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Cut in Translation

The other day our head lab technician at AHC, Sona, bounded up to me, obviously excited about something. She told me that a Japanese group was coming to the hospital and that there would be some kind of “cutting” happening.

“Ohh, is it a ribbon-cutting ceremony? For the hospital?” I said.

Sona smiled, “Hmm… I don’t know.” Smile. (I should note: the language barrier between Sona and me is so great that many of our conversations end with me saying, “It’s OK, nevermind,” and Sona smiling and saying “I don’t know,” as in, “I don’t know what you’re saying right now.”)

Of course, she did know what the “cutting” event was, but she didn’t understand my question. I pressed on, “Ohh right, the founder of Angkor Hospital is Japanese; is the ribbon cutting ceremony related to his foundation? Are they opening a new wing of the hospital?”

“I don’t know.” Smile.

“Ok, well, can I go? What time is the cutting happening?” I asked.

“Yes, you can go; I’m going too. I don’t know what time to go, though.”

I felt like I had made some progress; now at least I knew she would tell me when the time came to attend “the cutting”, and she would show me where it was. We both smiled, shrugged, and went back to our work.

(below: me and Sona, directly on my left)

That afternoon, Sona approached me again and said, “Ok, I’m going to the cutting now! Do you want to come?”

“Yes, of course!” I replied.

We doned our AHC lab coats (want to look professional for the staff picture, I thought) and weaved through the halls of the hospital until we reached the registration area, where children and their families were milling about, waiting to be seen by a nurse. Sona walked up to the head receptionist and began chatting, while the entire crowd of patients and families just stared at me, the only foreigner in the room. Sona eventually turned back to me and said, “She said not now. Maybe at 9 o’clock.”

“Oh, the cutting was at 9:00 this morning? We already missed it?”

“Maybe 9:00 tomorrow.”

“OK…” They moved the entire ceremony to tomorrow? How unorganized could they be? That entire Japanese group came all this way to Cambodia, and now…..

Sona and I walked back toward the lab in silence (it’s so hard to communicate that we sometimes don’t even try). Eventually she turned to me:

“What kind of cut will you get?”

I could literally see the puzzle pieces falling into place at once, the snippets of our conversation from the morning all coming together like clues at the end of a good mystery movie, and I finally realized what was going on. How could I let her know I had had no clue that I was signing up for a haircut without my knowing it the whole time? “Ohhhh, you know, I just want a little trim off the bottom……” I said, without missing a beat and holding up the ends of my hair for her to see. “And you? What do you want?”

“I want bangs!!!”

Later that afternoon, Sona came up to me again. “The cutter is here, but she’s not Japanese; she’s your color.” Smile. “Want to go now?”

By this point, I had to go to save face, no matter the fact that I was trying to grow my hair longer. We walked back to the registration area, where a 20’s-something woman in full-sleeve tattoos was hunkered over an AHC janitor. The staff prodded me to go ask her where she was from. “New York now, but she grew up in Texas,” I told them. I further gathered that she was a volunteer for the week, giving free haircuts to the hospital staff, patients, and families.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 7.10.43 AMNext, they prodded me to ask her if she wanted a surgical face mask to wear while she was cutting his hair. This was pretty funny, since no one in the U.S. wears face masks, unless they are immunocompromised or contagious (and even then, only maybe). But in Southeast Asia, people wear face masks all the time: while riding their motorbikes, on busses, selling goods in the market, just going about their every day lives. And many people here would never think about giving someone a haircut without wearing a mask.

Although I knew what the hairstylist’s answer would be, I entertained the staff’s request. “I know we don’t use these back home,” I began, “but the staff wants me to ask you if you would like a face mask.”

“Umm… no, I’m fine,” she answered with a confused look. Then a few minutes later, “Why? Do you think I should have one? Is there something I should be worried about?” I laughed and assured her that no, it is just a cultural difference. I don’t know why they wear them to cut hair here, either, I said. 🙂

Sona and I waited about an hour but kept getting “skipped” by all the cute kids who wanted a haircut. Of course, I was happier just watching (I was really just getting the haircut for Sona’s sake) and really didn’t want to take the stylists’ attention away from the people who wanted a free cut more than I did.

As I was watching, I realized that I had never seen a Cambodian person with a hairdo as short as the ones she was giving to the men and boys. Don’t get me wrong- the haircuts were fantastic (giving cuts that she would charge at least $50 for back in New York)- but as a culture, the men here always wear their thick wavy hair a little long, sometimes swept forward or to the side in an uber-hip way. I was cringing to think they might be horrified by how short their hair was by the end of it, but Sona assured me that they were saying that they liked them. Maybe I was the only one who really noticed the difference. In the end, it was a tiny reminder of why I love travelling – it can teach us things we never even thought were there to learn in the first place.

Eventually, a woman in turquoise green flowered pants with matching top appeared with a fat little baby (wearing nothing but a diaper and a gold necklace) in one arm and a 5 year old kid attached to her other arm. She came up to me and gestured that the baby would be getting his first haircut. Then she turned to her older son, neatly folded down his shirt collar, and lovingly smoothed out his pants. She held his hand as she walked him up to the stylist and helped him into the barber’s chair, coaxing him to sit up straight and tall. His first professional haircut? His mom hovered throughout his cut, intermittently nursing her fat baby and tilting her older son’s head up for the stylist with her free hand.

When I heard the stylist ask the little boy in English how short he wanted his hair, I asked Sona to translate for him. “Really short,” he replied in Khmer with a big smile –those short haircuts she was doing seemed to be just fine by him. Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 7.12.27 AMSona and I waited around for a bit longer and decided to return to lab, sans haircuts.

The next day Sona went back and returned with an adorable bob cut – bangs and all. Luckily, I ended up not having the get one, deferring to my “busy schedule” in lab, as being the reason.

Scott, on the other hand, was in severe need of a haircut. His bushy mop was not only looking a little unkempt, but it was not serving him well in the 90-degree days that we had been enjoying (or suffering in, depending :)). Of course, he couldn’t get a haircut at the hospital since he was not staff or a patient, so we went to the Old Market together, where, buried deep within the alleyways and maze of stalls, you can get a professional haircut for $2. Scott sat down and asked someone to translate for him that he needed a lot cut off – at least an inch all around. The barber nodded and got to work.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 7.13.23 AMA long 45 minutes later, he was done – annnnd it was exactly the same.

Scott asked the barber if he could take a little more off the top (any off the top, really…), and he happily agreed. Each time he went to make a cut, he grabbed a section of hair at jussst the right spot to make the perfect cut– I could sense Scott and myself literally holding our breaths in anticipation that he would actually make the desired cut– instead he would gradually sliiiide his fingers up as the scissors closed down, nicking barely a milimeter of hair with each cut.

“OK?” he asked Scott, smiling, when he finished.

Scott smiled. “Uhh, getting better….. maybe just a little more?”

He tried again, nicking away a few strays here and there for over 5 minutes. He smiled again, “OK?”

It was still the same length as it was an hour ago.

Suddenly, the realization that I had made at the hospital earlier in the week it dawned on me. The man was probably confused as to why Scott even wanted a haircut in the first place – by Cambodian standards, it probably looked plenty short already (too short, in fact). The barber’s hair was quite long indeed, swept forward in a really dramatic, stylish way across his forehead. Just as the American stylist was cutting the Cambodian’s hair far too short, this barber was afraid to trim Scott’s hair any shorter than 2 inches long all around, despite Scott’s constant request for “shorter, shorter.”

Seeing that he wasn’t making any progress, Scott paid and thanked the barber profusely. We then walked back to our apartment – where I grabbed my brush and pair of pink kindergarden-style scissors and proceeded to hack off the mop that still remained on his head.

By the end, I was sweating and covered in loose brown “fur”, the bathroom drain (which is on the floor) was sufficiently clogged, and I was wishing I had had someone to offer me a face mask!! Scott’s hair was a bit longer and choppier than his normal American ‘do, and was far, far too short for any self-respecting Cambodian, but not too shabby overall.

At lab the next day, Sona bounded up to me and asked me if I wanted to attend the “dying” that would be held later that morning. My horror quickly melted away into laughter as her smile told me everything I needed to know – the American hairdresser was now offering free hair-dyeing, as well.  Sona said she was going to get highlights, and that sounded pretty good to me, too.


2 thoughts on “Cut in Translation”

  1. I gave B a haircut a couple weeks back and it acutally looked good! Page was nervous of course, but I told her not to worry; I watched a video about it on youtube. 🙂


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