As a teenager growing up Texas, so much of my youth was spent trying to fit in.
While this is something that most former teenagers can relate to, I was also a Chinese American teenager in a predominantly white, conservative, community. In most of my social circles, I was “The Asian Girl”.
And I hated it – as most teenagers hate being singled out as not-on-purpose different. So I set about proving how I wasn’t that different. The goal was always to get as close to white-passing as possible. In my mind, I thought I could get pretty close.
A lot of my fitting in had to do with my hair.
Surrounded by armies of southern gals with a family legacy of blond hair, who added sunny highlights or vibrant colors to their hair on a whim, I felt like my black, (at the time) super-straight hair was my primary “Asian indicator”. So I did everything within my limited powers to change my hair to look like my white friends’ hair.
I started by ferociously perming my hair. When I was a teenager, my hair just wouldn’t curl so I saved up my dog walking money and convinced a stylist to perm my hair, then perm it again – back to back in one session. For a whole 48 hours I had the 90s Mariah Carey hair of my dreams, “poodle curls” the stylist called them.
Then I didn’t. Poof. POOF. My hair became large and in charge. Though I know it’s not possible, I kind of feel like my hair never recovered from that perm – my hair is now naturally wavy-frizzy and I actually long for the days when my hair was sleek and straight. Grass, greener, all that stuff.
But my most epic attempts to make myself fit in involved bottles of bleach and dye. And Sun-In, the secret weapon of dark-haired Asian teenagers whose parents won’t let them bleach their hair.
I basically poured Sun-In over my hair. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Sun-In, it’s a lightening product meant to make you look like you’ve been romping in the sun – shoving that SUN INto your locks. So you get pretty, natural highlights.
I don’t remember exactly what the packaging said back in the day, or says now (do they still sell Sun-In?), but I think I vaguely remember the instructions saying something like, “results on dark hair may not be desirable.”
Whatever, it was bleach I could get my hands on.
So I poured that stuff all over my head – I have a clear memory of unscrewing the spray cap and dumping the product down the length of my hair. You weren’t supposed to do that.
Then I’d blast my hair with a hairdryer, go stand in the sun, dunk my hair in a swimming pool – anything that would make my black hair lighten.
After doing this like it was my job for days and days, my hair would turn orange. The little hairs around my forehead would get to a muddy blond. I was so happy!
I remember telling my friend Irene the Blonde that, “Oh, my hair just does this on its own!” when after spending the day at her family’s pool, my frizzy orange hair took on the hue of spray cheese.
Eventually I found ways to smuggle actual cheap bleach into my arsenal. And then the skies parted. At one point the entire bangs section of my hair was yellowy-white. Until it fell off.
But that didn’t stop me, I bleached my hair, I dyed it red, I bleached it again. I went back and forth between yellow and red for a long time. I was so happy!
I felt like I had conquered something that was “not for Asians”. Asians can’t dye their hair cool colors because you can’t dye black, Asian hair.
While I knew I wasn’t white-passing, I thought I was really working the European side of my DNA. YOU CAN SEE THE WHITE PERSON IN ME! LOOK HARDER! LOOK!
It was a confusing time, but I don’t regret it. Wanting so badly to look more white and working so hard for it for years exhausted me to the point that I eventually just threw up my hands and gave up. Accepting my hair, how I looked as a Chinese American was actually so much easier, more peaceful, than I expected it to be. I didn’t feel like a surrender, so much as no longer feeling like a square peg.
More or less, exhaustion, age, meeting AAPI people who took the radical stance of not aspiring to look white, and being deeply, deeply lazy made me give up my quest for The Hair of the White Woman.
Plus I got tired of always having “porcupine bangs” in the front of my head from where the hair kept breaking and falling off.
Fast forward a few years to my mid-twenties.
I was working in LA, I had finished a master’s degree, I was getting paid to do arty things, arty things that often put AAPI culture at the forefront. I was really feeling my roots – on the stage and on my head.
At that point my hair was essentially virgin. Once in a blue moon I’d do an all over tint that didn’t really show up, but no bleach was involved, and nothing was permanent.
I started to get the itch again. The itch you get when bleach burns your scalp.
But I hesitated. Was dying my hair, returning to bleach, somehow a betrayal of my Asianness? I had no desire to look white, but was dying my hair an unnatural color somehow buying into a culture that I often felt was trying to erase me? Was bleaching and dying my hair somehow antithetical to “Asian Pride”?
On top of all that, it pissed me off that my white friends probably didn’t have to do this level of soul searching when picking up a box of Féria at CVS. In America hair dye is for white people to play with their look. For people of color, it’s a statement.
I am not conforming!
I am conforming!
I’m not your grandma’s Asian!
Did my hair color have to be a message? Perhaps that was unavoidable. Couldn’t the message just be, it’s my hair, it’s my body, I’m not more or less Chinese because of the color of my hair.
Maybe there would be people who would call me a “banana” or say that I was exercising a form of self-hatred, but what could I do?
I knew. I could dye my damn hair.
So I did. This time I went to a salon and a wonderful woman named Tita bleached my hair white and then dyed it fire engine red. Then when that faded out, we bleached my roots and dyed my hair purple. Then blue. Then red again. So much bleach, so much dye. I was so happy!
And I didn’t feel or look more white. If anything, I felt that my unusual hair was a cry to LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT THIS CHINESE AMERICAN WOMAN! LOOK!
There was actually no way to avoid my Asianness when I had cherry red hair or white-blond hair. People LOOKED at The Asian with Non-Asian Hair, they looked at the cultural dissonance I embodied.
But I didn’t walk around thinking about how radical I might look. I walked around thinking about how like, totally radical my hair looked. I loved my hair because it was for me. Not you.
And that, for a woman of color – really anyone who is not a cisgender white man – is a radical act.
Eventually my deep, deep laziness got the best of me and I stopped dying my hair again. I let my pixie cut grow out, and I adopted a much more conventional look. For me. Not you.
Some people, made comments like, “So you’re ready to look Asian again?” and I just rolled my eyes.
How on earth could I not “look Asian”? It wouldn’t matter if I had red, white, or blue hair or no hair at all; if I got eyelid surgery, if I had an American flag surgically implanted on my forehead. My Asianness wouldn’t change. What do “Asians” have to look like?
Pride in one’s culture comes from a deeper place than skin and hair.
Being blond and AAPI is really cool right now. It has been for a while.
And I love it. I am not ready to go blond (or purple or red) again, but it truly warms my heart to see a sibling-hood of AAPI people dying their hair because it makes them feel good.
It’s totally radical, and I am so happy.