Chinatown, Haircuts & Questions of Identity

Chinatown is CRAZY. Not like tourist Chinatown crazy, but like REAL Chinatown crazy. Fortunately for me, I grew up wandering the streets of Chinatown, as my family to this day has bought our food from there. So strangely enough, as much as I try to avoid going there, I know it well. The shoving, the yelling, the smells, the fish staring up at you; these are all normal sights.

I go there now mainly to get my haircut. Being of a mixed heritage, my hair is pretty odd to work with. It’s curly when wet, wavy and afro-puffy when dry, and yet with a proper straightener can be straight as a pin. And because it gets so incredibly thick and heavy, I have to have it thinned out, which most people don’t understand. Trust me, when you have incredibly heavy hair that leads to headaches, you’d get it thinned out too.

I’ve decided as of last year to stick to my roots (pun intended) and wear my hair in its all natural curly state. My weird hair has never sat right with my hairdresser, who I’ve been going to for about 3 years now. She’s the one who convinced me to chop it all off the day before I left for Spain, and I’ve had it short since. But without fail, every time I’m there she tells me the same thing: “Get Japanese perm. Your hair stay straight long time.” Curly hair just doesn’t fly with her.

Let’s be honest, the main reason I’ve decided to keep my hair curly is maintenance. Straightening my hair every day just takes too much time and effort, and after a while, it got boring.

What’s interesting though are people’s reactions to me as a multiracial person, and I’ve found that my hairstyle has an effect on this. I’ve gotten more stares and questions when my hair was straight, but with my curly hair there’s been a notable decrease in these instances and instead comments from acquaintances like, “You look ultra Latina today.”

As I prepare to travel again, and move to another country, I can’t help but once again question and reflect deeply on my identity. Every time I go to a different country or even state, my first question (other than will I be safe), is how will people treat me. Not as an American, but as a person of mixed descent whose ethnic identity is not entirely clear.

Call it paranoia, but growing up in NYC, an incredibly diverse place, and for that reason a place with such an incredible emphasis on racial identity, it is something that I’ve dealt with my entire life. And the question at the root of my thoughts and experiences is, “How do I establish my identity as a person of mixed descent?”

There are too many issues and sub-topics to really address this issue in a single blog post, or even in a single book, but a conversation with a close friend has led me to finally take the first step towards finding an answer.

On a nighttime stroll in Dresden, Germany, my close friend and host Eric and I began to discuss family history. While he knows and has access to his family’s history, I do not, and I shared that this is something I almost wish for, to be able to know this history of your family. But he pointed out that I have an opportunity to create my own history, and shape my own identity, an opportunity he wished for.

“The differences between people need not act as barriers that wound, harm and drive us apart. Rather, these very differences among cultures and civilizations should be valued as manifestations of the richness of our shared creativity.” Daisaku Ikeda, http://www.ikedaquotes.org/diversity 

A desire to have a clearly established identity or family history resurfaces. What I often forget though, in my fear of being treated or viewed a certain way, is that at the end of the day I am a human being and we are all connected and essentially related. I was reminded of this in every trip I have taken so far. Without fail I was treated with kindness and respect and was not questioned about my skin color or texture of my hair.
As I continue to travel and delve into this idea of identity and what it means to shape and establish mine, I will try to remember this point. Most importantly though, I am learning to wonder at and appreciate the fact that I have this opportunity to blossom into a truly unique individual as I experience the “richness of our shared creativity” in my travels.
“The plum [blossom] is happiest when it blooms as itself in full glory. How much of the color and life would be lost  if it weren’t for our differences.” Daisaku Ikeda, http://www.ikedaquotes.org
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