Roots

Roots

by GVGK Tang

with an illustration by Dixie Turner and one by the author.

“The body dies, but the hair continues to grow.”
— Wang Ping, “The Magic Whip”

by GVGK Tang

She’s so bald.
With peach fuzz on her forehead. Oh god, I hope she doesn’t grow up with a unibrow.

They shear that first lock of hair.
Placing it in a little cloisonné box. Hidden in plain sight, for safekeeping.

He’s fixated on all the lights.
The hazy green-blue ream of paper suspended behind a precariously situated stool. Waiting in a disused attic space with threadbare wall-to-wall carpeting. The teachers want to do something about his hair. “No,” he says softly, firmly. They don’t argue, and set down the plastic comb. That first school picture, it’s wild and flocculent. His eyes are laughing, but his smile is small.

Submerged.
Her hair floats like the tendrils of Medusa’s crown around her head. She watches the mottled image of her mother. The fluorescents shining behind her blonde curls like a halo. She sings, and her voice reverberates, muffled by the water around her daughter’s ears.

“Oh my god! What did you do?!”
The brush is lodged against his scalp, twisted hair and plastic. “Mama, I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” He cries messily, repeating himself. He doesn’t explain. He wanted to curl his hair to look like Mama’s. Just to see. Now they stay up until the wee hours of the morning, seated on his creaky box-spring bed, under the harsh overhead light. Mama mutters under her breath, consoling, and sighing periodically in seeming defeat. “We might just have to go to a barber. Cut it all off.” A stranger touching his hair? Panic surges through him at the thought.

The hair survives the ordeal.
The brush does not.

“Your hair is getting so long. Look at all these little highlights! Red like your great-grandmother, black like your grandmother, and blonde like me.”
She doesn’t mention the color of Dad’s hair, his parents, or their parents. But maybe she’s just reminding herself that I’m hers, too. “You’ve got your father’s waves, the thickness, the strength…” She adds like an afterthought. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

I’m so angry, but I don’t know why.

Dad is grinning at himself in the hairdresser’s mirror.
“Philip,” Mama says, “Are you sure you want to do this?” “Of course! A promise is a promise.” Ever the magnanimous gentleman. My grandmother’s always hated her son-in-law’s ponytail. So, he’s agreed cut it off if she stops eating chocolate, on account of her heart condition. Seems like a win-win situation for her. I sulk in the corner, cooped up in a window seat surrounded by dull green and purple polyester cushions, poking at glossy magazine covers. I hate her for this. Dad’s long, beautiful hair! I’m so angry, but I don’t know why. Only I can’t stop thinking about men with faces like his, their braids yanked on and chopped off by men with faces like hers.

He keeps his promise.
She does not.

They exit the house in a line, Dad leading the way.
It feels ceremonious. The harsh susurrus of the wind and leaves is overwhelming. Beneath the tall maple tree, they all kneel. Dad begins to run his hands through his hair. What’s left of it. No longer wavy, nor thick, nor strong. Gray, brittle, soft. It falls to his knees. Mama turns and harshly commands her daughter to retrieve his hat from the house, so he doesn’t catch a chill. She runs. By the time she returns, his hair is all gone. Buried in the crisp fall leaves. Now he is bald.

“You need to dye your hair.”
It’s the first thing his grandmother says to Mama, the day of the memorial service. She exits the car, using Mama’s arm as a crutch, and gazes up at her curly blonde halo, turning platinum at the roots. Judgment in her eyes. They must keep up appearances, after all. Even in grief.

“Put your hair up.”
It’s ugly. She’s starting to believe it.

How can he be a boy, crying while clutching a doll?
His hair is too long.

They sit silently in the big white lobby.
She in a stiff chair, her grandfather in his wheelchair. Pondering the small stock photo of wild horses hung on the otherwise blank wall in front of them. Their luxurious manes billowing in the wind, like the mess of her first school picture. Like the last follicles of Dad’s thick hair. She thinks the picture might remind him of his days on the farm and smiles wistfully. Instead, her grandfather turns to peer at her through thick glass in wire frames. His eyes kind and limpid, his voice soft and simple. “I don’t like long hair.”

It’s the last thing he says to her when they’re alone.

A stranger’s voice replayed over and over, murmuring an intimate truth.

In a dark room, on a backlit screen, an old film plays.
At sixteen, I am a nun. My hair is shorn at youth’s prime. I am by nature … a boy, not a girl. Why must I wear these sexless robes? A stranger’s voice replayed over and over, murmuring an intimate truth.

She begins to tuck her hair away.
They take her more seriously when she does. Maybe it’s because it makes her look less youthful. Maybe it’s because it makes her feel less beautiful.

I’m smoothing back those flyaways in a dingy public restroom.
Then I notice a white hair towards the back of my head. I pause, mouth agape. I half wonder if one of Mama’s found its way into my own, the strands lovingly entwined and embracing. Look at all these highlights, her voice echoes. I pluck it out unceremoniously before anyone sees. I pinch it between my thumb and forefinger and eye it warily. It’s so coarse, like Dad’s hair was. It’s the best of both worlds.

“All cultures view cutting hair as a form of rebellion.”
He rolls his eyes. Memories of reprimand and disrespect flit through his mind. Cut your hair. It’s ugly. Put it up. Hide it away. I don’t like long hair. They don’t know that it’s been a fight to keep his hair this long. Generations forced to braid it, cut it, shave it, lose it.

No one will tell us what to do with our hair anymore.

Windswept ashes are lodged in my hairline.
Running the back of my hand over the sweat on my brow, they smear and the fanciful notion of a Christian drawing a cross between my brows with her thumb dances in my mind. Kai Ye pokes and prods the burning joss with a piece of iron rebar wrapped with caution tape. His makeshift fire pit, the empty Bulgarian cooking oil tin that he cut holes in to release the smoke, was once adorned with Cyrillic script. Now black burnt blotches cover its surface. I think he mutters something about getting one last good use out of it. He speaks in Cantonese so much of the time that the rise and fall of his cadence is intimately familiar, like a song from childhood. Just then, a large gust of wind pushes the flames towards two large Macy’s bags of folded paper ingots we have yet to burn. One catches fire. With relative calm, we grab the water pitchers and put out the blaze. A little stream of cinders and melted gold and silver pools around our feet. I stifle a giggle as Kai Ma shakes her head, folding up the mutilated bag. As I scrub at the bird shit on Ma Ma and Ye Ye’s grave markers, my hair falls into my eyes. Mingled with salt water and soot, it stings. My glasses slide down my nose, and I sniffle with another gust of pollen. The dark back of my head attracts the sunlight, absorbs the heat. My knees are getting cold and soggy. I ponder the cathartic unpleasantness of this work, running my fingers over the smooth surface of the bronze plaques. I reverently trace the Chinese characters, deeply ashamed that I can’t read the words that lay over the bodies of my father’s parents.

I wonder how long their hair grew in the ground.

by Dixie Turner

GVGK Tang is a public historian and community organizer with a background in transnational queer politics. Connect on Twitter @gvgktang or go to website.

Dixie Turner does various things. Often Dixie draws. She currently splits her time doing various things between London and Berlin. You can see more of her work on her website.

Shifting Traditions

Call for Submissions

DEADLINE: 30.12.2019

You do not live in the same environment that you were born into. Your surroundings have changed, your body has changed, the way you are perceived, the way you are treated, the way you perceive and treat yourself is subject to constant change.

Whether you’ve stayed in the same place, but the political system, and family relations, or the climate changed around you, or whether you live with the memory of a place or situation you have left a long time ago or just yesterday – there are certain aspects of past and present within you or shared with the people around you that come together in harmony, struggle, or somehow don’t come together at all. They are traditions in transition.

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