Her face said Chinese, but her demeanor shouted Russian.
“People try to talk to me in Mandarin all the time,” the 30-something-year-old Moscow resident told me. We were in my room in Chiang Mai. It was February, Chinese New Year, so the northern Thai city was full of Chinese tourists.
“I can’t respond because I have no clue what they’re saying,” Nona said, not laughing, but not frustrated either. It was just a fact of life she’d accepted long ago. She knew she looked Chinese. But she identified as a Russian raised Russian by Russians in a rural village in Russia. (Say THAT five times fast!) After school, she’d moved to Moscow where there were more opportunities for work.
Nona, that’s not her real name, looked like Lucy Liu meets Lisa Ling meets Yao Ming. She was more than six feet tall. My Facebook sleuthing did in fact prove that she’d worked as a model. But those weren’t the photos she showed me on her phone as we sat on my hotel balcony in one of Chiang Mai’s less fashionable districts. (My “balcony” was really just a short outdoor concrete entryway to my windowless bathroom where I could sit on the toilet, shower and brush my teeth all at the same time—under the watchful eye of the resident cockroach.)
The photos she showed me were action shots of her surfing in Bali the week before. Like me, Nona escaped her home country’s harsh winters by escaping to Southeast Asia. The fact that Nona sort of blended in because she looked Asian, was just a coincidence. If you could hold up a mirror to her mind, you’d see Russian.
The mirror was actually the reason I met Nona in the first place. I was tired of seeing the two furry caterpillars slowly, but surely, approaching one another on my forehead. Yes, I own a pair of tweezers. But these caterpillars looked like they’d need something from the power tool family—not a hedge trimmer (I’m not that dramatic) but at the very least, the tool my mom should buy my dad to trim his nose hairs. The only way tweezers were going to work is if they were wielded by someone with experience. Someone like Nona.
Much like some people use the Internet to find their mail-order Russian brides, I used it to find my mail-order Russian browmaster. A quick search of “eyebrows Chiang Mai” brought up a recent post in an expat forum. It read something like this:
Hi, my name is Nona and I am visiting Chiang Mai from Moscow. I will be here for about a month. I specialize in eyebrows. Message me if you’d like more information.
I messaged Nona, requested “more information” and was shocked by her response. Her fee for a pair of brows was 700 baht!
If you’re not familiar with Chiang Mai’s cost of living, here’s a snapshot of what I was spending:
- Room at Banilah Guesthouse WITH AC and private bathroom: 300 baht ($9 USD)/night
- Weekly blowout at the hair salon across the street: 60 baht ($1.80 USD)
- 32-ounce fresh smoothie at the temple gates (i.e. tourist prices): 40 baht ($1.20 USD)
- Chicken curry entree in old town (again tourist district): 60-80 baht ($1.80 – $2.40 USD)
- 60-minute massage: 200 baht ($6 USD)
By Chiang Mai local standards, I was ballin’. Still, I wasn’t about to drop 700 baht on my brows. That was $22! I can get my eyebrows threaded at a dozen places in Manhattan for $8. So why the heck would I pay three times that much in a city whose consumer price index is 53% cheaper than Manhattan’s? Granted, Nona was making a house call and coming to my place (maybe a 10-minute commute on foot), but still, she was charging Reykjavikian prices!
It was so absurd I had to know why. Was she the brow whisperer? Were hers the fingers responsible for Brooke Shield’s money-making fringe? No, she was too young. Could she be behind Kylie Jenner’s sky-high arches? Nah, that person had blood on their hands.
Nona’s high price meant she had to be good. But like an idiot, I tried to talk her down. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to negotiate with a Russian before, but I, for one, was not successful. Ultimately, Nona told me that she wasn’t an “eyebrows God” but she was worth 700 baht, I was desperate so, “Deal” was what I messaged back.
The next day, I invited Nona into my hotel room where we decided it was too dark to set up shop. The windowless bathroom didn’t have sufficient lighting either so we wound up on the open-air “balcony.” It was barely big enough for the both of us so Nona used my desk inside to lay out some of her instruments and materials. Imagine Bob Vila’s tool belt collided with Bob Ross’s painting supplies and you’d have half of what Nona was pulling out of her bags.
My entire desk was covered with tools, measuring instruments, paintbrushes, a color-mixing palette and paints. I reached for my phone but before I could take a photo, Nona put her hands over her stuff like a mother bird protecting her nest.
“You can’t take any photos,” she said, instinctively using an arm to shield her arsenal. “The salons back in Moscow are trying to figure out how I do it. They’re jealous I’m able to charge as much as I do.”
After assuring her I wasn’t a spy sent by the KGB of facial hair, Nona relaxed, a little.
To make small talk, I asked her how long she’d been doing brows. It wasn’t long. Maybe a year or two. She’d only recently left her corporate career. She was the manager of a prominent bank in Moscow—responsible for too many employees and feeling stifled creatively. So naturally, she left that industry and ended up in eyebrows.
I couldn’t get much more out of her because she was an artist and most artists don’t like to talk while they work. So, I sat there, on a hard, wooden chair, while Nona towered over me, tweezers in hand and eyes squinting. You know it’s bad when Asian eyes have to squint. In this case, “bad” was what I had done to ruin my brows’ natural shape. Years of over and under tweezing in all the wrong places she told me. I felt like the kid who goes to the dentist, and after an hour of having metal tools poke, prod, spray, drill and scrape the inside of her mouth, has to sit through the floss-or-die lecture.
I don’t know how she did it (I had my eyes closed half the time) but Nona assessed and then attacked. One minute she was two inches from my face, her hot breath on my nose. The next, she was two steps back, judging her pluck from all angles. It went on like this for two hours. TWO HOURS! I’ve gotten perms that have taken less time. My butt was painfully asleep, my stomach was rumbling and my friend who I had been messaging with when Nona showed up was wondering if I was still alive because I hadn’t responded in two hours. TWO HOURS!
Nona, however, didn’t seem to notice the time. She was in her element, rifling through a pile of colored brow pencils that all looked like brown and black to me and mixing the brow paints. Or were they dyes? At this point, I felt like saying, “Paint them purple. Just take this 700 baht and leave.” But I was polite. I nodded when she said, “Don’t you think this is too dark?” and lied when she said, “This looks warm-enough right?”
After my brow paint had dried, it was finally time for the big reveal. Nona had not let me look in the mirror for the two-hour session. Naturally, I had to take a bathroom break halfway through and she made me promise I wouldn’t try to see myself in the cloudy mirror above the sink.
I wish I could say the big reveal blew me away. That my new arches accentuated my high cheekbones. But I don’t even have high cheekbones to begin with. I wish I could say that the new color brought out the green in my irises. But truthfully, my brows seemed the same shade of brownish black they’d been for 27 years. I wish I could say my caterpillars had turned into butterflies (metaphorically of course), but they just looked like junior varsity versions of their former furry selves.
That said, I didn’t hate them. The end result was definitely better than what I’d started with. I said something to that affect and Nona laughed.
“This is not the end result. You’ve done so much damage to your natural brow line by overplucking in the wrong places. It’s going to take months for some of the essential hairs to grow back.”
That was when she dropped the bombshell that I’d have to routinely check in with her.
“I usually consult with my clients at least once a month,” she said before telling me that I was not to pluck a single hair that would grow in until I had gotten the green light from her. We would communicate via Facebook and meet in person if we were on the same continent. The quest for perfect brows would take at least a year, assuming I didn’t go rogue in the meantime and remove any strays, or what I perceived to be strays, without her permission.
It was an admirable quest, albeit one I abandoned the second I hugged Nona goodbye and handed her 800 baht (not tipping an aesthetician is pretty much asking for a breakout). Telling me not to tweeze was akin to telling me not to touch the puppy.
Still, I have a lot of respect for Nona and her commitment to helping the human race bring a stronger brow game. It was refreshing to meet someone who was a master of such an obscure craft. It was inspiring to meet a woman who knew, and demanded, her worth. And yes, it was kind of funny to meet a Chinese-looking Russian.