Monthly Archives: February 2010

hair cuts

a person who cuts their hair is changing their destiny,” my hairdresser said with a cheeky grin a few snips after i told him what i was looking for.

just above the shoulders, layered, shorter in the back and longer in the front, i said, somewhat reluctantly, as i tried to imagine my hair six inches less. and maybe add some sideswept bangs. it had been a little over a year since my last haircut, and i figured it was due time for a change.

“i’m sorry?” i asked, unsure of what i had just heard. “you must be looking for change,” the young japanese hair stylist explained, “otherwise, you wouldn’t want to cut so much off,” he said, pointing at the locks of hair that had gathered on the ground.

how true it was — i thought to myself as i smiled in response. it was coincidentally the day before the chinese new year, the year of the tiger, and i mused about what was in store in the coming year. but most of all, i thought about “xiao liu” — the young migrant worker that had cut my hair and opened my eyes to a different china once upon an autumn day.

i wondered what he and his friends were up to now — those “brothers” from jiangxi — who had bonded over hometowns and native dialects. in a city like shanghai, it was easy to see how valuable provincial alliances could be. since that day, i’ve often thought of them, about how theirs was a generation that was building the new china, and in a sense, shaping the world.

armed with little more than dreams and ambitions of a better life, xiao liu had come to shanghai as a cook, factory worker, beggar, cosmetologist and now, as a hair dresser.  in spite of this evident entrepreneurial streak, it seemed as if the same confidence {or necessity} that had driven this 20 year old to make his own place among china’s 130-million-population migrant worker colony quickly disappeared as the discussion turned towards education.

“have you ever thought of learning english or going back to school?” i asked, as he told me how life was better now that he had some more time and was making a liveable earning (i ended up paying 15 yuan, or roughly 2 USD, for what ended up to be a 2 hour plus hair cut).  “i’m not smart enough,” he replied. “i’m just an oridnary person.”

ORDINARY. the word struck me — growing up in a system that had taught me and my peers that we were extraordinary, that we were capable of whatever we set our minds to, the word seemed a little unjarring.

when i first walked into the shop, one of the first things his friend/boss said to me was “you’re not from shanghai … or at least you didn’t grow up here.” when i asked why that was — in shanghai dialect — he remarked: “because you’re actually having a real conversation with us.” it was because i saw them. it was because i saw them beyond hired help, and because i was genuinely curious about their lives, as they were about mine.

as i went to my aunt’s place that night, i told them about what had happened. they nodded their way through and simply said: “you shouldn’t be talking to strangers like that. it’s dangerous.” i’ve always recognized that there were two chinas — the one that astounded the world with its rising middle class and the one that was still being written by the hands of an increasingly urbanized population. it wasn’t until that moment that i realized that this same marginalization had crept into my own family. even within the same country, the division between city residents and their rural visitors/aspiring residents was painfully clear.

as i signed over the $65 at the end of my last haircut, i wondered whether or not xiao liu and his pals had opened up that new salon they had been talking about last, whether or not they were still even in shanghai. and how many more had similar experiences and had made similar journeys? and i realized — these are the stories worth writing about. and after all, isn’t that what writing is about — giving voice, recording events, recording life.


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the intellectual entrepreneur

a couple weeks ago in class, my professor repeatedly brought up the concept of an “intellectual entrepreneur” — someone who didn’t always have their head in the clouds as academics can sometimes have the reputation of doing, but someone who applied their breadth and depth of technical knowledge in one area to real, unexplored situations.

while we often think about “entrepreneurs” in the business and commercial sense of the word, there is indeed the entrepreneurial spirit that can be found in academia, policy, and law. we often hear about how things should change, how there needed to be a challenge and reversal of the status quo but what really stuck with me about her interpretation was the need to work within current frameworks and different analytical procedures in order to affect effective change.

the context of this was given against the recent google books settlement;  a very cool idea in concept (read about the google blog post here), especially from an individual’s perspective, it would essentially give google the rights to scan every book out there and to quote my professor “essentially hand google the library of alexandria.” (a legal perspective against the settlement can be found here)

while the google books settlement case is deserving of an entry in and of itself, reading professor pamela samuelson’s argument against the settlement (you can download the PDF here) shows how samuelson — an eminent professor of law — has shaped a case grounded within procedures found most often in policy making.

and perhaps this is the approach that more intellectuals should take; i have always been fascinated by the intersections between different fields of study and the potential that exists in synergies combining business, policy, technology, and academia. perhaps the next challenge for academics is to take their research and work to the next level and to effect change in areas outside their expertise by becoming, like professor samuelson, an intellectual entrepreneur.

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