought his hand up to his mouth and giggled a lot.

Huu became very quiet.  He lifted strands of my hair and pulled them this way and that, gently, with none of the former violence.  And then he began to cut.  Hair flew in every direction.  He cut in a spiral, working his way round me and the ever-increasing pile of hair.  His scissors flew.  He made me think of Edward Scissor-hands.  I lost all hope.  I was going to look like a spirally pineapple.

For something to read I picked up a course prospectus.  They offered full time or part time courses for $9000!  All these young girls I was looking at, the preened and the buffed, the young man with the nervous giggle, they had all convinced someone to hand over a small fortune to be here.  And where did Huu get that kind of money from?  He was clearly not awash with cash.

I asked him to tell me his story as he snipped and clipped.

Huu hails from Vietnam.  He came to Canada when he was 11 with other “boat people” as they came to be called.

His father had been a middle-ranking civil service in the South Vietnamese government and by proxy, a supporter of the American cause.  Huu was not sure whether he had been pro-American or not but he had a steady job that required him to put on a suit and ride to work every morning.

On April 30, 1975, the last of the Americans left.  His father had been increasingly more worried and on that fateful morning had woken his family before dawn to try to get evacuated out.  Huu helped carry his youngest sister, a baby, and the other three had to walk.  They took very little and fled their home without a backward glance.

It seems though, that although Huu’s father was important enough to be singled out for punishment by the incoming Communist regime, he wasn’t important enough to be evacuated out with his family.  Huu still remembers the last US helicopter taking off into the morning sky.

Thereafter followed a very dark time.  Huu’s father was sent to a “correctional facility”, supposedly for a weekend, but for what turned out to be 3 years.  He emerged a broken man.  He had just enough strength left in him and just enough contacts left to get them onto one of the notorious boats.  He placed responsibility for his family squarely on the shoulders of his fourteen year-old son and waved them goodbye.  He did not have enough money for himself or his eldest daughter to go.  Huu never saw them again.

I do not ask about the boat journey to Thailand or the two years in limbo that followed.  Huu shakes his head and says that their greatest fear was being caught by Thai pirates.  They were “lucky” and only had to endure empty stomachs with only raw fish to nourish them. cold, wet nights and the constant whimpering of hungry and suffering children.

“But now I am here!” he says, pointing at himself for clarification and grinning again.

“And I cut hair!”

It turns out Huu has always wanted to be a hairdresser.  Not a barber, but a hairdresser.  He has clung to that dream his whole life.  He has put his sisters through school, married and educated his own children.  He has put aside savings from his meager earnings and now he is at hairdressing school.

“Are you learning part time or full time?” I ask

“Part time”, he says, holding up his calloused hands,

“I work on the roads, digging with the loud machine,” he laughs.

He spins my chair round to show me my new haircut.  It is a vast improvement – the layers have been artfully cut and I am pleased.

“Beautiful!” he exclaims

“Yes!” I say, to please him.  But I am not talking about myself.

I will come back again and gladly lay my hair clippings at the altar of his life’s dream.

At home I look up his name and find it on the ever-useful internet:

Huu: “very much so”. amplifies the meaning of the first name, e.g., Phuoc Huu means “one who deserves to be lucky”.

I know he qualifies.