Never too short and never bangs. I liked having my hair long– and so did the American boys. Long enough for the other girls to braid, long enough for me to curl, and long enough to differentiate me from the foreign exchange students.
To accompany my long American hair, I always maintained a tan. Like the other girls over the summer break, I’d drench my already oranged skin in the tanning oil my pale friends brought, for my mom found it too ridiculous to allow me to own my own bottle. For a while, I didn’t even know what a tan was and saw tanning as a pastime that allowed me to fit in. It wasn’t until my white friend wandered into my room, her eyes skimming down my summer bucket list, finding a clean check box next to “get a tan.” She told me I didn’t need to tan and laughed at me. I was baffled. I hadn’t understood that tanning wasn’t just a beautifying activity, but an ideal– let alone one that aimed at achieving the darker skin tone I reluctantly had.
So many teens go through the process of understanding why they do things for appearance: why they curl their hair, why they shave, why they over-plucked their eyebrows… And most of the time they land on the conclusion “to be pretty and likable.” It wasn’t until much later that I realized why I too followed all these trends– and it wasn’t just to be pretty.
Assimilation was a vocabulary term I’d only read in history books and therefore only used in essays. It was presented as a prehistoric idea. A concept that was long gone– I mean, this is America for goodness sake. I’d been so used to following the latest trends and accepting that that was all I was doing. I hadn’t noticed the limitations I had so quietly placed on myself.
I first struck the dilemma in the first grade. Bobs were in. Hair cut to the jawline and styled with a floral, neon headband from Justice was all the rave. Three out of five girls got one for picture day, my math partner got one, and my best friend got one. Deep down inside, I wanted one too, but oppositely, getting a bob would be the last thing I’d ever do.
I stuck to these self imposed guidelines, but never truly questioned them. When answering why I’d never cut my hair short I’d answer, “I’ve always had it long and liked it this way.”
As girls in my class matured, their styles did too. Each girl was able to differentiate phases of their adolescence by merely looking at their hair style: middle school contained long hair with a side or middle part, freshman year of high school different tints of dye coated their waves in an ombre approach, and by senior year, everyone had some form of bangs accompanied by a maroon red or brown-black streaked colorant. While everyone else’s yearbook portrait shapeshifted, mine remained a reflection of the same girl.
A few weeks after moving in with my aunt, I noticed my hair had reached a wild length to where it hurt to adjust my head position at night. I asked her if there was a nearby salon that donated hair and she popped the echoed question. Considering the question, I was confused on how to honestly answer. Digging into what truly lied at the end of my commitment to long locks, I heard the desire to look American leave my lips.
Going down the list I recognized why I had avoided changing my hair: short hair looked too Chinese, bangs for the same reason as the latter, and for hair color, there were too few color choices that didn’t resemble kpop or anime. I was avoiding association and instead chose assimilation. I wanted to be seen as the “desirable American girl,” not a reflection of where I came from– but the truth is, America is made up of cultural reflections.
Hearing the excuses playing in my head, it seems ridiculous. To merge with a culture, because you are embarrassed of your own. Trying to be an American girl as an Asian-American girl.
Editors: Leila W., Rachel C., Joyce P., Cathay L.
Photo Credits: Rachel Chen