Stories about the coolness of my hair, my food, and my culture.
As a brown girl born and raised in Bangkok, pigtails were a permanency growing up. They were easy for my mother and my myriad of aunties to quickly weave together. They would melodically repeat the same phrase over and over again, that pigtails were “to tame the bird’s nest, your hair gets too messy if you don’t put it up.” I didn’t have the cropped, smooth Thai hair that my peers did. I accepted it as such. Pigtails were functional as a child. It didn’t matter if I looked good. As long as I got to play with my friends and not have to brush hair out of my eyes every 2 minutes, I was happy.
But as I walked through the corridors of a new school, the desire for functionality abruptly transitioned into a desire for the fashionable. I wasn’t in Thai school anymore. This was the big league. My classmates came from all over the world, as far as Los Angeles and Brazil. Pigtails suddenly became a symbol for my refusal to grow up. I joined a girl gang that reeked of prejudice and toxicity (as every impressionable teenager inevitably does in middle school.) I didn’t want to be the childish one of the group anymore. I told my family that the era of pigtails was over. From now on, I was going to wear my hair down just like everybody else.
But I seemed to be in denial about the true state of my hair. It’s curly, frizzy, and prone to looking like a broomstick if it’s left out for too long. Because broomsticks are even less cool than braids, my hair found solace in headbands. They kept my hair out of my face as I studied, and stopped my mother from screaming at me for looking untidy. Spoiler alert: they didn’t last very long. After a few days of wearing them, my girl gang labeled headbands too juvenile and too ugly during one of our lunchtime meetings. (Flash-forward to 2017 – white girls in every festival, and on every street corner, has either a headband or a patterned scarf on her head.)
So you can imagine my anger when, on a humid Tuesday morning, I was told by a friend that pigtails had become chic again. I angrily slapped my frizzy bird’s nest into a bun and stormed into class. Fuck wearing my hair down. I sat, seething, as my friend chattered on about how a group of European girls had learnt to braid their hair in the bathroom. Logically, tomorrow, because they were doing it, everyone else was going to as well. I spent weeks asking myself – why were things only cool when on the body of a white girl?
I didn’t understand back then why this incident bothered me so much. I wasn’t yet fully aware of the pervasiveness of racism and white supremacy beyond the classroom or the safety of my home. The version of racism I knew was the occasional slur and a few stories of suspicious security guards. I didn’t know it could infiltrate such mundane parts of my existence.
Some of the most miserable instances of bullying I can recall were girls of colour being shamed by white students for bringing packed lunches from home. Traditional meals from their home country were called “smelly” and “strange looking.” As if food wasn’t enough of a problem for teenage girls, foods were now put into categories of popular and unpopular. It came as no surprise to me when I caught pieces of gossip floating around school that some girls and boys of colour had stopped eating lunch altogether. A memory of a boy eating his lunch at 5pm, after everyone had gone home, still makes my heart ache to this day.
I ask those girls and boys today: was it really necessary to assign hierarchy to food, something we need in order to survive? Was your egg fried rice really that much hipper than her roti?
While white obsession with Thai culture and lifestyle grew, it seemed simpler to be Thai and erase the other part of my heritage completely. “Oh, but you look Indian,” people would say. “Yeah,” I replied, “But I’m third-generation Thai, and I’ve only ever been to India once. I don’t like Indian food, or Bollywood films.” While it wasn’t a complete lie, what I didn’t tell people until much later into my teen hood was that I loved the occasional Bollywood film. (I mean, how could you not? There’s a dance sequence every other scene, heart-wrenching romances, and beautiful leading actors and actresses.) I loved most Indian food, but stayed away from a few meat dishes. It wasn’t that I didn’t like being brown. It was the fact that when I was brown, my personality and identity were reduced to stereotypes.
My school’s annual International Day festival also served to enable my hypocritical nature. Who would I be this time – Thai or Indian? (Obviously the one that was the trendiest that year.) So I was Thai for a year, and Indian for the next. Whether this was an outward showcase of my inner identity crisis, or a result of current international school consensus on which countries fell into the category of “cool” and “exotic,” I wasn’t sure.
This cyclical struggle of denying and being embarrassed of my heritage only ended when I began learning how to accept myself. During my sophomore year of high school, I started following more brown girls on Twitter and Instagram. Seeing how their faces and words exuded with strength and beauty, I felt a sense of empowerment I’d never felt before. Gradually, I began to point out problematic behavior within, and outside, of my friend circle. Taboo topics began to be discussed more during school hours, and having “woke” friends helped me come to terms with my diverse background for what it was: I didn’t have to choose between two cultures, it was entirely possible to be both.
It perhaps took a little too long for me to recognize that I was letting other people’s words influence and control my identity. The only person who could define me… was me. I left high school with a diverse group of accepting friends. Some of my peers also eventually figured out that bullying others wasn’t going to fix what was broken inside of them.
Try not to make the same mistakes I did. Prejudice stems from ignorance and an unwillingness to see other people and cultures with an open mind. All you can do is try to help others understand your authentic self and perspective – nothing more. Wear your hair however you want, eat whatever you want, and be whoever you want to be. Don’t let other people tell you that your hair, food, or culture isn’t cool – because I’m telling you now that it is.
Words: Angana Narula, Illustrations: Amber Ehler