By: Grace Yang
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been known for my hair. “Wow, Grace, your hair looks amazing today-not that it ever looks bad,” the other girls in grade school would say. “You did that color yourself?” coworkers would ask in disbelief, as I went through a particularly experimental phase in my late high school years. “It’s so long!” was a comment I’d receive on almost a daily basis, as though this was the achievement of a lifetime. However, one fateful day, I became a little too bold with my at-home coloring adventures, and for the first time in years, I was forced to part ways with my jet-black, sleek, waist-length crowning glory.
In grade school my long, thick, dark hair was my security blanket. I was a strong-willed child and refused my mother’s frequent suggestions of a haircut. I wanted desperately to hold on to the safety net I wove for myself in my inky black tresses. By middle school, I finally gave in to my mother’s begging and started taking an interest in taming my mane. I would spend hours in the mornings stubbornly frying it with a 350-degree Conair curling iron and a can of Aquanet in hopes that it would turn out looking like that of my polished, pale, private school classmates. I took pride in my eventual identity as the “hair girl.” Sure, it wasn’t the ideal moniker, but it certainly stung less than the other unflattering comments I heard that made me feel like even more of an outsider. It was a compliment, and I reveled in my small victories when they happened. Before I knew it, my security blanket transformed into a survival tactic.
In an act of rebellion against the “submissive schoolgirl” stereotype (which my private school upbringing did nothing to combat), I began experimenting with just about every color of the rainbow in my hair the minute I left my strict private academy. My angst-ridden, teenage self needed this as a kind of a catharsis. It was my small way of defying the culture of my upbringing that fetishized my dark, thick, “Asian girl” hair while also booting the “good girl” image thrown on Asian women by Western society. Unfortunately, this world of superficial security came crashing down one day when the damage from all of the heat, bleaching, and styling finally caught up with me. It was time to let it go.
Snip. Chop. And then it was done. A literal weight off of my shoulders, while also exposing me to a world that had so long defined me by a superficial feature. First it was my mom. I was immediately put on the defensive when she protested with “But your hair is so beautiful! It’s always been so long!” These words brought up emotions in me that had been bubbling below the surface for years, just waiting for the right words to come along and verbalize them. “But why can’t it be beautiful and short? Or better yet, why can’t I be known for more than the hair on my head?”
I had never spoken those words out loud before, but they rang true in a way I had never imagined was possible. The clarity of my own voice shocked me; this was uncharted territory. For the first time, I was able to articulate the way that the world around me viewed me. I was allowed to exist in their space as a foreigner as long as I fit the mold they had built in their minds. I realized that this was about more than just hair; it was about how I was allowing others to define me-to define my personhood.
For decades, in the Western world, we have been fed images of Asian girls with paper-white skin peeking out from a sleek, impossibly long curtain of pin-straight, jet black hair. Growing up, this was the image of what I was supposed to be due to the color of my skin and the history in my blood, but I struggled to reconcile this with my Scandinavian adoptee upbringing that, in many ways, minimalized and merely tolerated my “otherness.” I walked the tightrope between Eastern and Western ideals, trying desperately to be “Asian enough” to honor my lineage while being unremarkable enough to blend in to the white, suburban utopia I was transplanted into.
With the loss of my great lengths of hair at the tender age of 18 came the beginning of an era of exploration of what it means to be Asian American and a new questioning of the beauty standards of both Eastern and Western cultures. I wish this story had a happy ending, packaged in a gift box and tied neatly with a bow. Instead, here I stand, years after beginning this search for identity with even fewer answers than I began with.
All hope is not lost, however. I have learned that maybe I’ll never fit into either box of “beauty” that my two cultures have presented me with. I’ve kept my hair short, my skin is tan, my eyes aren’t the right shape, I’m too thin, the list could go on in its conflicting manner for ages. Maybe there is no magic formula to beauty, and we’ve been deceiving ourselves this whole time. Maybe it’s about time we start celebrating every little thing that comes crashing together to form our complex, spectacular, multicultural selves.
Grace Yang is a freelance theatre artist from the Twin Cities. Adopted from China as a baby, she has spent her life learning about the Scandinavian culture that surrounded her while trying to honor her roots as a Chinese woman. She is a graduate of the University of Northwestern with a degree in Theatre and Dance. When she is not working on a show, you can usually find her writing in one of the Twin Cities’ many coffee shops or snuggling with her cat, Fidget.