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June 20, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Dreading the hair question

With daughter Mie, around the time I had the dread question

(September 25, 1992)

Not so long ago, I received a letter from a reader, a young black woman, asking me for advice about where to get her hair done. I couldn’t really help her since nothing is done to or for my hair, but I sent her the address of someone who I thought might have some information.

I’ve had only one experience with a local beauty parlor, about 10 years ago, and it left me with nothing but respect for the owner, a hairdresser who told me, “Well, I’ve never cut hair like yours before, but I’ll give it a try,” and boldly went at it. She didn’t do a bad job.

“By the way,” the reader wrote, “is your hair braided on in dreads? I can’t tell from the photo.” If in fact my hair was in what is known as “dreadlocks” she wanted to know what was my “mechanism for coping” – by which she meant: how did I respond to all the questions, curiosity, and unsolicited queries about the hair that grows on my head and how I choose to wear it.

Surely I have no mechanism – an automatic something that gets switched on and goes into action mode when I am made aware that the housewife standing in line behind me at the supermarket can hardly get her items out of her basket and onto the counter because all her attention in on my hair. Her close scrutiny of it is not coming up with answers but only questions:  Is it real? Is it yarn? How did she get it that way? How does she keep it that way? Does she wash it like that? Does she wash it at all?

I don’t have a big problem with this. I am well aware that 99.9 percent of the people in this country where I live do not have hair like mine. I am aware that outside the members of my family, where I live, I am not likely to see anyone who looks even vaguely similar to me, unless I look in the mirror.

I suppose people are bound to be curious about my hair (it is in dreads, the easiest way for me to care for my hair), and I can accept this curiosity within limits – and that limit is that I am not asked to sacrifice my dignity, or my privacy, to satisfy their curiosity and inquisitiveness.

Quite precisely, I do not expect to turn around and find someone’s hands in my hair at a concert hall, or at a matsuri. I do not appreciate being asked to explain in public, to a group of people with whom I am not familiar, how my hair got the way it is. I do not like to be accosted in department stores by curious clerks and saleswomen who think it is quite all right to walk up to me and feel my hair.

And it’s not that I am unfamiliar with this kind of behavior, but the last time I saw it exhibited was by people who made no pretense at sophistication.

About 18 years ago when I was traveling in northern Thailand with my husband and 5 year-old daughter, we took a guided trek through the country north of Chiang Mai, visiting some of the hill tribes and staying in their villages.

Our guide told me me I was the first black person he’d ever brought on a trek, and that very likely I was the first black person these people had ever seen. They sure acted like it. The women, who smoked pipes, had few or no teeth, and did not bathe for “fear of offending the water god”, touched my body all over. They stared in my eyes not 10 centimeters from my face, and rubbed their hands through my hair as though we were lovers.

Very simple people, they were in awe of our guide who brought basic first aid like hydrogen peroxide and band-aids to treat minor injuries when he came through their village. (Though it didn’t look like he had anything in his medicine bag to treat the badly infected leg of a small boy who had been bitten by a dog.)

Intrigued with my looks, it was not hard to believe that these people, the Karen, thought they might rub the color off my skin, or perhaps find some practical use for my hair.

And I was equally intrigued with the fact that I was among the Karen hill tribe. I could have hardly appeared sophisticated as I tried to “explain” the connection between my name and theirs, with the only communication tool I had available, pantomime.

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 POSTSCRIPT

Attending the Jamaica Festival in Yoyogi Koen with my daughter Mie, I saw any number of Japanese who have dreadlocks – far longer and thicker than mine. These Rasta people come out of the woodwork every time there is a reggae festival!

On one plane trip, a few years ago, I met a reggae musician who told me he had played keyboards with Bob Marley. (I later saw him in a video with Marley.) We talked throughout the flight, and I had to tell him that although I had dreadlocks, I had nothing whatsoever to do with Rastafarianism. He would have none of it, and told me, “You’re Rastafarian and just don’t know it!” 

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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