In one of my earliest memories, I am 6 years old, a bowl overturned on my head, crying like the world is about to end.
I’m not getting bullied, nor is this misbehavior. This, for me and a lot of Asian Americans growing up, was a haircut.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been on a lifelong odyssey to solve the riddle of my hair. For the first 12 years of my life, my mother cut my hair with the aforementioned bowl technique to save money. In middle school I shaved it all off, but it grew back in in all directions at the same length, like a miniature Afro.
When I tried to grow long curly bangs, I ended up with a poofy black helmet. Once I showed a barber a picture of Russell Crowe’s hair in “Gladiator” and asked if I could have that. I only remember him slowly shaking his head.
Asian hair is different. Each hair is thicker and stiffer, but there are fewer hairs per square inch when compared with white or Latino men. Many Asian men have differently shaped heads, which means a lot of popular hairstyles aren’t achievable. And most Asian American communities don’t have a history or tradition of barbershops and specific hairstyles — so we’re kind of left to figure out things on our own.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I threw myself at the mercy of the city’s barbers. An Armenian man in Westwood rescued me from my helmet hair with a faux hawk cut. In the San Gabriel Valley, I got cheap, no-nonsense trims from older Chinese women who reminded me of my mother. At Flower Street Barber Shop near USC, I got my first straight-razor fade.
Haircuts became another way for me to learn about the city, affording the rare opportunity to have an intimate, low-stakes conversation with a stranger. I always ask for the same haircut, and it always comes out different depending on where I am.
Since I moved to West Adams a year ago, I’ve become a semi-regular at Gabriel’s Barber Shop.
It’s a strip mall storefront with tinted windows that’s slightly larger than a subway train car inside. About 70% of its clients are Latino men, but it’s a neighborhood place and serves whoever is around. I’ve seen guys with tattoos who look like they’d rather die than smile, little boys who cry through the whole cut, and sweaty contractors who come in with paint-splattered pants, still trying to catch their breath.
Every few weeks the barbers wear a different, matching silk jacket — orange for the fall, green for the spring, or blue just because it looks good. It’s pretty lively, except for an hour or so in the middle of the day, when everyone pays silent, rapt attention to a Spanish-language call-in radio show where the hosts prank-call couples and cause drama.
All of the barbers are Oaxacan, except for Edgar Mendoza, 45, whose parents were from El Salvador and who gave me the haircut that appears in my columnist dot portrait.
Mendoza became a barber eight years ago after his ex-wife left him to take care of their two learning-disabled sons alone. He quit his job working as a funeral director so he could attend speech classes and therapy appointments. Barbering allowed him to work his own hours, at his own pace.
Mendoza grew up in this room, which opened sometime in the 1960s as a black barbershop. His mom used to take him there to get his head shaved for $3. When he got his own money, he graduated to fades and tapers. Mr. Thompson, the previous owner, shaped his idea of what a barbershop should be.
“It was a hangout spot,” Mendoza said. “People just came to chat.”
So at Gabriel’s, Mendoza encourages everybody to talk.
Immigration is always a huge topic. They discuss the mass detentions at the southern border, express confusion at why Trump is allowed to remain president, and mourn for their children in college, whose DACA status is being revoked.
But mostly there are jokes, because laughter is a rare break from fear and stress.
“Thanks for the haircut. I appreciate the way you rub my head and everything.”
“Calm down, fool, I’m just your barber. Don’t fall in love!”
Lately the big topic is how West Adams is changing, and how it’s not. How the traffic is getting worse and the buildings by the Expo Line are getting taller and the rent is getting higher. How the graffiti keeps appearing on the party supply store next door, and how the novena candle altars dot the streets.
They commiserate about friends and family who have been evicted, and about how far the drive is to their new homes in San Bernardino or Palmdale or Lancaster.
In the chair, sometimes customers talk about things they don’t ever talk about, Mendoza said, because for many a haircut is the only chance they get to sit still and think. It’s the only therapy some of them will ever get.
A haircut costs $20. When Mendoza started at the shop eight years ago, it was just $10. Lines went out the door and down the block. Some people came three times a week. It exhausted the barbers and threatened the health of the business. Mendoza persuaded the owner to raise the prices.
He’s worried that the barbershop won’t survive the next decade. He’s pushing the owner to come up with a plan. He’s trying to encourage the staff to start using social media and paying attention to Yelp reviews. And the tinted windows drive him nuts, because he says it makes the barbershop look like a dispensary or something unsavory. Progress is slow.
“It’s like trying to move a boat with one paddle,” he said.
But for now, the shop does a steady business in medium fades, low fades and tapers, Mendoza said.
The barbers sell haircuts, but you could say their main product is pride. Many of their customers are manual laborers who come in smelling of dirt and sweat, looking for the confidence of a clean fade.
“We like to show off,” Mendoza said. “You know we gotta get that suavecito thing.”
Last week, I went to Vinh Hair Salon in Alhambra for the first time. It’s one of the few places in the Southland that closely resembles an Asian American barbershop.
Inside, you can hear simultaneous conversations in Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Vietnamese. Jimmy Yim, Steven Tang and Ben Tang, the co-owners, speak all four languages and switch between them with blinding speed.
I immediately felt at home when I overheard a conversation about how one of the barbers has gotten fatter and his diet wasn’t working (for a lot of us, unsolicited comments about weight are a standard facet of time spent with family).
“When I first came here, I was way skinnier,” the barber explains in Mandarin.
“The portions in America are just too big,” the customer commiserates.
Steven, 48, sits me down in a chair and catches me up on the latest hairstyles for Asian men — pompadours and comb-overs with fades. Lately people have been coming in and asking for the “two block” haircut. It’s a style often seen on K-pop stars, a close shave of the sides and lower back while leaving the top long.
Tang, sporting a faux hawk himself, was familiar with my hair struggles. Asian hair, he said, isn’t hard to cut, but a lot of barbers and hairstylists don’t have the experience, he said. The back of the head has to be cut a certain way so it doesn’t stick straight up. They train their barbers to “flow like water” over bumps and ridges, contouring cuts to different head shapes.
In the shop there’s lively debate about sports, finance and health. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang hasn’t come up yet, but they have talked about how they really wish they could give Jeremy Lin a haircut. The big political topic is the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
A few minutes in, when two of the barbers started eating from pungent, sagging containers of bun chay, nobody complained about the fish sauce smell. We spent 10 minutes debating relative benefits of banh mi at Ba Le Sandwich Shop (cheaper, better coffee) and Banh Mi My Tho (better bread). Stephen and Ben talked about how hard it was to persuade their parents to remove the Buddhist altar their father had installed to make room for new equipment.
These days, about half the customers are Asian men, mostly of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. But that was really an accident, Stephen said.
Vinh Hair Salon was founded in 1991 by Vinh Tang, Ben and Stephen’s father. Vinh was a local legend who would cut anyone’s hair — men, women or children of any race — as long as they waited in line.
Word of Vinh’s skills spread among Ben’s car enthusiast friends, and their father became known in the local street-racing scene as the “Old Man on Fremont.”
“There would just be a line of race cars in front, back in the day when everybody was trying to be ‘Fast and Furious.’ And it just went on for, like, 10 years,” Ben said.
Asian guys from local high schools started to come in droves. Back then, the salon specialized in a popular hairstyle called the “bang crew cut,” a style that pairs close-cropped hair with parted bangs that came all the way down past the chin.
Asian men from all over the Southland started coming and they began to outnumber other customers, Ben said. They never set out to start an Asian American barbershop, but everyone really seemed to need one.
“They kept saying, you guys are just like the guys in the movie ‘Barbershop,’” Ben said. “So we just went with it.”