The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments
I found home the other day when I got my hair cut at a small unisex hair salon in Cambridge. My hair had become jagged and uneven, the layers jumbled and awkward because I cut it myself a month ago, too impatient to go to a salon to chop off the frayed ends.
As it is with most physical imperfections, I was the only one who thought twice about my hair, and since it was passable in public, I kept pushing it back. Part of the reason was because I didn't have time. Most of the reason was because I didn't feel comfortable in any of the hair salons around here.
The thing is, for most of my life, the people who cut my hair have been Asian women. Mostly Vietnamese, sometimes Chinese, perhaps once or twice Korean, and a few times men, but still predominantly Vietnamese ladies who also converse with me in Vietnamese.
As a kid my mom took me to these salons, hole in the wall places with a few Vietnamese workers lounging around, a Vietnamese dubbed Chinese soap opera playing in the background. We'd pay in cash, and the haircut was always the same: layers beginning around the jaw line that curve softly beyond the shoulders.
I rebelled against this paradigm during the first week or so of college and got my hair cut into bangs at Leonard Stephen salon, a fancy salon in Harvard Square. It was the best haircut I ever got, and also the most expensive. I was so eager to be in this fancy new school, and wanted a haircut that proved that I was hip and rich enough to belong in the Ivory Tower.
I rebelled again by cutting all of that illusion off, and getting a pixie cut halfway through college, when everything was falling apart. It's been about five years since then, and my hair is finally long again.
Other times and places where my hair has been cut: in the kitchen of our old house. Back then my mom had more time and would cut it herself. She laid out a stool, put newspapers on the floor, and took out her pair of cutting scissors to give me straight cut bangs, precisely the ones so typically made fun of in Asian stereotypes.
At other times, I've cut my hair myself, often in moments of boredom, destruction, or desperation.
No matter who cuts it, I am always dissatisfied in someway. If it's a good haircut, it's too expensive. If it's cheap, it's subpar. At best, I can have a decently cut and decently priced haircut at the Hair Cuttery, but even then, I feels not quite right. I know what I want my hair to look like, but don't have the skill to make it happen. Most of the time, people just don't get it.
My hair is thick. It doesn't bend, doesn't curl very well unless you put copious amounts of hair spray. It's stubborn, like me. It needs to be cut with a very sharp blade.
For a short while, I found a nice enough hair salon back home, run by Vietnamese women. The haircuts were good and cheap, but I felt like I had to watch what I said, and how I said things, because word travels faster than wildfire in a small and gossiping community. That went away when I moved back up here, and for months I felt lost.
So, this time, I spent time researching any places nearby that specialized in cutting Asian hair. I found a place right next to where I live, but it was $45 for a haircut. I kept on searching, and two miles out a bit beyond Porter Square, there was a little place called Hair International. I called asked how much it cost for a haircut, and a woman with the most beautiful, warm, and soothing voice answered with a simple "Hello." She said the haircut was just $20. I was sold and made an appointment.
A couple of days later, I stepped in the doors and found the place filled with plants. Pothos and money trees, green leaves running wild over the brick walls. The place was clean and simple. No bullshit. I liked it immediately.
The woman came out and greeted me with the same way she had on the phone: a warm hello. I said I just wanted a haircut. She didn't ask me if I wanted it washed, didn't ask about styling or blow drying. No questions at all. She guided me to my hair and gently folded the drape over my neck, and when she touched my hair, it reminded me immediately of how my mother touches my hair.
She held it so tenderly, and moved slowly with it, almost as if stroking my hair. "You remind me of my niece," she said. She cut with a single pair of scissors, holding my hair up strand by strand, taking care with each cut. The whole time, I savored the memory of the last time I saw my mom, how she came into my bedroom at night and held my head in her hands, patting my head as if I were a kid again. (Then she fell asleep and started snoring so I had to kick her out).
"You have such beautiful, long hair," the woman said.
Surprisingly, I didn't feel the need to say anything, or make small talk. I was already comfortable; there was no need to speak smoothly and gain someone's favor so that they would treat me fairly.
It didn't even occur to me that this woman was Vietnamese (I kind of had assumed she was Chinese), but then I heard the sound of a Vietnamese TV show roaring from a side room, and my eyes bulged: "Wow, I understand that! That's Vietnamese!"
To my surprise, she didn't ask me the usual lieu of questions about when my family immigrated to the US, about our family back in Vietnam, etc. She just cut my hair and smiled, asked me more about my life here and now. She understood and was proud of me for graduating and finding a job that I wanted.
Eventually, we did come to talk about how we got here. I told her that my family moved first to Atlanta. She explained that her brother went to the US first. He had graduated from Harvard, and then sponsored her family over.
I then understood why I immediately didn't recognize her as Vietnamese. She didn't have the same accent that I was familiar with, the Southern Vietnamese tones. Her family in Vietnam was probably quite rich to send a brother to Harvard, and probably from the North.
I asked if she went back to Vietnam to visit, and she said no, hasn't gone back since she came here. She asked me the same question, and I explained that my dad will rarely go back now that both of his parents have passed. "There's no more reason really, and it is also really... complicated back there."
We changed the subject. I didn't feel the need to ask anymore questions. All was already understood , and besides, it didn't really matter anymore, more than twenty years later.
We learned eventually that we have some things in common. That both of our families lived far away: her brothers and parents now in California, and mine in Georgia. We both liked it up here more. We both love peaches (she had given her nephew a box of peaches for his birthday). And to my continued surprise, we spoke in English the whole time.
Soon the haircut was done. I loved my hair, I loved the way it looked on my face. I didn't get the usual embarrassment and almost dissociative feeling of looking at the mirror at a stranger.
I think it's because she knew who I was better than anyone who cut my hair did before. Better than my mother, who can't help but coddle me as her child; than the Vietnamese women back home, who see only the Vietnamese in me; better than the women at the Hair Cuttery, and I don't know what they see in me; and better than Leonard, who saw only fancy and none of the refugee.
Probably, she has led a life more similar to mine than any of those previous people: she knew of being Vietnamese in a cold place, and liking it. The dissatisfaction with the pho restaurants here, and loving to cook at home more. Of being Vietnamese and somehow connected to Harvard. Of choosing to live far away from her family. Of wanting and at the same time not wanting a home that does not exist anymore, and perhaps never existed at all.
(Or maybe she is just really good at cutting hair).
When I asked her what her name was at the end, she said Suzy.
She asked me what mine was. For a second, I pondering whether I should say My Ngoc or Mina. I chose the latter, and for the first time in my life, the name did not feel false or catastrophic, but truer than ever.
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.