A Story About Hair


I started writing a few stories of what it was like to grow up as a child of immigrant parents in the U.S. I wrote about the very beginnings here, a tale of a cat here, and another story from elementary school here.

I’ll pick up where I left off and continue with another story about elementary school. I hesitated a long time about this one, but then again, it’s part of my story. It has to do with hair. If this is going to be a boring topic for you, you might want to stop reading right now. :)

In fifth grade, I had a hairstyle that was very typical for young girls in India… if they were in India, that is. Every morning, my mother would braid my very long hair into two long braids, one on each side of my head. She’d braid a ribbon into the braid, and then pull up the braid into a loop and tie the ribbon into a bow. My teachers, of course, thought my hairstyle was cute. In fifth grade, it did not matter so much to me. Below is a picture of the hairstyle that I found online (this is not me, but the hairstyle with the braids and loops is exactly the hairstyle I am referring to).


As you can imagine, no one else in my entire school in small-town Alabama wore their hair like this. But as I said, in the fifth grade, it did not matter to me. I was 10. 

It was as an entirely different story once I became a sophisticated sixth grader, though. We had lockers. We walked from from classroom to classroom. We were almost in high school, for crying out loud. In my school in my small town, all the 7th-12th graders were in a separate school building, a couple of miles away from the elementary school, which housed Kindergarten through 6th grade.

In my small school, this sixth grade year was equivalent to the very painful and awkward middle school years that many of us would like to forget. At least I would like to forget! :)

So once I became a sophisticated sixth grader, that girlish hairstyle would not do. I insisted upon wearing my hair down, like everyone else, and not in braids.

This would have been fine… except there was a problem.

What problem was that, you ask? Well, my hair is very naturally curly, very thick, and it was very long. I’m still not sure who to blame in the family tree for this curly head of hair, but I have identified a couple of culprits (uncles with wavy hair) on both sides.

Once I began wearing my hair down, I also began using a hair dryer to dry it quickly. The heat damaged my hair to the point it became dry, damaged, tangled, and because it was curly, it became frizzy and unmanageable. I can’t imagine now how it really looked. I couldn’t untangle all of it, all the time. I remember my mother trying to comb out tangles and it pulled my head so hard it could bring me to tears. I couldn’t get them untangled, either. I remember on more than one occasion, just grabbing some scissors and cutting out any tangled knots I couldn’t undo. 

I suppose each immigrant has a story about coming to a different country, and learning something new, like seeing an escalator for the first time, or not knowing how a vending machine works. I’ve heard stories like that.

I guess one of my stories is not knowing that conditioner existed. It sounds funny to say it. It doesn’t sound  as dramatic as not knowing how to walk on an escalator or use a vending machine-but I suppose it had a large impact, as I explain below. My mother didn’t know about conditioner, either; in India, she had not grown up with anything like that available. 

In India, women use various oils on their hair. To this day, I still can’t figure out why this is the case. I don’t know why and haven’t asked anyone, but it’s a common practice. I guess it keeps the hair straight and smooth. I’m sorry, but it looked and felt greasy to me, and I refused to allow it on my head. Besides, no one I knew in school put oil on their hair, and I was trying hard to fit in. (Every culture does something different, right?)

If you read the story of the beginnings, you will know that there was another girl in school who was a bully. Well, my hair provided her with new material on a daily basis. She called me names. “Mophead” was one. That’s a bit hard to admit. But, there you go. Interestingly, though, she’s the only one who said anything to me about my hair.

So… I had this crazy head of hair to deal with, this bully, and in general, the stuff of middle school. That probably sums up my sixth grade year. Oh, and I got braces, too. You know the kind that look like railroad tracks? That’s what I had on my teeth. Oh, what fun times. :)

In the summer after that school year that I was glad to end, we went with some friends to a hair salon. These friends visited a particular salon regularly: it was the JC Penney salon in the mall about 30 minutes away. Had I ever had a haircut up to that point? Honestly, I can’t recall, but probably not since the second grade, as my hair was very long. Or actually first grade. My first grade teacher had a nickname for me: curly cob (referring to all the curls on my head). Had I even been to a hair salon ever? Unlikely. At least, I don’t remember it. So these friends took my mother and me to their hair salon and introduced us to their hair stylist. 

Well, I emerged several hours later (I kid you not), with my hair cut, short (in my view) to my shoulder, and it was shiny and smooth, not tangled, and felt and looked great. I didn’t have to suffer with more tangles after that day. The hair stylist told me what shampoo and conditioner to use (it was a  particular kind that is not available nowadays, but was the best shampoo I had ever used).

The hairstylist had done research at Auburn University with hair and shampoos. The particular shampoo she recommended I use had a specific pH that was balanced for hair. Remember those commercials for Johnson’s baby shampoo, and they claimed it was “pH balanced”? I learned the Johnson’s baby shampoo was pH balanced for the eyes (so the eyes wouldn’t sting if shampoo got in the eyes), and was not actually pH balanced for the hair itself, and that it was a poor shampoo for hair, actually. She was definitely a hair expert. This hairstylist changed my life. Haha.

Actually, she really did. When I went back to school in the fall, the girl who bullied me was shocked to see me; incredulous, in fact, and actually complimented me. There were no more negative comments about my hair after that. EVER.

For years, whenever I went to get my haircut, do you know what I’d hear? “Wow! you have a lot of hair!” If a hairstylist, who deals with hair all day long, tells you that, you know you really have enough hair on your head to donate to several people… which I have cut for that purpose. But I haven’t done so in a few years, so it’s too long again.  

I have since learned to appreciate my curly hair. People back then would pay large sums of money (and even now, still do) for perms to obtain curly hair. I was born with it, and I can let it go curly or I can straighten it. What felt like a curse earlier in my life (unruly, curly hair) actually turned out to be something I appreciated and others were actually jealous of, believe it or not. 

So that’s the story. 

And don’t say I didn’t warn you… I did say this would be about hair.  Why did I just write an entire blog post about my hair? Because, I’m so weird. Not really. Well, that may be true, or partially true (haha). But really it’s also because I don’t mind if others know, and it’s a real and valid part of my story of being the child of immigrant parents, a story no one would ever know unless I share it. I hope you got a good laugh, or at the very least, find it somewhat amusing. :) Or interesting. Or whatever. Maybe you were just bored. I’m done now. Thanks for reading!












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