As a mixed-race kid growing up in the late 90s and early 00s, I wanted so desperately to be a white blonde girl.
They were everywhere when I was a child. Television. Movies. Makeup counters. Magazines. Red carpets. Barbie dolls. The classroom. The playground. The popular girls. The epitome of American beauty that every girl was evaluated against during their most formative years and criticized by others for not reaching. Alicia Silverstone. Nicole Kidman. Reece Witherspoon. Pamela Anderson set the ultimate bar during my childhood for skin, hair, and curves, a physical feat no one could really meet without scientific intervention...but I didn’t understand that.
As an Asian-American conditioned to strive for the best or to be the best, I took these prominent social cues as a goal. I would've killed to have long blonde hair with sun-bleached highlights, sparkly blue eyes, and skin that turned golden-brown in the sun. These American girls blended in so nicely. All their flaws were hidden, like a delicate oil painting. Not like the rough-charcoal-sketch complexion I had, with bushy eyebrows that wriggled like caterpillars against my pasty-white forehead, and acne that shone like chickenpox on my skin. I was certain that my dry scalp wouldn't be as obvious if my hair wasn't black, and that my armpits wouldn’t be so prominent if the pigment weren’t so dark. Maybe if I didn’t look like a willowy sheet of plywood, maybe I’d gain some points on the playground social scoreboard.
My Vietnamese immigrant mother didn’t understand. I was tall for my age, and that was all that mattered.
“You can be anything you want! Do you see all the models? They’re beautiful because they’re tall. You can be a model too. You can be a flight attendant!” My mother was not tall. She stood at a respectable 5’2”, and she hated it. Sure, I could be a flight attendant. A flight attendant who wasn’t allowed to change hairstyles or shave.
In sixth grade, I wore a mother-approved headband every day to keep my hair “straight and tidy”, and got in trouble if I left the house without it. In seventh grade, Angie Pole asked me to reach for something on the top shelf in art class so she could announce to the entire class that I didn’t shave my armpits. I had a fight with my mom after that to get a razor in the bathroom.
When I turned thirteen, I finally decided it was time to get a ‘grown-up’ haircut. My mother had loosened some of her strict expectations now that I was a teenager, but it took a while to work up the courage to present my idea.
“Mom, can I get this?” I set my Teen Magazine on her sewing table.
She peered through her reading glasses at the photo of Danielle Fishel from ‘Boy Meets World’. Danielle's lustrous locks were cut in perfectly layered waves. She looked like a Disney princess.
“Get what? The eye cream?”
“No, look above that. The actress.”
“What about her?”
“I like her hair.”
My mother grabbed pins from her sewing kit and stuck them between her teeth. She shook out a piece of checkered fabric and reset the spool on the sewing machine. I waited.
She spoke around the pins. “But she’s white.”
“Your hair won’t turn that color. You have to bleach it first and it will ruin your hair and I’m not paying for that.”
“Okay." I could sacrifice the color. "But what about the cut?”
She folded the fabric and weaved in a pin. “It’s nice. On her. Your hair is very different.”
“It’ll be okay.”
She weaved in a second pin and pricked her finger. She shook her hand and sucked on the fingertip. “Your hair is fine the way it is. Straight and long, one length. Easy.”
But I want to look like her, I wanted to say. If I could get my hair to wave like Danielle’s, then maybe it would shape my face like hers, and magically make my features as delicate as hers. Then maybe Angie Pole and her friends will stop making fun of me. Better yet, maybe they’ll like me, and I’ll be respected because I’ll look like them.
But I kept my mouth shut. My mother looked at the magazine again. “I can do that. You don’t have to spend money at a hair salon.”
Dread filled the pit of my stomach. “That’s okay, mom."
"No, really. I can do that. I just bought special scissors for cutting layers. The same stuff the Asian hair salon uses. Real easy."
"Have you cut hair before?"
"It's easy!" She stuck the last pin in the fabric and shut off the sewing machine. "Come on, I'll show you!"
"But people go to school for hair. I don't think you know-"
"What do you mean 'I don't know'? You question your mother?"
“No,” I said quickly, fear dripping into my voice.
She stood up, and I followed her obediently to the hallway bathroom. I waited in the doorway as she rummaged through the drawer, panic coursing through my veins. I was a trapped animal, unsure whether to fight or fly.
“Come here. Stand right here.” She motioned to the spot in front of the counter. She held what looked like a long comb in her hand, but there were small razor blades between the teeth.
I could picture all the girls’ faces at school, their mouths twisted in disgust at whatever monstrosity my hair would undoubtedly be.
“No, mom, it’s okay-”
“Get. Over. Here. Now.”
Her voice became dangerously low. Her warning voice, to be followed by counting, then sending me into the bedroom so she could fetch the wooden spoon. I shuffled to the counter. This had become more than just my haircut. This had become a challenge. My mother must prove to me that she can cut hair.
I couldn’t watch. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best as I felt the tugs around my head. Hot tears stung my eyes, and I fought to keep them down. I must not cry. Never cry.
Five minutes later, my mother set the comb/razor down on the counter and said, “okay, done.”
I opened my eyes.
She’d cut chunks of hair off in various lengths around my head, creating an effect that look less like layers and more like I’d dipped my tips into an industrial fan and then through a lawnmower. No two edges matched. In five minutes, my whole life had irreversibly changed.
I burst into tears.
Pride would not let my mother admit what she’d done. She shrugged as if to say ‘is this the thanks I get?’ and walked out of the room, but I knew she felt bad because she didn’t get mad at me for crying. I stared at my reflection and tried to think of all the ways I could stay home from school tomorrow.
“Whoa, what happened to you?” My brother gaped from the hallway.
“She messed up my hair!” I shrieked.
He didn’t say anything. He’d been on the wrong side of a bowl haircut before.
My mother found me half an hour later in my room. She didn’t knock, just pushed open the door and stared at me. “Okay, get your shoes. We’re going.”
“Don’t ask questions. Just put your shoes on.”
I followed her to the car and climbed into the passenger seat. It wasn’t until our seat belts were on and she was backing down the driveway that she said, “I’m going to drop you off at the Supercuts next to Frys. When you’re done, you will help me with the grocery shopping. Now, no more crying.”