I got my first haircut in Timor-Leste last week! A blunt long bob cut my stylist helpfully told me was very in-fashion right now.
Before I left Australia, little details like how people got their hair cut in other countries were what preoccupied me most about my move (that’s a little embarrassing to write, but I’ve never lived overseas before, and my anxious mind was pretty indiscriminate with what it decided to latch onto in the lead-up to my departure).
I suppose our haircuts and appearances are pretty personal things, and when you’re in a new or unfamiliar environment, you’re going to seek out the things that make you feel most comfortable. What if I went for a haircut, couldn’t articulate what I wanted, they didn’t do it the same way as hairdressers did back home, and I ended up looking and feeling… not like myself?
It’s not a big problem by any stretch of the imagination, but I was still a little apprehensive, and put it off until my dyed-blonde tips started looking and feeling like straw. When my housemate’s helpful recommendation was seconded by a long-term expat friend, I messaged their stylist on Instagram in broken Tetun, received confirmation in English, and visited the pink salon downstairs at Timor Plaza for my first Dili trim.
For all my fretting, the haircut experience was almost identical to getting a cut in Australia. My hair was washed, scrubbed dry, combed out (although, unusually, not a word was said as the comb snarled and tangled in my matted blonde tips); Instagram screenshots were consulted; the snipping happened; then a blow-dry and a decision to take a little more off the ends; and I was back out in the shopping centre less than 30 minutes later. It’s one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had and it only cost me $10.
I felt pretty pleased with myself for a couple of days, but then — as it seems to often do — the layered meaning of a seemingly innocuous errand began peeling itself back in my mind.
First, I felt happy that my Dili haircut was so similar to my Melbourne trims. It was all so familiar: the bib round my neck, the neat, even snipping, the polite small-talk stymied by the blast of a hairdryer, the full-length salon mirrors. The things that were different — the cut was cheaper, quicker and less judgemental than any other I’ve had before — made the experience better. I felt quite pleased with myself for navigating that.
But then, of course, I thought more.
And I realised: I didn’t want it to be so similar. I didn’t want it to be so easy.
As glad as I am that I’ve got a haircut I love, I wanted my first haircut in in Timor to be a terrible experience. I wanted to walk into a random streetside shack and pull my clumsy Tetun into enough words to ask for a haircut, and then sit sweaty and awkward in a plastic party chair while a thin silent man with beetel teeth combed and cut for $1, and not be sure when it was finished, and pay silently and clumsily and burst back into the sunlight of the concrete Dili streets five minutes later, squinting into my phone camera to check what had just happened and wondering how quickly it’d grow back.
Only after the haircut happened did I realise I didn’t want an Instagram stylist and an air-conditioned shopping centre salon and an English instruction to “maybe take a little more off?” and a wash and a blow dry and an in-fashion style and a screenshot of Amy Odell and a soda water bought immediately after the fact.
I wanted something less comfortable; something more different.
I’ve written before about how uncomfortable I feel doing everyday tasks in Timor – I’m self-conscious and awkward, and I tend to seek what feels most like home.
But I’ve also written about how my life here isn’t normal, and how that’s a very good thing. I moved to Timor for something different — to confront what frightens me most and to force myself to grow.
As happy as I am with my haircut from the pink salon, it’s shown me I’m looking at this round the wrong way. I shouldn’t try and force my life in Dili into the mould of what I had in Melbourne or Perth — I should instead lean into the fact that of course things are going to be different; of course I’m going to feel uncomfortable here; of course I’m not going to know what comes next, because it’s all different from home and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t really want that.
Something to think about next time I need a trim. Time to strip back everything; to think of what life in Timor offers before imagining what I need.
The photo above is ya gal pre-haircut in a veeeery nice-and-unreal Melbourne-esque Dili restaurant. Next trim with produce a dusty, squinty streetside selfie.
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