Monthly torture for boys

Traditional boy's haircut
Traditional boy’s haircut

When we were kids, my two brothers and I underwent a traditional Chinese haircut (minus the queued tail) that, for most boys at that age, was already a minor form of torture. But the torture was tripled—at least for me—because (1) it was done monthly, (2) it was done with an old razor featuring reusable Gillette blades, and (3) it was done by my father during his often-grumpy moments.

Now don’t get me wrong. We loved our Daddy, of course, all three of us boys plus our sister. (Yeah, we called him that although we called our mother not Mommy but Mama. Go figure.) We enjoyed most of our interactions with him. Even though often there were extreme-introvert episodes when he’d rather be just staying in the master’s bedroom all day, playing Solitaire while listening to the radio alone, while Mama was her usual busy hectic self with her many church or business activities, we rarely respected his privacy and barged in anyway to play gin rummy and a few other card games—which I think all of us, including him, eminently enjoyed.

But until we all reached high school, we boys had to undergo what for me was a dreaded ritual at my father’s hands—the monthly boy’s haircut done in the traditional Chinese style (i.e., almost fully clean-shaven except for a saucer-sized and close-cropped crewcut at the pate). I’m no longer sure, it could have been once every two months, but my recollection is that it was more frequent than that. Maybe our mops grew fast and thick back then—something that my now-gray hair has totally forgotten to do.

The fateful day always fell on a weekend, at daytime, which made it all the more excruciating because it robbed us of precious hours of playtime among ourselves or with neighborhood kids. (We didn’t have television, much less computers and cell phones, back then.) Daddy would announce the dreaded hour by pulling up a chair and setting up his barber’s kit in a sunny and airy corner of the house (usually by the huge second-floor window near the entrance to their bedroom, or in the front yard with its terraced garden). Then he would call us boys, one at a time, for our turn to undergo the dreaded torture session.

At this point you must be thinking, “Your Dad is personally giving you a haircut every month? Man, that’s awesome. You certainly had a loving father. Why should you consider it torture?”

Well, I already explained one-third of the reason, namely, it stole an hour or so of our precious weekend playtime on a very regular monthly basis. But the bigger reason is that my father used a not-so-sharp barber’s scissors and a manual razor. He never used electric razors, no. And as we didn’t have any say on the hair style, Daddy always preferred a clean-shaven pate on our heads.

It was a tedious, uncomfortable, and often painful procedure—especially the shaving, even though he was never too careless as to nick our pate in the process. (Well, maybe once or twice he did, but nothing as traumatic as the whole procedure itself.) Whenever I squirmed on the stiff wooden chair, or even as much as winced and whimpered, Daddy would tell me to keep still, and push right ahead with his cutting, lawn-mower style. I think that my every squirm made him grim, and my every whimper made him grumpier and more determined to finish what he really set out to do.

Looking back now, I think that he regularly cut our hair, not because he wanted to save on barbershop money—after all, a haircut cost only a cheap 50 centavos or so in those days—and certainly not because he wanted to prove himself as some sort of a jack-of-all-trades or a DIY guy—we already knew that and admired him for it. What I strongly suspect is that this was his way of giving us a more earth-grounded option of how to do things manually, based perhaps on some traditional sense of manhood or regular ritual, namely, that of a fraternal bond cemented by a bit of mechanical tedium and necessary discomfort, even pain.

I think it was the same spirit that made him encourage us to bring bolos and pickaxes, perhaps with a sapling or two, whenever we joined the occasional plod to the farmland that he and Mama bought (first in San Rafael, Bulacan, then in Tanza, Cavite). I think this spirit also showed when he encouraged us to help in the laborious rattan-weave repairs (sulihiya) on the living-room chairs, or in hand-weaving a net for the family’s pingpong table—not because it was cheaper to do so, and not because he wanted to prove himself a DIY guy, but because it was for him a practical philosophy of life that he wanted us to experience and understand.

My older brother Roberto appeared to have fully taken to heart our Dad’s esprit de famille, a gungho attitude of DIY-do-or-die. I’ve grown up on the same philosophy but a bit half-half. I too dabble in the DIY lifestyle as much as I could, but I draw the line at doing my kids’ haircuts and venturing at original or repair carpentry on antique narra.

Happily, though, I see my two kids go to the barbershop all by themselves (since they were 12 at least), with no moral compunction on my part to inflict the same traumatic shaving tortures on them, thank God. I have totally no sense of hairstyle anyway. I don’t even know what instructions to give the barber whenever, maybe once every six months, I force myself to visit the neighborhood barbershop. I simply tell him to go cut as much as he thinks is proper. If my two kids have a much better sense of hairstyle, then why should I meddle in any way? I think Daddy will understand. #

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