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(Yonhap Feature) Sophia Beauty Shop, where hair is done in English

By Melody Welton
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Dec. 21 (Yonhap) -- Getting your hair done can always be nerve-racking, especially in a foreign country. Spin through Internet search engines to find a hair salon that fits your language requirement, and you will find horror stories as well -- burnt hair, hair dyed orange instead of amber, the same hair style after four hours in a chair. One woman reported that she left with a lopsided haircut, a good three inches off, after she traveled two hours into the city.

   These kinds of mishaps can happen anywhere, it's true. But adding a language barrier raises the chances. Sophia Beauty Shop, in downtown Seoul, run by a Korean owner who goes by Brian, employs English-speaking hairdressers.

Brian, the owner of Sophia Beauty Shop (Courtesy of Melody Welton)

Brian, 40, has 20 years of experience. He spent the past three years experimenting and learning the difference between the hair of Koreans and foreigners, who frequently seek out the two main hair stylists at Sophia's: two English-speaking men.

   There are several other hair salons in Seoul that offer English services, but it is common to have to call far in advance to make sure you get an English-speaking hairdresser. At Sophia Beauty Shop, drop-ins are a regular occurrence, and everyone speaks English.

   The location of Sophia Beauty Shop itself speaks of the shop's welcoming appeal and diversity. Settled in Noksapyeong and linked with Itaewon, the neighborhood forms one of the country's biggest foreign communities. It is in the area most Western foreigners call HBC, short for Haebangchon.


As Brian works on your hair, he provides helpful advice: Your hair isn't healthy enough to undergo certain treatments, the popular hairstyle is to get your hair permanently straightened but it is really bad for your hair; do this if you want your hair to get back on track; instead of having too many dye jobs, try this.

   He admits he spoke very little English when he first started working at Sophia. "I was able to say, 'Please sit' and that was it," he said. When pressed about how he became fluent and where he learned, he looks around his small salon, spreads his arms and says, "This is my classroom."

   Twenty years ago, when Brian finally started his career, it was after years of refusing persistent pleas by his mother who continuously encouraged him to become a hair stylist once he was married. Naturally, he didn't listen.

   "Korean mothers," he laughed. "They always like to tell you what to do. I didn't like to listen." Even so, he eventually realized that, even though it was what his mother wanted for him, it was also where his passion led him. He came to work for Sophia Beauty Salon in 2008 and bought it from the previous owner a year later. The shop itself has been around for the past decade.

   Getting your hair done in the shop feels like a friendly fusion of different cultures. Korean radio blares from the corner of the shop and the people who walk by (mostly foreigners) constantly pop their heads in to say a quick hello. Customers lend other customers their phone chargers, and friendly banter is exchanged between the customers and the hairdressers. You don't realize you have been sitting there for three hours waiting for your hair to be magically straightened.

   Sam Smith, a frequent customer, enjoys the chill atmosphere and the ability to speak with his hairdresser. "It was easy enough to show a Korean stylist "short" but tough to explain exactly what I wanted. It always ended up looking like a military cut. When I go to Sophia's it turns out perfectly."

   Brian, likewise, enjoys working with foreign customers "because they are generous."

   "Even if I make a mistake, they say, 'It's OK.' You can try again next time.' I felt safe with my foreign customers and because of this my skill as a hair dresser grew."

   Sophia does have competitors. An entire staff at Hair and Joy in the Hongdae area speak English. In nearby Itaewon, there's Green Turtle and the fairly new Jay's Hairdressing. Some like IHee in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, asks customers to call ahead to make an appointment with an English-speaking stylist. The tip, no matter in which country, is to carefully search for reviews before you trust your hair to the hands of a stranger.