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Nikkei Chronicles #7—Nikkei Roots: Digging into Our Cultural Heritage

Japanese Hair: A Rambling Exploration of its Cultural, Familial, and Personal Roots

When I enter that “nonki” (as my grandma jokingly calls it) state of being where I sort of zone out of the present time and space, I often find myself ruminating upon the insignificant features of myself. I self-consciously think about the parts of myself I don’t like, which currently is the peeling skin on the back of my legs from a bad sunburn I acquired a couple of weeks ago after entering, you guessed it, my nonki persona, and laying in the 90-degree-hot sunlight too long.

More often than not, however, I find myself playing with the hair ends anchoring my somewhat thick and overall helmet shaped ‘do, or running the thinner, “wavy-er” strands of baby hairs through my fingers. I scratch, twirl, shake, yank, braid, and tussle it. You might notice (or maybe it’s just my grandma and mom) that I included no mention of brushing, that thing that most people probably think of first when contemplating the state of their hair. My former basketball teammates would often complain after games that their hair needed to “be brushed,” or else it would look like “a sweaty disaster,” but for some reason I was able to evade such combed obsessions.

The more "tame" version of my hair as a kid.

My aversion to brushing my hair may very well stem from a bit of trauma from a couple of cases of very bad picture-day ‘do’s: instances of forceful and scalp searing combs down my mangy bedhead by some volunteer moms successfully creating a voluminous frizz that once made the cameraman pause to ask, “What ethnicity are you?” All of my ramblings aside, hair is an essential piece of everyone’s identity. It is not confined to your appearance, or your self-image, or your physical body, but is inherently a part of your ethnic make-up, your cultural background, and, of course, your personality. And while I have not necessarily been very successful at exploring the cultural significance of my hair (aside from some disappointing, at times creepy Google searches of “Japanese” or “Chinese” hair traditions/hair culture), I can say that it is most definitely tied to my own somewhat mixed cultural background, and is undeniably permanently attached to my sense of self.

My Chinese grandma in a rare photo depicting her natural hair.

Some of my earliest memories of hair are not rooted in actual stories, but small fragments of my everyday life as a normal Asian kid. I was bombarded by both my Chinese and Japanese grandmas pretty much every meal with some very stern and completely serious commands to eat my nori or “choy-choy” if I wanted to have “beautiful” skin and “shiny,” “black,” “thick,” “insert any manner of a variety of synonyms” hair. To be honest, I’m not sure if this is something that every kid experiences at the hands of their overbearing Asian grandmas, or if I’m the lone person subject to this experience, as my brothers definitely did not get this same treatment. In fact, there is some evidence pointing to the exclusiveness of such attention, as my mom once ran her hands through my hair and remarked how glad she was that my hair had gotten thicker than it used to be, and I responded back that it was because of all the bok-choy my grandma had been cooking.

My mom, on the other hand, never had to be force-fed extreme amounts of wakame and choy to get the desired, aforementioned hair qualities. Her thick, long strands of hair always seemed to grow at such a steady rate that she was able to donate 12 inches of coarse, jet-black (although admittedly sometimes gray) hair to Locks of Love every year or two, a tradition I would join in later.

My mom would often grow her hair out to donate it to Locks of Love every year.

I distinctly recall attempts to braid her hair in the same ugly French braid that I regularly pull my hair into and utterly failing as I’d quickly ran out of energy to grab the stray strands and thick bundles of hair that had easily slipped out of my weak, stubby fingers; the heavy bunches would inevitably straighten themselves out of the winding configuration of my sad little braid, and would resume their sometimes straight, sometimes naturally ringleted state. I feel this particular hair type, an unrelentingly bristling, yet obtusely oscillating species, is undeniably Japanese. That is not to say that one particular hair texture, color, or type is definitively Japanese – the varying array of all these categories as a result of my Google searches is testament to that – but that this hair, my mom’s hair, has always been distinctly Japanese.

Of course, this might be solidified by the fact that my mom carries several other notably Japanese features that might accentuate the association: she boasts beautifully golden skin that does not burn but bronzes, thick and yet naturally shaped eyebrows, a tall pointed nose, and elegantly slender fingers, all of which were completely wiped out of the gene pool when she married my distinctly Chinese-looking (and genetically Chinese) father. However, my ethno-follicle hunch is staunchly supported by my mom’s answer to my recent query, “Who do you get your hair from?,” “Grammy, of course!” Her hair, then, must be Japanese, as my grandma is undeniably the most stubbornly Japanese person I have ever met, living in the US or Japan, such that it would make sense for her to hold that same unrelentingly loyal conviction to her country, people, and culture within each and every strand of her hair (something that was clearly, if not begrudgingly passed down to my mother, but had failed to infuse into my own hair).

My wakame-wielding Japanese grandma.

Hair thus was and is a frequent topic of conversation for my mom and me, usually instigated by me complaining about my own less thick, yet shaggily voluminous head of hair, and her annoyance at my “monku-ing.” Though what it usually winds down to is our agreement that my distinctly Chinese dad is entirely to blame for my “less perfect” hair (although sometimes I like to add that she chose him, and thus is technically responsible).

What does “less perfect” hair look like, you ask? It’s admittedly not bad at all; in fact, it’s pretty great as far as hair standards go: it’s coarse, and yet not untameable, thick, but not hay-like, and maintains some sort of slight wave from a morning shower or night of sleeping on wet hair. It’s thinner, and yet still maintains my mom’s jet-black color as opposed to the brownish hue that my dad’s hair holds.

My hair is fine I suppose – just “less perfect” to a harsh self-critic who also idolizes her mom’s hair way too much. It also notably grows quickly and quite long, such that I was begged several times by my basketball teammates and teammates’ moms to join hula teams once my hair reached my waist (the length required to join a halau I guess), to which I would hastily answer with a blunt chop of 13 inches or so from the Armenian ladies at my local SuperCuts. May I say that no amount of hair is worth the infinite pain and suffering that was reported from the dreaded hula?

My hair does not, however, completely maintain the deeply black shade throughout, much to the chagrin of my nori-wielding grandma. As it grows, it lightens into a sort of sickly brown that highlighted my strangely curving texture so much so that I was a worthy opponent when it came to my teammates’ competitions to see whose hair was the lightest at our whispy split-ends compared to our dark scalps.

It is important to note, though, that each of our heads of hair were different from the other: one might be a wavy light brown with some stray, shimmering strands of golden thread running through it, or the deepest black with tight, forested curls, or even the obligatory thin, shiny, and absolutely straight, a menagerie of the various species of locks one might find in the wild jungles of the ethno-mix of Japanese found most commonly in California and Hawaii.

That is to say, each of us was a unique reflection of our own roots. Our “less than perfect” hair that was distinct from anyone elses, especially our parents’, who presumably contributed to the genetic make-up of our ‘do’s. Our hair didn’t look like “Japanese hair,” whatever that means to Google or to some self-entitled 19-year-old such as myself. It was our hair – a veritable mix of our own expectations of ourselves, of our idealized and sometimes wrongly dismissive mothers, of our nori and choy-choy armed grandmas, of our distant great-grandmothers, and maybe, I guess, of our dads too.

There are a lot of unanswered questions for me about my ethnicity and what that means in the context of the rather heated and entirely misunderstood racial environment of the United States today, and I’m sure that there are some deep-seeded resentments toward certain parts of my genetic make-up that, simply put, flay out my insecurities about who I am and how people perceive my people and their respective countries. However, for now, I guess I am just going to have to deal with the after-effects of a seriously butt-searing sunburn and figure out how I am going to wear my hair tomorrow.

© 2018 Dani Yang

5 Stars

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Each article submitted to this series was eligible for selection as favorites of our readers and the Editorial Committees. Thank you to everyone who voted!

chinese american Chronicles hair hapa identity japanese american Mixed Nikkei Roots

About this series

Stories in the Nikkei Chronicles series have explored many of the ways that Nikkei express their unique culture, whether through food, language, family, or tradition. For this edition, we are digging deeper—all the way down to our roots!

We solicited stories from May to September of 2018 and received 35 stories (22 English; 1 Japanese; 8 Spanish; and 4 Portuguese) from individuals in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Japan, Mexico, Peru, and the United States. For this series, we asked our Nima-kai community to vote for their favorite stories and an editorial committee to pick their favorites. In total, four favorite stories were selected.

Here are the selected favorite stories.

Editorial Committee’s Selections:

  Nima-kai selection:

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