Stories of migration

Frankly ... integrated – A hair-raising experience

Photo (Detail): Ashkan Forouzani © Unsplash

Someone who goes with naturally frizzy hair to a classic barber's shop in Germany might be in for a surprise. Dominic Otiang'a shares his experiences with us.

Barber shop culture has been increasingly growing to accommodate different hair textures and cultural tastes. In cities across the United States and many urban areas of the world, the barber shop has become a cultural center to some communities and a place to chill out and get sports updates or discuss current affairs in the country. But what about Germany? Well, it doesn't have to be similar to other parts of the world. In fact, I am convinced that it has never been. But things are catching up. Barbers in Germany have always required a certificate after a thorough training for a couple of years. 

My first time to show up in a barber shop here was in 2007. I chose this particular barbershop because whenever I passed by, the staff would stare at my hair. There's that suspicion that hits me whenever a hairdresser stares at my hair. I don't know whether it means my hair looks gorgeous or terrible.

Men's hair salon and barber shop - often two different worlds

The first question they asked was whether I had an appointment. None! This wasn't a place to discusss football, politics or talk to a complete stranger on the waiting list. It was such quiet spot. To be fair, let me add that they kept it professional; you walk in, wait, let your hair be attended to and say “keep change" or wait for it while looking in the mirror as you exit. The only conversation would be about what took you there.

Have you ever dealt with hair like this before?

As expected, a hairdresser began by combing my hair. I was tempted to ask a stupid question: "Have you handled hair like mine before?" She said "Yes, of course!" and I was instantly ashamed of my question. She struggled with my kinky hair, changing from one hair comb to another, asking me if I felt any pain. It wasn't painful but four combs later, she suggested that my hair ought to be wet first. I asked her to let me comb it. She insisted she was a specialist. The hair comb got stuck in my wet hair and I picked it to do it by myself. It looked as though she was just about to recommend a painkiller for me.

It looked like she was about to recommend that I take a painkiller right away.

Finally, my hair was cut short but it wasn't uniform, some parts 4mm others 3mm and maybe 0.0mm too. So I sat pretty, waiting for her to straighten things up. She touched my head saying, "Nice! It looks nice, right?" She was done with my hair. Considering all the struggles she had had, I wondered what to say. The best option was to foot my bill, smile and say goodbye. After all, nobody on the streets would notice the terrible state of my hair - maybe only those with hair texture like mine. The good news was that they were far less than 1% in this place. 

Trending: Barber shops in Germany

Today there are several barber shops that cater for every hair texture and cultural taste. Some male barber shops have become cultural and political 'incubators' where men meet to discuss issues and ideas, away from restaurants and bars. Walk into a Turkish barber shop in Stuttgart, Berlin or elsewhere in the major cities and you will have a friendly conversation with total strangers. On your next visit, they might not remember your name but they will surely call you 'Bruder'.  
There have been loud concerns from the unions of hairdressers for what they see as unfair competition from barber shops. When you spend over €10,000  and many years  training  hairdresser and someone else  working straight from their relatives' barbershop makes more money, it sucks. But I often have to remember my first experience with a trained hairdresser, not for the painkiller part but to remind myself that migration results in diversity of cultures and hair textures.

"Frankly ..."

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly …” column series is written by Dominic Otiang’a, Liwen Qin, Maximilian Buddenbohm und Gerasimos Bekas. Dominic Otiang'a writes about his life in Germany: what strikes him, what is strange, where did he get interesting insights?

Dominic Otiang'a
is the author of several novels and short stories. He was born in Kenya and lives in Stuttgart.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., online editorial office
May 2019

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