'Cool Blond Asians' Are Giving Me an Identity Crisis
I’m not one to complain about my hair. Even when it gets puffed up and frizzy at the first drop of rain, I’m just happy to have any at all. That’s what happens when you know what it feels like to be bald, and I do.
So it was a surprise even to me when I came across a spurt of stories about the new trend of Asian women bleaching their hair, taking it to platinum and even silvery shades. It’s as popular among street-style stars as it is among my friends—and the effect is, in a word, cool.
“Bleached hair is often linked with other forms of body modification, such as piercing and tattooing, and therefore reflects a rejection of mainstream and old-fashioned femininity norms,” explains Laura Miller, a professor of Japanese studies at University of Missouri-St. Louis, in TheNew York Times. That may be why platinum hair holds special significance among Asian women, who historically have been stereotyped as quiet and obedient. As writer Diana Tsui muses in New York magazine: “I didn’t want to be a model-minority Asian girl wrapped in a pretty, parent-pleasing package. If I was going to be targeted, I wanted it to be on my own terms.” For them, bleaching their hair serves as a personal and visual rebellion against the trope. Or should I say for us? I’m Chinese—but only half. I kind of don’t know if I count.
My hair is dark brown, so thick that people want to scrunch it in their hands, and an uneven mess of curls. It has the soft, fine texture of my Hong Kong–born dad, but my Italian mom’s everything else: frizz, curls, general unruliness. It’s probably why only one in 10 people accurately deduces that I’m half-Asian. Everyone else guesses Persian, Filipina, Indian, Latina, and, once, Russian, from a cab driver who must have had glaucoma. And once I force them to do the ethnicity dance—“Where are you from?”; “Poughkeepsie”; “No, I mean, where are your parents from?”; “They both grew up in Queens”—I then get the “But you don’t look Chinese” kicker.
Thank you, idiot. I know I don’t look Chinese. I don’t look anything beyond the convenient catchall of “multiracial.” But at my core, I still deeply identify with my heritage. My features are a perfect mash-up of my family: mom’s big eyes with dad’s almond shape; my Ni-Ni’s small nose featuring a slight bump from the Italians; tan skin from both sides. I don’t pass as white—the unsolicited and, frankly, super-fucking-rude investigation of complete strangers into my ethnicity is proof of that—but I definitely don’t pass as Asian, either. When I go to New York’s Chinatown to stock up on Chinese sausage and frozen char siu bao, I feel like an interloper, the token outsider in the grocery store looking around and pointedly avoiding the bucket of shelled turtles. (They’re for soup, FYI.) And everywhere else, I’m so obviously other—even though no one can figure out what, exactly, that is.
PHOTO: Daniel Zuchnik
There are obvious perks to being multiracial. On weekends we’d eat dim sum with one fam and manicotti with the other. Speaking of: There are noodles galore. (A go-to line of mine is: “Not only did my people invent pasta; they perfected it.” Thank you, Marco Polo.) And while “different” sucks when you’re in sixth grade, the more recent bonus of looking so ethnically ambiguous is that I sort of blend in whenever I travel abroad. I could be anything. Plus, people don’t typically subject me to the lasting and unfounded stereotypes about Asian women beyond the occasional crack about my driving. Being biracial—itself a more recent thing, what with interracial coupling coming around only within the last century—doesn’t have any sort of history behind it or stereotype attached, be it good or bad.
For years, I’d been satisfied enough with this “best of both worlds” rationalization, but this trend of cool blond Asians stirred up some feels. For a minute it seemed like all I’d have to do to get my Chinese card stamped and signed is to bleach my hair to an icy platinum. I’d be legitimate! I’m so internally accustomed to toeing the line between Asian and white, it seemed like a way I could outwardly be part of this club. And sure, I get that bleaching my hair wouldn’t actually make me more Asian. But, for two delusional seconds, I thought maybe it’d be the solution for others to finally see me that way. I almost even got it done, until my colorist talked me out of it. (Honestly, with my coloring, it’s just not right.)
That through hair color Asian women have found a way to express themselves and rebel against stereotypes is both (a) good and (b) long overdue. I don’t really know if I want bleached hair so much as a chance to take part in this movement. For the time being, I can take a cue from the half of me that is truly, totally Asian and confront stereotypes in my own way. For starters: shut down strangers when they ask me what I am.
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