I got my first job in the hair industry at 15.
At the time, I was technically homeless and not going to school either. I answered an ad to a small shop hiring a receptionist/apprentice. At that time, you could earn a trade license through an apprenticeship. I worked for a quirky Japanese man who was cheeky, but had a great heart.
His way of teaching me was to say, “Watch what I do, but don’t cut hair like that. I’m doing it the lazy way. As you can imagine, I struggled to figure out the mysteries of haircutting. Thankfully I was young and cocky, so I just went for it.
He had a lovely clientele of women I grew to know over the years. They all seemed to have a hand at mothering me. I’d never learned social etiquette—I grew up so poor—just by having employment, I felt like I had entered a different social class. As I applied hair color to the roots of my boss’s clients, they let me ask questions about life.
I had a lot of questions:
How do you hold your fork and knife properly?
What would be suitable to wear for a formal event?
They never looked down on me for these questions, and seemed happy to help me find my way in the world. Mostly I watched. I watched and listened to how these woman lived. The world seemed to open up to me. I began to lose my poverty mentality. I started to see that a future not filled with hardship was possible.
It was my boss who really pushed me to dream, to see that I could be more. When you’ve gone through childhood with no vision of a future, it’s a hard thought process to break. It’s hard to give yourself permission to dream. My boss used to get so mad at me when I reverted back to my old way of thinking. Then one day he shared a story with me of how his own dreams had been lost.
It started when World War II broke out.
Even before the war started there was a dislike toward Japanese immigrants in BC. They were not trusted. They were forbidden from voting, having any jobs or working any government-funded jobs. When the attack on Pearl Harbour happened, fear and hate ran rampant.
A few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbour an order was issued that people of Japanese origin were to be evacuated to protective areas. His family, along with thousands more, were taken from their homes. They were only allowed to take what they could carry. The government impounded his father’s boat and 1,200 more. His family lost their livelihood.
They were sent to live in camps in the interior of British Columbia.
My boss was born in Canada. They lived in a small house and he was forced to attend Catholic school. For some reason, this particular detail made him really mad. They were stripped of their culture. The government liquidated all possessions that had been seized and by the time the war was over, they were left with nothing.
At the end of the war, Canadian-Japanese people in British Columbia were given two choices: return to Japan, or live east of the Rockies. They were removed from our populated cities.
It’s hard to imagine this happening right here in British Columbia.
My boss saw his family lose everything. He understood poverty. All his dreams and his future had been taken from him. But he fought, and worked hard. He made it to the city and owned a busy hair salon.
I see what he recognized in me, and why he invested so much effort into my seeing a future for myself. He recognized my hopelessness. It would have been so easy for him to be bitter. I admire him so much, that he was able to overcome the wrong that was done to him, and give back love from what he had learned, even if it was to a mouthy, punk 15-year-old.
He took the time to teach me and I passed my hair exam. The first time.