What would it be like for a ‘spoiled westerner’ in China to become a dirt-worker barbershop trainee? Can a westerner survive a typical everyday job in China?

Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom is a relatively new blog I’ve been following for a while, described by China Blog List as "A Jewish guy from Kansas City provides his anthropological, and sometimes humorous insight on life away from China’s megacities.". Aside from being an Israeli and having once lived in the Kansas City area, I find that I have a lot in common with how Ben looks at life. I like his reason for coming to China :

My reasons for coming to China were that I wanted to experience a lifestyle completely different from my cushy life in the ‘burbs…I wanted to be shocked and isolated.

A spoiled westerner in China as a Chinese barber-shop trainee

I was quite overwhelmed a week ago to read that Ben has decided the unimaginable – he took a job as a very low salary Chinese barbershop trainee. Why?

As an American living in China, I have spent the last three years of my life enjoying the benefits of being a citizen of a country which is far wealthier than the one in which I reside. I travel around town by taxi. I drink at expensive bars. I eat sushi. I take trips across the country, and when my apartment is dirty, I call a maid to clean it up. My life is not that different from the other several hundred Westerners who call Fuzhou home. We all come to China for the “China experience,” but we still live our lives with the advantages of being Westerners. […]

What I hope to gain from this experience is an understanding of what Chinese workers go through on a daily basis. What is it like to work a job 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for a salary of less than $100 a month? How will this put into perspective my life in China as a foreigner, or my life in America as an American? How does the other half (or in this case 99.9%) live, and how do the respond to a foreigner trying to do the same? I hope to find the answers to these questions, and hopefully have a little fun doing it.

So, what’s the plan?

Tomorrow I will begin a one-month stint as a 学徒 (trainee) at a local barber shop/salon. The manager will be treating me just like any other beginning employee his first days on the job. I will be starting at the very bottom of the barbershop food chain, and my duties will include sweeping hair, cleaning bathrooms, assisting barbers, and entertaining customers as they have their hair cut. Throughout the month I will have only three days off, and work the rest from 9 am to 8 pm. I will essentially be a slave to my job which for one month pays what I would make in one day of teaching English.

And so he did. First day included some interesting reactions from the Chinese staff :

I showed at the barbershop at 9 am, to somewhat surprised looks from the other employees. I am guessing they probably figured there was a 50/50 chance as to whether or not I would show up for my first day. I had gone in to the barbershop with Melody last night, and talked with the boss in person. The boss, was dumbfounded, to say the least, when I told him I wanted to be a xue tu (trainee). After Melody explained to him how Americans sometimes like to do crazy things like this, and that I was simply doing it for the experience, he got the vibe, and agreed. […]

My work so far is quite simple. I am starting at the lowest possible position, so my responsibilities include collecting used towels, sweeping hair, and bringing cups of hot water to customers.

Second day so far, has been far more difficult :

It’s been two days on the job now and it already feels like months. I have worked 2 eleven hour days in a row, and because of personal circumstances which you probably do not want to read about in this blog, done it on 2 hours sleep (no I wasn’t drinking). Although the work itself is not so tiring, I have never been on the clock for such a long shift in my life, and it is mentally exhausting. I still can’t imagine my colleagues do this 27 days a month all year long.

Although nothing as extreme, this brings back memories from my time in Hoi-An/Vietnam, where I spent weeks with my Vietnamese friends at their small shops selling shoes and tailor clothing (Xin Chao, Hay Ban) as well as just trying to understand what it’s like to be a local (MBA – Introduction to Marketing : basics).

Ben, what you’re doing is extraordinary. I’ll keep following…

Tags: barbershop; China; dirt; job; westerner;

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