A Canadian in Beijing: Manicures, Pedicures and Guitar Lessons

I guess I would describe myself as a “feminine tomboy.” In some circles, I’m the dustiest, scruffiest tomboy in the mix with dirt under my nails, scuffed sneakers and tangled hair. In other circles, I’m the most feminine one among the crew with my long guitar nails (on one hand), my high tops poking out under my skirt and my hair considered long even though it’s just to my shoulders.

Let’s just say that I fit somewhere in the middle of it all.

So, when I decided to get a full manicure and pedicure here in Beijing, I wasn’t sure what to expect and I’m sure I wasn’t what they expected!

Now, I should add that this is not entirely new to me. I already do get my nails done – exactly five of them. I have been putting acrylic tips on my right hand for a few years now for the sake of a crisp pick-like sound as a guitarist. In North America, I am consistently explaining myself to baffled nail technicians about why I don’t want anything on my left hand (since it’s the chording hand and my nails need to be short) and why I don’t want any colour or polish on my fingers (since this rubs off on the strings and is really just more trouble than it’s worth.)

But, this time was different. I wanted to actually see what it would be like to have nice nails and not just functional ones. And the pedicure idea came to me when I bought those fancy shoes and looked down at my terrified, naked feet and took pity on them.

Here in Beijing, pedicures and manicures take place in the same chair, the same position. You sit on a comfortable chair or futon-style couch and technicians work in front of you on small stools. There are footstools for when it’s time to work on your feet. For the manicures, you extend your hands outwards on pillows that they place on your knees and they work away at your hands as though they are milking a cow.

I chuckled when this image came into my head and my technician looked up at me confused. I smiled and of course could not describe my thought in Chinese, which, on this particular day, was atrocious. I felt like I couldn’t speak a word fluidly and I stammered and stalled until a fellow customer took pity on me and began to translate. I thanked her with a sigh of great relief.

I ended up getting a French manicure since it was the only one I could describe in Chinese and I got a basic pedicure which included a full foot scrub and nail treatment for my sorry little toes (they had no idea what was happening to them! They’ve never been so loved!) It cost only $100 kuai for both, which is about $16 Canadian and I left feeling very girly indeed.

This was my second experience getting my nails done here in Beijing (although the first time I’ve had both hands worked on) and this place was larger than the first with more chairs and employees. It was also more upscale and clearly had a bustling clientele. But, it was at the first location that a very lovely experience occurred a few weeks ago and I’ve yet to tell the story:

I found this first nail place situated in the front window area of a shoe store here in Wudaokou. The shop had two technicians and was the size of a large walk-in closet. They were very kind to me, but I was surprised by the lack of equipment and the method by which they work on your nails.

For instance, with acrylic nails, there are no tips and so they build out your nail with the use of a paper sticker apparati that I have never seen before. After the acrylic dries, the paper sticker is peeled off and you have yourself a transparent fake nail. All in all, the process is more labour-intensive because all of the shaping is done manually and without an electronic “nail sander,” (which surely has a more specific name but I don’t know it!) Finally, the nail is not just the focus; there is also much love and attention given to your cuticles. My hands have never looked so good nor felt so examined!

The main technician in this little tiny shop was a young man and he immediately understood that I was a guitar player and I only wanted one hand done. We talked about music with ease while struggling to understand each other in relation to anything to do with nails! Still, lots of gesturing later, we understood each other and the right-hand, permanent picks were replaced.

What happened next still makes me smile.

After his work was done, he pulled an electric guitar from behind the door, dragged a tiny amplifier out from under the futon and plopped the guitar in my lap. I laughed out loud and plugged the guitar in to find that it hadn’t been tuned since around 1997 (or so! Just an estimation!) I tuned it up (which took a few minutes!) and he clapped his hands in delight when I could finally play a tune on it. He said: “I don’t know how to tune it!”

Right then and there, we started a guitar lesson. I stumbled in Chinese for some basic technical words but then asked for a piece of paper and proceeded to diagram exactly how to tune a guitar. He pulled out his chord charts from a previous teacher and I demonstrated how certain chords work together to form the major keys. I watched his excitement grow as I corrected his posture and helped him position his hand on the neck more comfortably. Slowly but surely, I watched him feel what it was like to pull forth “hao ting de yin yue” (nice sounding music) from a mutually loved instrument.

Forty-five minutes later, no more customers had arrived and I realized that I had an appointment with a friend and I was nearly late. I stood up to leave and to pay for my new guitar nails and he waved away my money. He told me to come back anytime to barter lessons for “fingertip picks” (his direct translation) and we both laughed.

I haven’t stopped by since that day but I will definitely visit him again before I leave this fantastic country.

(Aside: how will I ever leave here? China has captured my heart.)