I [finally] received my first paycheck just over one month after I arrived for orientation. (Fulbrighters of the future: the 4-8 week buffer they recommend in the welcome packet is accurate. Be prepared!) I decided to treat myself to a haircut and fresh highlights. The salon-to-resident ratio in Damme must be high; there is at least one salon on nearly every block in the downtown area. I rode around on my bike until I found one that looked nice, but was not terribly expensive, and whose stylists had good hair. I found what I was looking for and booked an appointment.
I was looking forward to having my hair done, but nervous. During my entire year in Freiburg, I chose not to go to the salon. Salon vocabulary is not part of the typical offering in a German class. Even in your native language, it can difficult to convey to your stylist exactly how you want to look. I think it is safe to say that every woman I know has left a salon disappointed at least once in her life. It was far easier to cut my own hair and be disappointed anyway.
The Big Day arrived. My stylist was a lovely, patient woman, who explained things clearly and asked many questions to try to understand what I wanted. She understood my language difficulty since she herself was foreign, or an Ausländer: Iranian, but raised in Bremen. I did not ask if she was a first or second generation, but her German was accent-free. We spent the rest of the time discussing life as an Ausländer in Germany. She reported few problems, but she, her boyfriend and their young son had experienced such shocking treatment in one town that they moved for safety reasons. Immigration in Germany happens to be a big interest of mine, and I felt fortunate that my stylist freely shared her experiences with me. Completely at ease, I sat under the dryers and sipped my coffee while the dye worked.
My stylist came to me after a few minutes, saying she had to leave early. She asked if it would be OK to have the apprentice remove the foils and wash and style my hair. I agreed without hesitation. She had set a timer, and there were still two fully-trained stylists there to oversee her work. My stylist wished me a good weekend and left me in the apprentice’s capable hands.
When it was time, the apprentice took me to the sink, washed my hair, and led me back to the chair. She had started to put some mousse in my hair when the stylist working next to us stopped her. “Did you do a deep conditioning treatment?” he asked her sternly. “No,” the apprentice replied. “She told me to take out the foils, and then wash and style her,” she said, referring to the instructions my stylist had left. He motioned towards me with his chin. “Didn’t she just have her hair colored?” he asked quickly. The apprentice looked at him. “Yes, but…” He cut her off. “Then you need to do a deep conditioning treatment.”
While they went back and forth, I tried to be polite. The least I could do was mentally remove myself from the tongue-lashing the poor apprentice was receiving publicly. She clearly did not know all the necessary steps of the hair coloring procedure. This went on for another minute or two, when I realized that the stylist was now talking to me. “Are you in a rush, or do you have another ten minutes?” he asked me. I replied that I was in no hurry. He turned to the apprentice. “Do the deep conditioning treatment then.” She sighed, washed 10 Euros worth of mousse down the drain, and led me back to the sink.
When I was finally finished, I went to the counter to pay. The apprentice handed the list to the stylist at the cash register. When she told me the sum, I balked. It was far more than I had expected, even though I had carefully checked the price list before making my appointment. I asked her how she had reached this sum, and she ticked off the list of services I had received. Included in the list was the damn deep conditioning treatment, which I had not requested. I was shocked. The stylist next to me had used the apprentice’s lack of experience and my perceived lack of language skills to con me into an extra service. I am certain that I could have argued the point at the register. In that moment, however, I became a self-fulfilling prophesy, unable to produce any German. I was too embarrassed. Maybe I had misunderstood the question I thought. No, I am certain I know “Do you have ten minutes?” I felt confused. I also felt ashamed, but of what, I am not exactly sure. I pressed a fistful of cash onto the counter and left before anyone could see my face, which I could feel getting redder by the minute.
As I pedaled home, I grew angrier and angrier. That man had listened to the entire conversation about my not knowing “salon vocabulary” (as if that were a category in every phrasebook) and instead of being a human, like everyone else I have encountered in Germany, he used it against me. The worst part of all is that I felt this huge amount of indignation/shame/embarrassment by getting duped out of 20 Euros while at a nice salon. I admit this is what you might call a “First World Problem.” My walk in the shoes of a foreigner has been relatively painless and will not be permanent. All over the world, many foreigners experience far worse, far more often, simply because they may have been born somewhere else. Some are even born and raised in a place where they still read as “foreign.” If any of us wants to uphold ideals of equality or freedom, this cannot stand.
If I am completely honest with myself, the worst part of the experience is actually that some part of me felt that this should not happen to me. I have heard stories about all kinds of discrimination from friends, and been genuinely angry about it, but I had never actually lived the kinds of things those friends had described. I have also never been surprised when I hear about discrimination against people who are somehow “different?” It is disgusting, but it happens a lot. But what about me? I am not “different.” I am a young, white, straight American, who does not agree with many of her country’s policies. I am not in Germany to take anyone’s job or use the social system. How could one bad situation make me feel so ashamed about how I was born or how I speak ? How could anyone discriminate against me?
I have always thought the expression “Pride comes before the fall,” was accurate. Even the ancient Greeks considered hubris a tragic flaw. Maybe what we need to add is that naïveté comes before pride. One has to be somewhat naïve, or at least lack self-awareness, not to recognize her own pride or arrogance. Then again, if one never has negative experiences, how can she gain such awareness? What I experienced was certainly not a “fall,” but it did knock me down a peg: Young, white and open-minded does not mean that everyone likes you.
I will chalk up this unpleasantness to a loss of 20 Euros, and an immeasurable personal gain in self-awareness and German vocabulary. Luckily, Damme has plenty of salons.
Many readers responded on Facebook that I forgot to mention how the cut turned out. I’m very happy with the cut, the highlights and the original hairdresser. Thanks to everyone who asked!