“Don’t touch my hair.”
This phrase is a simple and seemingly self-explanatory mantra known so well by African-American women living in multicultural societies. It is a statement that I, as a young college student living in a predominantly “liberal” and scholarly world — or in a broader sense, in a culture that values personal space — thought that I would never really need to say out loud.
And then I came to Vietnam.
In my first six days in Hanoi, in which I spent a month studying public health during my spring term abroad, most of my conversations have begun with questions about my hair.
“Is this your real hair? Your hair feels like doll hair! Is your hair made by man or by machine?”
Most discussions about my hair did not even begin with a verbal exchange. Rather, when curious passers-by decided that they wanted to touch my hair, they reached for my ponytail and gave it a nice, strong yank. When I proceeded to move my head out of their reach, they often tried to reach yet again for another yank, wearing a smile as if to say, “It is okay — I am going to touch your hair again now.”
By no means is my otherness in Hanoi new to me. Since my first day in this city, strangers have more often than not gone out of their ways to stare directly at my face, point at me while talking to a friend at a streetside bar or completely turn their heads to get a good, incredulous look while driving by on motorcycle. My brown skin and long, dark braids are for many like mythical fairytale features come to life or television show characters walking down the neighborhood streets.
I even get stares in my hometown back in the States.
What remains most unsettling in such strikingly familiar yet unchartered repetitive encounters is the fact that I do not even speak Vietnamese well enough to say no, let alone explain why I feel violated by my own exotification.
Some part of me wonders if I am taking this all too seriously. Perhaps this is all fun and games. It’s kind of like living the life of James Baldwin in the small Swiss town of “Stranger in the Village.” In the town, Baldwin was the resident comical celebrity and the only black person that the village had seen in all of its history. I’m sure that, like those of the Swiss village, my curious Vietnamese neighbors do not mean to harm me or to offend me in any way. After all, such a gesture should not be interpreted here in the same context as back home, where doing so would be a clear and blatant violation of the black body, consistent with the historical and present-day hold of institutionalized and interpersonal racism in our political and social climate. Vietnam’s history, although equally complicated and violated, is certainly not the same as the United States’ centuries long crusade against bodies of color for the sake of power and wealth.
I now realize that my time in Vietnam has uniquely challenged me. I have been forced every day to confront what I now realize to be the product of years and years of internalized subjugation. With each stare from hordes of motorbike riders rubbernecking during daily morning commutes, with each inquisitive tilt of the head whenever I respond,“Yes, I am from the United States,” and with each assault of the crown of natural hair — of my ancestry — on my head, I have received the same message: I am the other, I am an object, I am an oddity to be admired or scrutinized from a safe and untouchable distance.
Whether these were the messages intended or merely internalized, these short but excruciatingly long weeks were more than enough for my identity to be assaulted and in turn reaffirmed in a vicious never-ending cycle, until what remained were infinite questions for me and my identity. These questions hurt, but I could manage them with intellectual prowess and ceaseless personal meditation. My time in Vietnam taught me what it means to occupy a body that is and has always been a source of intrigue and exoticism for those of any complacent majority, United States or otherwise.
As I race towards Cape Town, the next destination of my semester long journey, I become conscious of the blind faith that I have invested in my estranged mother continent that enables me to enter the world in my raw, unrefined body — one that swims in large dark kinks and curls, swallowing my face not with humility, but with deliciously arrogant pride. I fluff and scrunch, fluff and scrunch, stretching my oversized curls into frizzy voluminous kinks, creating a massive lion’s mane that I continue to expand without care for a mirror or shape check. I finger detangle, finger detangle, finger detangle, deliberately ruining my braid in favor of something more true to form.
I would never do this in the United States. At home, I never leave without the perfect amount of shine, curl definition and of course — via enough gel and a fine toothbrush — the most suave and silky looking edges I can manage. Leaving the house without defining my curls would be considered blasphemy according to the jury of my neighborhood back home. Why do I dare so much today?
My month in South Africa is my experiment in radical Afrocentric self-love, fueled by the courage I have gained from the breaking of my self-esteem in Vietnam. In the Western Cape, my sisters and brothers in parallel history — this shared race defined not by genetics nor by shared ancestry, but by the cruel hand of white male supremacy — I plan to go loudly, confidently, unapologetically and radically, unfiltered and uninhibited black. My body is under no control but my own, an empowered entitlement that I could not have rediscovered so profoundly without challenging its very nature. As I fly over Table Mountain and the football dome, my blood bubbles with untamed excitement and my heart leaps to be swallowed into this new home. I’m ready, I’ve always been ready. I believe I hear the voice of my next destination calling with a fierce welcoming that speaks my name.
Even as I race from one pole of the world to the next, and as all reality seems to be in shock and flux around me, I know that I will once again return to all that I miss. My ideas, my outlook and my dreams will have changed. Yet, what will have changed the most is my profound love and respect for myself.