A Young Liberal at the Barbershop


When I say barbershop I am not mistaken. I’m talking about one of those old-fashioned barbershops exclusively for men where an old barber sticks to what he knows: the 50’s clean-cut look, and nothing else. I’m talking about the barbershops that are now going extinct in Seoul; you have to find them by luck. They are unusual places, almost like time-traveling to the past.

The one I go to is a shabby little hut — everything in it seems to be at least a couple of decades old (except the fresh blades). My barber, who’s been cutting hair for the past 40 years in the same spot, himself isn’t sure how old the barbershop is. He just emphasizes to me that it’s much older than I can possibly imagine. I just assume that he must be right.

Because my barbershop is that old, the bond between the barber and the regulars is tight. There’s always an elderly gang watching TV or talking among themselves, with the barber sometimes laughing at their jokes. They still call the Bears — a baseball team — “OB” as it was known sometime ago by the former corporate sponsor’s name. They talk of mutual friends’ “men problems” with the casualness befitting a weather discussion. And they always, always worry about the country’s future as old men tend to do. That’s the routine. More often than not the conservative channel TV Chosun is on the old television set, and they — ever loyal to the conservative Saenuri party — discuss how the president should make most of the situation to raise more political support. (That day, yet another North Korean nuke test took place.)

Whenever it’s my turn to get my hair done, surrounded by the gang, my barber ever so often brings up the political questions: Who do you think should be the next president? What does the younger generation think of the president’s new bill? Then the whole room falls silent in anticipation of my answer, a rare young voice in the house.

I have a lot to say, of course, but I act a fool because I know it’s simply impossible to be real me.

I mean, I’ve tried. Until very recently, too. When President Park promoted her labor reform bill on TV Chosun, the barber asked me what I thought, but only after first telling me that he thought she was trying so hard to boost the economy and yet other politicians were trying to screw her effort. I pointed out that while I didn’t doubt her intentions, there also was a lot of reasonable concern over possibly unfavorable outcomes of her plan.

Didn’t work.

She is doing it all for the “gungmin” — the people, the nation! — and for the economy, he said. I again tried to explain how some oppose the bill because certain people might benefit more from it, possibly at the expense of others. I thought I had made an objective observation but, of course, he wasn’t impressed. Next couple of visits were an exercise in repetition and I learned to shut up and just politely smile after that.

You must be wondering why I still go there. I’m telling you, it’s the shave. When he shaves, it’s unreal. The massaging of my face and the strokes of foam and finally the detailed shaving — it’s the perfect dose of care I need. I am content from the bottom of my heart and It makes me miss the good old days I never lived. Seriously, with a shave this good, does it really matter who the president is?

Actually it does. I’m experimenting with vegetarianism, agree with feminists on most things, never vote for the governing party, think the police cornered and abused protestors during the big anti-government rally three months ago — unlike how TV Chosun portrayed the event — and cannot fucking stand TV Chosun.

But it will take too long to explain to the barbershop crowd what some young people like me are actually like, and the reality may be too much for them to take.

And I don’t want to lose my terrific barber.

Daunnara Chung, 25, South Korean

  • Hideki Matsui

    Oh, you can’t stand TV Chosun?? I love it. The Korean version of Fox News in the US. Just like Fox the newscasters at TV Chosun are all “super intense” as if they’d overdosed on caffeine. Their coverage of the news may not be entirely objective, as you say, but the channel itself is very entertaining. They’ve discontinued it now, but up until a few months ago, the weather reporter, who also happened to do the sports, at the end of her segment, would raise her fist, and yell “Sports PAAAN”.

  • Hideki Matsui

    I also frequent a men’s only barbershop in Yongsan (although not quite as old as the one mentioned in this article). My barber is an old geezer, a funny old guy, well into his 70’s, almost approaching 80 years old. His technique is good and he’s also very chatty. He knows I’m Japanese. One day he asks me “what do you think of President Park?” I tell him she just may be the worst president in Korean history, and he laughs out loud like he heard a funny joke. He then asks me “what do you think of Moon Jae-In, the former leader of the Democratic Party”. I tell him he’s probably even dumber than President Park, and my barber laughs even harder. He finally asks me “what do you think of Prime Minister Abe?” I tell him Abe’s even dumber than Moon Jae-In and that he doesn’t know diddly-squat about economics. My barber suddenly turns serious, and whispers in my ear “would you get arrested for saying things like that in Japan?” I calmly tell him “no, in Japanese political blogs, everyday somebody calls him an idiot” and my barber is rolling on the floor, laughing like he never heard anything funnier in his life.

  • Boxboxbox

    Daunnara, you should write more about your political views. I would be very interested to see how the younger generation of liberals from Jeolla differ from the older generation of liberals. Since you’re from Naju, you’re really from the heart of it all, and we would love to hear more from you.

    None of the political parties or candidates have a monopoly on truth. Some members of some political parties do have a history of skirting with treasonous alliances with the North, unfortunately. I would be most interested in your comments on this dangerous precedent. I am assuming that you are not in that category, otherwise you would not have volunteered for the KATUSA program.