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    Free Haircuts for the Left-Behind Elderly

    Without barber shops, Zhejiang’s remote villagers rely on volunteers for companionship and new hairdos.

    In what has become a concerning trend in many parts of rural China, the young people of Meiqi, a township in the mountainous interior of eastern Zhejiang province, left long ago. They went to cities to look for jobs, leaving their elderly parents behind in the villages.

    Meiqi’s only barber shop closed in 2011: The exodus of young people meant fewer and fewer clients, until eventually the business was no longer turning a profit. In order to get a haircut, villagers now have to take a three-hour round trip by bus to the nearest barber shop, in Jingning County’s biggest city.

    “My neighbor and I used to help cut each other’s hair,” 72-year-old Wu Ruiyan said, “but our eyesight got bad, so we just gave up.”

    Beginning in 2005, Jingning’s hairdressing association started a social welfare program to provide free haircuts for left-behind elderly in some of the county’s remote villages. Wu Daowei is one of the association’s volunteers. He used to live in Meiqi himself, and he still goes back to his hometown four or five times a year to cut hair for the old folks there, including his grandmother.

    “Every time I go back to the village, at least 10 old people come to me for haircuts,” Wu said. “They watched me grow up; they are just like family.” The 34-year-old barber has given over 300 haircuts since he became involved in the project.

    To Wang Huili, another barber who helps out with the initiative, cutting hair for left-behind elderly is also a way to give them companionship they might not have otherwise. “Their children are getting rich in the cities,” Wang said. “Their left-behind parents are happy for them, but after all, they still live alone in the villages. They hope their children will come back more often, or at least call them occasionally.”

    (Header image: A mirror reflects Ji Zhenghua combing her hair at home in Meiqi Village, Zhejiang province, Dec. 10, 2016. Chen Ronghui/Sixth Tone)