In college, a white boy I once called a friend told me that I had hair like every Asian girl—long, straight, and black. It was one of the most trivializing statements I have heard. Needless to say, this comment marked a moment I began to drift away from this group of friends into a more intentionally developed group. I started to identify with college activists of color. I sat in the “black” section of the dining hall. I had to confront my own ideas about classism and racism. I’ve never told people this—but as many close friends as I had to sit with in that section, I always wondered if I was accepted and how I would be perceived in that space in the dining hall. I knew though that there were too many similar struggles. And I was not one to overlook the shared experiences we had of being silenced, erased, disrespected, and oppressed by the institution that we knew we were privileged to be at. This point though is a story for another time.
My point is this—Asian Americans also have our own hair stories and our own hair traumas. These hairstories are both political and non-political all at once.
After this happened, the next time I was in Oakland, I cut my hair into a short bob. It looked horrible because my working-class consciousness only allowed me to go to the cheapest place I could find. And, well, bringing a picture of Rihanna didn’t help my 70-year-old Asian male “hairstylist” any little bit either. Luckily hair grows and so did I.
This short haircut marked an important period that I still believe has shaped the trajectory of the rest of my life. I just finished taking a class on the Black Diaspora and was developing an internationalist perspective. NAFTA and the WTO became terms in my back pocket. I was building an academic relationship with a brilliant Leftist professor who would later advise me on my thesis. I was becoming involved in political conversations in the 5-Colleges area about Asian American Studies. I had my hair cut when I was in Oakland, just before I would fly to New York and catch a flight to the Dominican Republic. I studied abroad there, which allowed me to visit Haiti and Cuba. And on and on, the understanding and radicalism dug its roots deeper, and deeper still into me.
I kept my hair short and a year later, pierced my nose as a signifier of my politics. There was no going back now. The truth could not be unlearned. It demanded that I lived it with integrity. In my senior year, my advisor taught a class on Black Marxism, and we began a grueling (and self-imposed) timeline to research and write my senior thesis. It still is one of the most focused years I have had in my life. One I am proud of.
About a year after I got back to Oakland, I was thrust into a world of Vietnamese-American activism that I had never dreamed of. My hair was cropped shorter. And shorter.
The politics and experiences continued to evolve. To both my enjoyment and disappointment, my hair scared my parents into questioning my sexuality for a moment. This is new because—to my parents—I am not a sexual being, and they will do anything to cling to that belief. Also, I began teaching middle schoolers in Oakland and students commented on my short hair. It didn’t bother me personally but made me ache to have more conversations about gender. “Why is your hair like a boy’s?” “Because I think this is beautiful too. Because short hair can be woman’s hair.”
My own ideas about how to live my politics changed. Every year could not be as intense as my last year in college. I had been so angry the last few years of college. And anger is important, but it was also deafening to ears that knew life was composed of other melodies.
Another point began to bug me. Whose politics was I trying to live? Was that white boy always going to live in this hair of mine? What was I saying about the relationship between politics and presentation? I was tired of carrying around a beehive of politics on my head. I have nothing to prove to anyone, I thought.
Almost a year ago, I decided reluctantly that I would grow out my hair. I thought to myself: the feminine doesn’t mean un-political, doesn’t mean conservative, doesn’t mean anti-revolutionary. Neither does the feminine mean weak, timid, nor the other infinite words that exist to put-down women. This was another choice I was making. And free choices are revolutionary. And breaking binaries is important. And just another Asian girl with radical politics was here to shake things up. Just another Asian girl and not just another Asian girl.
And as they tend to, these decisions coincided with moments of big change. I was and am coming to consciousness about the ways that war, trauma, and family have affected me. My earliest connections had taught me little or nothing about a functional, thriving love. Granted, learning to survive, sacrifice, and act out of duty have my appreciation. Yet it wasn’t and isn’t moving me nor my community forward. The pain was over-flowing and impacting the decisions I was making about the people and relationships I was investing in. So this time, I did not go home to the politics, it had already came home and roosted in me. I had to begin healing. I am working on this. Remember, hair is growing and so am I.
So why these stories and why my long hair? Because the white boy was right—I’m just like every Asian girl: too unique for him to understand. Because my identity and politics are stories that my hair alone cannot represent. Because the next time some dude yells, “Me love you long time” out the back of a truck, I know it was never my fault, no matter the length of my hair. Because femininity is more complex and messier than hair. Because Asian Americans have our hair stories too. Because—even though it may mark points in our development—hair is not the only signifier of our politics. Because, really though, it is none of your business.