The hair clippers felt heavy in my hand as a humid December breeze blew in from the newly harvested rice paddies of Ninh Binh province. Palm branches danced over my head, throwing shadows on the 30-something Swiss woman who sat in front of me. I looked down at the back of her head, then at the clippers in my hand. Sweat gathered at my temples and in my palms.
In the seven months I’d traveled through Asia, I hadn’t found many short-haired women—and none like Caroline, who buzzed her hair as short as her partner Mario’s. And a small homestay in Ninh Giang, a sleepy Vietnamese town about two hours south of Hanoi, was the last place I expected to find three women with short hair like me—Caroline and the two owners.
Mario, Caroline’s partner, had already taken the first round of cutting Caroline’s hair with my clippers, and he asked me to help with some of the details. I took off the blue plastic guard, the metal teeth glinting in the sun. I switched the clippers on, and they buzzed in my hand as I brought the metal edge close to Caroline’s scalp, tracing a clear line along the curve of her ear.
The question of what to do about my own short hair had troubled me since I started planning my yearlong trip abroad the year before. I had a hard enough time explaining how to cut my hair to stylists in the U.S.—let alone in another country and another language.
In my early 20s, I had chin-length curls that I tried to tame with an array of gels and mousses. I’d had short hair for a few years as a kid, but I hadn’t cut it above my chin since middle school. In college, I pasted photos of pixie cuts into Word document and took the printout to my stylist. “Oh, no,” he said. “Your hair won’t look good short because it’s curly.”
I listened then, but at 25, after a bad breakup with my boyfriend, I chopped it off.
I’d long been a tomboy, but in my teenage years and young adulthood, I’d been afraid to cut my hair short. I wondered what people would think. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to get a boyfriend. Yet, when I woke up that first day and looked at my short-haired self in the mirror, it was like I was finally seeing the person I’d always wanted to be.
Perhaps, though, it was only the first of many steps toward becoming who I am. In my late twenties, I came out as queer and later as gender non-conforming. My haircuts got shorter and shorter, all buzzed sides and blunted edges. I started wearing bowties and men’s clothes and feeling more comfortable as myself than I ever had before.
Still, as I scribbled out packing lists and looked longingly at my box of ties, I wasn’t sure how to balance my growing sense of self with norms that put men and women in clear, binary boxes, in countries where being queer is, at best, discriminated against and, at worst, against the law. How would I continue to become who I am while navigating a world that might not accept me?
When I first met Caroline, I was immediately transfixed by her buzz cut and the dark tattoo that circled her forearm like an amulet. She and Mario had been staying at the homestay in Ninh Giang for a month as volunteers—artisans and woodworkers helping the owners in exchange for room and board. I’d just arrived for a weeklong, self-made writer’s retreat.
My first few mornings at the homestay, as we sat around the large, outdoor dining table for breakfast, I glanced over at Caroline and wondered what her story was—because with short hair, there’s almost always a story.
So one morning, as we were eating breakfast along with Mario and the homestay owners, sunbeams bouncing from the patio’s white tiled floor, I decided to ask.
She said she first cut it short several months before, a few countries into her and Mario’s round-the-world cycling journey. They went to a barber in some Middle Eastern country, and when she’d asked the barber to do her hair like Mario’s, the barber looked shocked. Still, he strung up a couple sheets as curtains and cut her hair close to the scalp, scissors flashing. Afterward, he smiled but told her he could get in trouble for cutting a woman’s hair so short. “So be careful,” he’d said.
“Since then, I’ve been to barbers in many countries,” Caroline laughed. “They sometimes look at me funny, but they still cut it.” She paused and looked at Mario. “We need to find somewhere here to get it cut before we go on.”
I wondered, as skilled as I’d gotten shaving my own head, leaving a bundle of curls on top, if I’d be able to cut anyone else’s. “I cut my own hair,” I said. “I brought clippers. You can borrow them, if you want.”
Caroline hesitated. “Is it hard to do?”
I shrugged. “Your hair is all one length, so it should be pretty easy.”
She smiled and cast a conspiratorial look toward Mario. “Sure,” she said. “Let’s do it after lunch.”
The first time I cut my hair while I was on the road, it was June and I was alone in a guesthouse bathroom in Sokcho, South Korea. The week before, 49 people had been shot and killed at a gay club in Orlando. The stories and voices of those who were murdered rang in my head as I switched the clippers on. The sound reverberated off the room’s cold tiles, a constant whirring in my ears.
Before I’d started my journey through Asia the month before, I’d thought about growing my hair out longer or changing something about my appearance to fit in. I wondered if it would be better to look less identifiably different. Less queer. Yet, I didn’t know how to make myself into whatever that was—and I didn’t really want to.
For days after the shooting in Orlando, I felt heat gather in my throat and behind my eyes, but I couldn’t cry. Instead, that afternoon in Sokcho, I held my clippers tight in my fist and ran them up the sides and back of my head. I trimmed the mass of curls on top. I watched the hairs fall in clumps into the sink and felt myself becoming lighter and stronger with each pass I made.
In Ninh Giang, Caroline set up a makeshift barbershop for us—a metal folding chair, a towel, a mirror—beside one of the brick paths that wound around the homestay’s six small bungalows. I handed the clippers to her first.
Caroline and Mario had the same, simple cut—one length all the way around, the shortest level the guard allowed. I watched as they moved the clippers along each others’ heads. Caroline cut Mario’s hair first. When she was done, I pointed to the small, bedraggled hairline just around his ears and at the back of his neck.
“For these,” I said, “you have to take the guard off and go directly along the hairline or else it gets messy. But be careful because if you slip, you cut down to the scalp.”
Caroline laughed nervously and held the clippers out to me. “Why don’t you do it?”
I took them from her and carefully maneuvered them along Mario’s hairline, cleaning up the stray lines that trailed down his neck.
When it was Caroline’s turn, Mario buzzed her head and gave the clippers to me again. I folded down the top of Caroline’s ear and cut around it. Small bits of hair shimmered as they fell to her chin, my hands, her shoulders. I slowly moved the clippers along her hairline, my fingers pressing gently into her scalp. I felt the heat of the sun on my shoulders and the warmth of her skin pulsing against my fingertips.
When I finished trimming around her other ear, I turned the clippers off. Caroline ran a hand over her short hair. Mario held up a mirror.
“How’s it look?” I asked as she eyed her reflection.
“Looks great,” she said with a broad smile. She put her hand on my arm, her eyes bright. “Thank you.”
The next day, Lien, one of the co-owners of the homestay, asked me to cut her hair, too, because she’d seen me with Mario and Caroline and had “always wanted it buzzed.” We set up a chair and mirror again, and I gathered the long parts of her hair on top and clipped them into place with the big clips I’d brought, and I ran the clippers along the back and sides of her head, and she asked me to make it shorter and shorter and shorter.
As the buzzing continued to drone in my ears, I realized that I’d brought these clippers to keep me safe. To shield me from unwanted questions about who I was and why. To distance myself from the people I feared would hurt me.
Instead, to my surprise, my hair—and the clippers that cut them—brought me closer to people. And perhaps, I thought, I didn’t have to be so afraid.
When I was done, I held up the mirror for Lien, and she smiled as she turned her head right and left. “It looks perfect,” she said. She got up and gave me a hug. “This is just what I’ve always wanted.”