Updated: Mar 15, 2018
If only I knew it would’ve come with so much tears.
I was a bit reluctant in using the term “black” in the title, because clearly, even though braids was a hairstyle commonly seen in the black community, it wasn’t a style exclusively for black hair.
(Plus, as a Chinese girl, my natural hair is already black.)
As a matter of fact, my complex for braids goes way back to my childhood, where I first saw it on the Returning of Princess Pearl(还珠格格), a TV series that debuted in 1998 and became so popular in China, that even 20 years later, it’s still being replayed and talked about. When the character Princess Fragrance(香妃) was first introduced in the second series, people were stunned by her natural beauty and the unique Uygur style. I remembered dressing up and getting braids like hers as a kid were like a dream come true. It’s definitely a cultural phenomenon that many girls from my generation can probably relate to.
Princess Fragrance, played by actress Liu Dan
As a child, even though being outdoors was often more appealing to me than some of the common girly things, hair has always been one of the most important elements I associated with my femininity. I still remember till how much I cried right beforewhen I first entered to middle school, where they were implementing the rule of short hair for girls as a way of their “semi-military management”. If I look hard enough, I might still be able to retrieve a picture my mom took of me crying my heart out the day I went for that haircut.
I got braids the week before as a way to memorize my well-kept hair all the way down to my waist. That was the first time in my memory that I had cut my hair short. And ever since, cutting my hair short has become something more symbolic for me every time I’m ready to make a major/positive change in life. (In most cases, it has been done by trusted friends who’s amateur in hair-cutting. And don’t worry, it turned out fine each time :P)
Imagining me getting a haircut
So that gives you a bit of history of the emotional attachment I had with my hair.
The first time I’ve had braids done by a black person is when I was in Cuba the spring of 2016. It was a small appetizer but an experience that’s positive enough for me to wanna try it again, only this time with the full course.
It all started one day when I was randomly scrolling down my wechat moments, and seeing a video clip of a Chinese girl with corn rows done by an African-style salon in Beijing. It looked great and very natural on her.
“Emmm…I wonder if I were able to pull that off,” I remembered thinking to myself.
I didn’t think much about it the next few days. But after a few exchanges of conversations with the salon owner, a week later, I found myself in that salon with the company of my Nigerian friend, Tolu. Although I was quite excited about getting to try a new look, I found myself quite anxious later that day, because clearly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The person who did my hair was a soft-spoken Congolese lady. Getting corn rows wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but that’s what the girl from the video had. She ensured that it would look nice on me, while Tolu helped me pick out the bright pinkish-red extensions for better contrast with my dark hair.
“I’m ready!” I finally said it with a big smile on my face.
I cried 3 times after getting my hair done.
Even though the Congolese lady was quite gentle, I would freeze each time as I could hear pieces of my hair breaking in half as she pull them into tight braids. Though, half way through as the braids started neatly forming on my head under her skillful hands, I started getting a little bit more comfortable.
“So, you said I could still wash my hair with the braids, right?” I casually asked Tolu while she was busy documenting my hair adventure with Snap-chat.
“Noo, of course not,” she said, looking back at me completely innocently. “I meant beforeee!”
“Wait…but that’s what you told me,” I said, secretly hoping that she was just kidding. Turned out she wasn’t.
One thing I forgot to mention about Tolu is that she’s an 18-year-old girl who’s very sweet and dear to me, but sometimes…I just don’t know how to handle with what to expect.
“Also, did you tell your mom that you are braiding your hair?” She asked me.
“Emm…not yet,” my adulting self, who by this point is more used to being independent, responded with hesitation, had completely forgotten about the fact that it was fast approaching Chinese New Year — oh, no, my first Chinese New Year with family in 5 years.
I froze again.
“Hahahaha she’s gonna be like, who’s this girrrl, what did she do to my daughter,” she laughed, without actually meaning it bad.
My heart sunk to the bottom.
Oops, I guess I wasn’t quite prepared to make my first appearance since coming back from the US in front of most of my Chinese relatives especially some of the more remote ones with corn rows. With most of my friends travelling overseas for vacation, they will most likely be the first people to make comments on it.
What would people possibly assume of me?
I started to feel more and more nervous. By this point, my pure motivation of trying a new look seemed to have encountered its first block.
The hair was completed within the next two hours. She added some beads also to make the look nicer, sealed by a lighter that took both her and the salon owner a little bit of time just to get it work.
The braids were beautifully done. And I couldn’t be happier about them. But as I looked at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t help but notice how my face felt entirely exposed…
Something that I was quite self-conscious about as a teenager was that even though my body always been quite slim, I do have a very round-shaped face. I even had the nickname “Big Face”(大脸) for years. And even though sometimes it’s cute and I’ve managed to joke about it myself, the effects it had definitely stuck with me that somehow I’ve always been using my hair to make the shape of my face look more flattering.
One of the traditional beauty standards in Chinese culture besides having fairer skin, is having a standard oval-shaped face. And that’s the two main effects most of the commonly-used Photo Beautification apps(美颜相机) in China would offer.
Thanks to all the Chinese beauty apps, my face looks slimmer each time.
With all my hair pulled up in corn rows, for the first time, I felt completely exposed/naked to one of my biggest fears in the past.
I managed to leave the salon with a smile on my face after snapping tons of selfies with Tolu, even though I started feeling more and more insecure as more and more questions beginning to rise.
“How would I survive without washing my hair the next day?”
“How long is this gonna last?”
“Would it hurt when I take them out? Would I lose lots of hair?”
“OMG, what if I become bald afterwards?”
As we walked to the bus stop in the dark, I heard two guys passing by said to each other, isn’t she cold? And when we got on the bus, I was starting to sense some stares coming at my hair. And all of a sudden, for the first time in China (as I generally feel like I could perfectly blend into the crowd), I felt like an odd one out.
“I feel so ugly,” I said to Tolu, with tears beginning to fall. “Everyone will probably think that I look ridiculous.”
Thinking of the fact that I was crying in front of an 18-year-old, I started crying harder.
“Nooo, you are not ugly. And everything will be okay,” she gave me a hug and tried comforting me.
Suddenly, I was no longer certain who’s the less mature one between us.
“But…” I quietly sobbed on her shoulder.
“I’m glad you did it. If you really don’t like it after a week, we will take it out, okay?” she continued. “You will get so many compliments, trust me!”
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The Fine Line between Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation
The next day started with more peace after the emotional roller-coaster of the previous night. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive reactions coming from many of my co-workers; even the Ayis complemented on it. The pleasant surprises carried into the actual Chinese New Year a few days later when I showed up at family gatherings. The pinkish-red extensions in my braids turned out to be perfect for the festive feels of the new year. And even though I did get asked a few questions on my braids, most of them were simply just happy to see me, and my new “hipster” look was somehow even expected.
But the second time I cried was before I knew all of these would happen.
So the day after I got corn rows, I went to a concert in memory of Bob Marley. I had been looking forward to this for quite sometime since hearing about it.
FUN FACT: My first encounters with Bob Marley’s music was actually through a street musician that was playing his songs in subways of New York and Washington, DC. And his pursuit to deliver real live music experience in the busiest and most lively places of town definitely left a big impression on me. (Video clips of a few of his covers on YouTube: Redemption Song; Ain’t No Sunshine.)
But I wasn’t ready to been seen in public with my hair yet. Even though it seems to be a perfect occasion, I worried it would have been too much.
The concert was actually quite nice. As the night progressed, the music got better and the crowd was certainly more entertained, as everyone was dancing and getting into the good Caribbean vibes. If you’ve known me for sometime, you know that I’m probably not the most coordinated girl you’ll ever meet. Even though I had tried taking different dance classes including a West African dance in college, dancing remained to be something that just doesn’t come naturally to me, especially in comparison with most of the African brothers and sisters who were with me that night.
I managed to step out of my comfort zone and had some fun dancing that night with help of my friends. But by the time it reached midnight, I was pretty much ready to go.
Little did I know, my Kenyan friend MC meant it literally when she said, “let’s dance till the morning.”
As I was initially waiting patiently in the corner and watching my friends dancing more and more passionately on the dance floor as if they were at home, I started feeling more and more detached from them, as if I was slowly fading into the background, completely invisible and forgotten.
Without a doubt, they all looked amazing. But I felt so far away.
Often, I feel as if my very existence as a dark-skinned black woman is in opposition to what some Chinese people find aesthetically beautiful.
- Niesha Davis, writer
Niesha Davis wrote this in her article on the Sixth tone, Can Black Panther Change Chinese Attitudes Towards Race, which might be a common experience shared by many expats of African origin living in China. (It’s interesting how in my case, I often felt quite the opposite.)
I’ve always been quite conscious about the topic of race since I’ve been exposed to different communities while living overseas. But race under the context of China has made everything even more complex for me.
Once I had a conflict with a once close friend of mine who I met in college, and she said something that stuck with me, that I would never understand her experience as a black woman living in China.
Maybe sub-consciously, me getting corn rows was still an attempt for me to relate to the experience of my black friends, but somehow, at that night, it only served as a reminder that no matter how hard I tried, I would still be essentially different from all my friends, and therefore ultimately excluded from their experience.
And that’s how I started crying for the second time as I hit another block, I felt like as if by getting those braids, I was intentionally trying hard to win their approval, and fit in somewhere that I just didn’t belong.
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Of course my friends didn’t leave me there crying that night. They took me home on a cab and later one of the girls asked me what’s going on and listened to all I have to say. She even made breakfast for me, Zambian-style.
I guess at the end of the day, I’m still thankful for all the friends that have loved and accepted all sides of me, and the sisterhood we share that’s not solely based on appearance or common experience but a bond stronger than all else, a bond that’s not defined by the past but the present we share and the future to come.
As time passed by, I became more and more comfortable and confident with my corn rows, started learning to style it with headbands and care for it with coconut oil, and eventually fell in love with it completely.
I did get many more compliments, as more people I met started saying that it suited me perfectly. Of course many of my African brothers and sisters took me in as one of their own and joked about me being African ever since thanks to my corn row. And even though I could still feel the tensions coming at me in certain times, they no longer seem matter as much.
This might look silly now looking back, but all those feelings I had were once so real, and what I’ve learned about self-acceptance through this experience, is indeed, priceless.
Because for my younger self and so many other girls around the world, there weren’t many lessons more important than the one when you first learned to be comfortable in your own skin.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but it does come in all shapes, sizes and shades. No matter how crazy the standard of beauty is out there and how constant it changes, God has certainly made everyone beautiful in their own ways and that fact never changes(Ecclesiastes 3:11).
So, I know you’ve probably heard it already, but I’m gonna say it one more time.
Yes, it is true you are already beautiful just as you are. And those who truly love you, will always love you just for who you are.
And that’s why you should embrace yourself, too.
1. Me with new friends visiting from Tianjin at temple fair, completely comfortable with my braids.
2. Meanwhile, other visitors at the temple fair, not so accustomed to seeing people with braids.
3. Me, a few weeks later, in a dress from Benin, West Africa, without my braids, fortunately not bald, even though I did lose a significant amount of hair in this process.
Seems like I’ve forgotten to mention about the third time I cried? It actually touched a whole different topic that I might be ready to share sometime later. Plus, I’m sure it was getting a little bit too long that I’m starting to lose you already. :P
Thank you for spending your time with me. Looking forward to sharing more of my journey with you!