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Tough odds put hair on the chest of a barber

Update: December, 19/2016 - 07:00
Deaf and deft: Nguyễn Thái Thành gets to know what his customers want through hand-written notes and smartphone texts.- Photo
Viet Nam News

by Tuấn Nguyễn

HÀ NỘI – From the outside, the Thành Nguyễn Hair Salon looks like any other.

But a few minutes after you venture inside, you notice something unusual about this apparently run-of-the-mill establishment on Phạm Hồng Thái Street.

The familiar noises are there – the clickety-click of metal scissors, the white noise of blow-dryers. Then it dawns on you that many familiar noises are missing.

The place is strangely silent. No one is talking to each other.

Well, they are, but not in words, just a flurry of had gestures and movements that make the reason clear.

All the hairdressers, including the owner, Nguyễn Thái Thành, are hearing and speech impaired.  

Then the place loses its run-of-the-mill character, and becomes inspiring.

How do they get around this huge disadvantage of not hearing and speaking? More importantly, how can customers communicate with them and leave the salon feeling satisfied?

 “I write down my ideas on what I want my hair to look like, and Thành offers advice on styling, and I always like the haircut he gives me,” said Trần Huy Dũng, a frequent, fully-satisfied patron of this wordless salon.

In fact, many customers who put down their requests on pieces of paper or on their smartphones, do not just express their pleasure on a job well done with their smiles, they are moved to leave happy, colourful notes of appreciation.

Facing the truth

 Thành, 25, a stocky guy who never seems to stop smiling, is a native of the northern province of Bắc Giang.

He was born deaf, and it is believed that his mother falling ill during pregnancy could have led to the hearing loss.

He was a healthy, plump child, and it was not until he was three that the devastating truth fully dawned on his family, that Thành couldn’t hear or talk like normal children.

“I still remember my parents dragging me to every place that they thought might offer a cure, including prayers (at many pagodas) and many acupuncture sessions,” Thành said, using sign language.

“But nothing worked, and I just felt hurt and uncomfortable.”

There was no school for deaf children in the province, so his parents thought it would be best to send him to a normal school, to make friends with peers of his age.

There were, understandably, teething problems as he felt left out, since he couldn’t hear the teachers and struggled with the spelling and meaning of words.

“When I have to take a test, I would jot down images, scrambled figures that were supposed to be letters and numbers. There was this one time I even scored 10, everyone was surprised and kept asking me how, I jokingly said I copied my desk-mate’s results,” Thành said, a sheepish smile accompanying his memory.

But the challenges were too many, and his peers found it difficult to include him in their groups at school. This the parents could not take.

In 2005, he was sent to Nhân Chính School for the Deaf in Hà Nội. He was 14 – considered a late age to start learning sign language.

Again, struggling with a wholly new language, Thành decided to take night classes, but the difficulties were assuaged by the sense of belonging, now that he was amongst people who shared the same plight.

After two years, as he finished with the school, Thành started to have doubts about his career, but “never felt too sad about the fact that I couldn’t hear or talk.”

His parents suggested he take up cooking or sewing, but he didn’t like either, so he gave up on them.

Finding his calling

As it often happens, it was by chance, during a trip back to his hometown, that he was enthralled by a barber’s skilful manoeuvres with a pair of scissors.

Hooked, he decided he would have a go at hair-styling as a vocation.

Thành’s family didn’t learn the sign language, but seemed to understand what Thành wanted, especially with his sister Nguyễn Loan assuming the role of an interpreter, something she continues to do in interactions with customers.

The pair still remember the pain and frustration of the days they went from on salon to another in Hà Nội to apply for an internship.

“Whether it was an upscale salon or a normal one, he got turned down everywhere; some people even told us straight to our faces that they won’t admit a deaf person. Repeated rejections wore me down, but my brother was persistent, so we kept going,” Loan said.

After some time, Thành went home and luckily got his first training in a local barber’s shop.

Thành observed carefully what his barber-mentor would do, and later, in the evening, he would practice on mannequins, and sometimes on his parents and relatives.

Once he felt he had the necessary skills, his father informed villagers that Thành would offer free haircuts to everyone, but most of his ‘customers’ were old people and children.

Difficulties persist

In 2008, wishing to “improve my skills,” he once again went to Hà Nội, and this time, got into to a salon on Khâm Thiên Street –one that had rejected him before.

While it seemed that he had realised his dream, there was no let up in the difficulties. Thành struggled with the hairdressing terminology and the teacher’s theoretical lessons. But there was no let up in his perseverance and resourcefulness either. Eventually, he even surged past other peers in the training course and got to work at the salon’s VIP section.

After three years of working he Ha Noi, he left the salon and went to the South to learn new skills and study make-up.

Winning the Prospect Prize at a beautician contest in 2010 and Golden Brush in 2013 convinced Thành, if any more conviction was necessary, that his passion was not misplaced.

In 2011, he opened his own hair salon with VNĐ60 million ($2,670) borrowed from his parents, a sum he has since repaid.

The salon was a humble one, but it meant the world to him.

More than a business

Thành didn’t open the hair salon just to pursue his passion for hair-styling passion.

Having experienced numerous obstacles in his path, he understood well the suffering of deaf and mute persons, as well as their need for a job to stand on their legs.  To this day, people with all disabilities have to struggle to gain some measure of independence in their lives.

His salon, therefore, is a hairdressing training class for other deaf and/or mute people.

 “I couldn’t learn much at school, but under Thành’s tutelage, I’ve developed a passion for hair styling and will pursue this profession,” said Hà Nguyễn Trần, a student at the Thành Nguyễn Cosmetology Social Enterprise.

The students that he has trained and worked have become an extended family, sharing with each other their joys and pains.

After finishing the training course, some have stayed to work at the salon, and others have returned to their hometowns to open their own establishments.

Until now, Thanh has conducted seven training courses for 35 students.

Besides learning a trade, the trainees are also encouraged to join charity activities, such as giving gifts to disabled children on Children’s Day or the Mid-autumn Festival, especially free haircuts.

Every year, Thành and his colleagues organise a show called "Beauty In Silence" –praising the work of deaf hairdressers in Việt Nam and helping to bridge the gap between those who cannot hear or speak, and those who can do so.

For his work, Thành received the honour of being selected as one of the nation’s Outstanding Youth in the 2015 Awards.

He has fulfilled the dream of opening his own business and helping others, but Thành is not done.

Big plans

His future plans include studying and improving his English skills, “going to Europe and learning new styles, new skills, gaining experience in business development. Most of all, I want to have a chance to know other cultures in the world.”

Vũ Đức Tiến, founder of the Vinatoc Beauty Salon chain, was pleasantly surprised to learn that his former student was recognised as a promising talent in the make-up industry.

He admired Thành’s unflagging efforts and willingness to learn. He recalled the time when teacher and student struggled to communicate, resorting often to pencil and paper notes and pencils.

Thành said he is grateful for another thing. Tiến not only taught him hairdressing lessons for free; he even covered his lunch expenses.

Tiến said: “Success is difficult even for normal, healthy students without a strong will and hard work.

“I want to impart my knowledge in the trade to everyone, the essential thing is that they want to learn and pursue the career with passion.”

There is no doubt that Thành has been a worthy student. – VNS



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