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If You Can’t Speak English, You Can’t Cut My Hair!

Kay Hirai

By Kay Hirai

For The North American Post

For this week’s column, I wanted to share a selection from my upcoming book.

As I am finishing the last few chapters of this book, I look back and am amazed at some of the intolerant experiences I went through as a minority woman entrepreneur. I was committed to training and helping immigrant workers succeed at their chosen careers, yet I encountered subtle and sometimes overt discrimination as I went about trying to establish my business. I wanted to share this excerpt with my readers at this particular tumultuous time in our history because I want all of you to stand firm and commit that “WE WILL NOT GO BACK…WE WILL KEEP MOVING FORWARD.”


Here is the selection from my new book:

I hired Lan after she graduated from the cosmetology program at a local community college. She was a young, immigrant woman from Vietnam. On her first day of work, Lan came into the salon an hour before her scheduled time to learn English in the back room of the salon.

“Good morning, Lan, are you ready to start our class?” I asked, with a smile on my face as she came running in the door.

“Good morning, Ma’am,” she greeted me, trying to catch her breath.

“Looks like you have already had a busy morning Lan,” I said.

“Yes, Ma’am. I took my two children to their pre-school. The bus was late and I missed the next bus that I usually take to come downtown,” Lan said.

“You mean you take your kids to school on a bus and then you transfer to another bus to come to work?” I asked.

“Yes, Ma’am, she replied.

I looked at her in disbelief. She had already been up since 5:00 a.m. in the morning, juggling both the demands of her children and the sometimes unreliable bus system. I couldn’t help but admire her strength and commitment to building her life in this country.

“Lan, let’s begin our class. You will be able to speak English as well as cut and style your clients’ hair in no time,” I promised.

Two weeks later, after practicing her cutting and styling skills on mannequins and teaching her some rudimentary English, I scheduled her first haircut with a client named Ken. I stood behind one of the doorways, anxiously peeking out at our design floor. As I watched closely, I was relieved to see that Lan was executing a perfect haircut for Ken. She neatly combed each section of his hair, held his hair up at the right angle, and slid her scissors through to cut, just the way I had taught her. I thought to myself, this is the best haircut and style I had seen on Ken. Ever. Extremely happy with the results of her work, I walked into my office to make a quick phone call.

Suddenly, I heard a commotion at the front desk and ran to see what was happening. When I arrived, I saw that Ken was in the process of paying for his haircut. When he saw me, he immediately waved his credit card in the air and yelled, “Kay, what the hell are you trying to do here? You’re turning Studio 904 into a training center!” He startled me, but I got the nerve to ask him, “Ken, is there something wrong with your haircut?” “No, it isn’t the haircut,” he scowled. “That stylist you gave me can’t even speak our language. I’m paying a good price for my haircut, so I expect a stylist who speaks English to cut my hair. Where is Jen, who usually cuts my hair?” he demanded.

I wanted to tell him the truth so badly, but I decided to keep quiet and hear him out. What I didn’t tell him is that I had to let Jen go because I couldn’t keep a stylist who exhibited such a bad attitude toward our customers and her team members. I also wanted to tell him that Jen didn’t really care about pleasing him. Her main concern was to get her work done as quickly as possible so that she could sit in the back room, talk on her phone, or read the latest gossip magazines. Instead, I held my composure. Using my well-practiced, soothing voice, I said, “Ken, I want you to know that every decision I make for my salon is based on making my customers happy. Lan gave you a really flattering haircut. She is trying very hard to learn English and the various salon skills in order to please clients like you.” Ken stood there in silence and glared at me.

“Did you know that I was like Lan twenty years ago?” I asked. “I was so intimidated and scared because I couldn’t speak a word of English after my mother brought me here from Japan when I was eleven years old.  I’m certain that your behavior scared Lan to death.  If you are not willing to give Lan the support she needs to build a better life here, I don’t think I want you as a client.”

“Well, fine. I’m never coming back,” he shouted. Ken angrily stomped out of the salon and slammed the door as he exited. My whole body was shaking. I’ve never “fired” a customer before. I asked myself, “What did I just do? Am I crazy?”

After that encounter, I spent the afternoon in a pretty depressed mood. I began to doubt myself and my intentions and thought that maybe it was unreasonable to think that I could train a group of immigrants to succeed in the cosmetology industry. Could the majority of my clients really be so prejudiced that they would only allow English-speaking stylists to service their hair care needs? Was this the beginning of the demise of Studio 904?

The next morning, while I was giving Lan a training class on how to handle angry customers, I received a call from Ken. My heart started to beat quickly because I assumed that he was calling to give me some more grief. “Good morning, Ken, how can I help you?” I said, trying to sound totally upbeat.  There was a short period of silence. “Kay, I want to apologize for my behavior yesterday. I came home and thought about what I had said to you and Lan and I felt terrible. I even called myself a “jerk,” he said meekly. “No problem Ken, I’m happy that you are seeing things differently today,” I said, cheerfully. Ken responded, “I want you to know that I support how you are training your new staff members and I can hardly wait to see what Lan will be like in a year. Thank you for doing this.”

“Oh, Ken, thank you for this good news!” I replied. Needless to say, I was walking on Cloud Nine for the rest of the day and my faith in the true goodness of the human spirit had been restored.

Upcoming News:

I have owned and operated a unique hair salon called Studio 904 Hair Design for the last forty years. During this time, I have learned many invaluable lessons along the way – lessons that have impacted both my personal and professional life. I have discovered joy through my work, embraced a variety of artistic endeavors, empowered others, created meaningful connections in the community, and helped those in need. Most important, though, is that I have never, ever given up.

Over the last several months, I have been busy compiling these experiences – like the one you just read – and am currently writing a new book about them. This week, I am happy to report that my editor and I finally decided on the book’s title:

“Sheer Determination…Swimming Upstream in a Downstream World”

It felt like a huge accomplishment once we were done, since we have tossed over one-hundred titles and subtitles back and forth, trying to find the perfect one.

Once you read the entire book, which will be published in early 2017, I hope you will agree that it reflects the heart and soul of my life’s challenging, but joyful journey.