Korean Haircuts

Posted: July 12, 2011 in South Korea

Essentially all US military posts across the globe have shopping and dining facilities operated by AAFES, or Army and Air Force Exchange Service.  What is included in these facilities is pretty standard throughout: a PX/BX, a food court, a couple of mom and pop shops, perhaps a tailor or a uniform store, and then the barbershop.  The price for a standard haircut varies to a degree depending on the local economy but for anywhere in the neighborhood of $10, or less, you can get a quick haircut from the finest civilians your locality has to offer.  For instance,the price was $5.50 in Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood (where they specialized in the “Fort Leonard Wood Fade”) and was $8.75 at Fort Gordon during AIT.

But here in Korea, the going rate is $7.85 for arguably the best haircut I have ever had.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Matt always gets his horribly over-sized head trimmed all the way down to the scalp, how hard could that be?”  Well you’d be surprised because I have actually had a couple of bad experiences in my day.  I’m fairly certain the barber that looked like a black Doc Brown from Back to the Future at the barbershop I tried at Fort Gordon botched my hair up every single time.  That just goes to show you, you should never trust a barber with crazy hair much like you should never trust a skinny cook or politicians.  Lesson learned.

Seriously, this is what he looked like.

After my poor experience at the beginning of AIT, I began cutting my own hair much like I did back home and in college.  This self-service started back in the dorms my sophomore year at Kentucky simply because I am incredibly cheap when it comes to certain things, mainly haircuts and beer.


However, once I got to South Korea my overwhelming laziness convinced me to take a chance on the AAFES Barbershop one more time — look at it as one character flaw trumping another — and I couldn’t be happier about how this gamble has paid off…for the most part.

These Korean hair stylists (they’re female and they have a lot of fancy crap at their stations so in my eyes, they’re hair stylists regardless if they work in a barber shop) are incredibly thorough and their attention to detail is phenomenal.  Now I have a very thick, full head of hair.  I’d like to think that this was one blessing that survived my shallow gene pool but I also have an intense widow’s peak that leaves me looking like Eddie Munster, so the pros and cons of my hair are a wash.

The thickness of my hair is usually what causes the most problems as the impatient American barber speeds through, favoring quantity over quality, and misses plenty of spots simply because the clippers cannot keep up.  That’s not the case here in Korea and I smile every time the hair stylist reaches for that second set of smaller, more precise clippers to give my head another once-over after my hair has already been cut.  Cleaning up my neck and ears comes next, after which the hair stylist will give my eye brows a courtesy check.  Add the hot towel, some powder, and a splash of aftershave on the back of the neck and it becomes hard to believe that it only costs $7.85.

Aaand then there is the awkward exchange at the end of every haircut.  It’s me, you had to know there was a catch.

At the very end of each session, the hair stylist insists on giving you a massage.  Shoulders and upper back, of course (get your head out of the gutter).  Those of you who know me well know where this is going.  The problem with the massage is that I don’t like to be touched, especially by a stranger.  Add to it the fact the barbershop is already like a fish bowl (another reason to cut my own hair in the comfort of my own home) and this entire process makes me incredibly uncomfortable.  I’m sure most of you would enjoy watching me squirm.

I’ve had this conversation with my buddy Aaron a few times regarding the chain Sports Cuts, which offers all of the same services — massage included — albeit at a much higher price point.  My argument was that I don’t take advantage of the massage/shoulder rub so it wasn’t worth the cost.  I simply don’t like my personal bubble violated.

Now back at Sports Cuts I politely declined the massage and went on my marry way, which was probably bitching at Aaron in the car on the ride home for recommending such an over-priced haircut, but it isn’t that easy here.  I had initially avoided getting my haircut at the AAFES Barbershop because I knew how each sitting ended.  When I finally mustered the courage to utilize their services, I simply planned to duck out quickly to avoid the confrontation.  FAIL.  The hair stylist forcefully put me back in to my seat and insisted on finishing her job.  Round 1 to the hair stylist.

I’ve braved two more haircuts since I’ve been here — it’s a damn good haircut — begrudgingly accepting the massage at the end (rough life, I know).  Being the ignorant American, I don’t know how to escape this situation and I don’t want to insult the hair stylist who is from a culture that prides itself on hard work.  She is, after all, just doing her job and in a lot of cultures turning down a service or good is seen as disrespectful.  So I grin and bear it in the name of international relations.  You can thank me later.

So Rounds 1-3 to the hair stylist.

I have yet to decide how frequently I am going to utilize the barbershop on post but the one nice thing about Korean haircuts is that this is a culture that typically doesn’t accept tips (Where are you on this one, America?).  So instead of tipping* the screwy Fort Gordon barber for a botched $8.75 hairdo that now costs close to $10, I can get out of the door here in Korea for a clean $7.85.

A clean, violated, and shameful $7.85, that is.

*Editor’s Note:  I think the Fort Gordon barber was slightly insane because if you paid for the $8.75 haircut with a $10 bill he would just stiff you on the change, automatically keeping it as his tip regardless of your level of satisfaction.  True story.

  1. Steve Garner says:

    I can remember those AAFES haircuts too Matt, great story.

  2. angie says:

    Good story! i like reading your blog!

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