Saturday, October 17, 2009

I attended a conference about the social implications of hair - needless to say, I thought about it for a while.

Long hair was precious when I was young. From the bushy afro of my baby pictures grew a mane that writhed down my back and looped itself over my sloping shoulders. I was a tomboyish child who let leaves get stuck in my curls and let the dark black color of it bake in the summer sun. My hair was always frizzy, never flat.
For a child not indoctrinated into a love affair with dolls, brushing my hair was tantamount to the impossible. My knots had to be combed or cut out by force – first by my blond aunt who was a hairdresser and who sent suggestive combs back with me after each visit. On those occasions, I would squirm in the chair and bite my lip as the scissors came near my ears. Later, my mom tried to tame the beast in our dining room chairs that squeaked as she wrenched holes in my head laying out remonstrations. At that point, I realized that I had to take this into my own hands.
I refused my mother and asked for my dad’s stylist, who plunged me into the shortest haircut I’d had since 6th grade – I was then a junior in high school. With hair around my ears, I no longer was loathe to comb it, which used to take hours and was extremely frustrating.
Indeed, he attacked my curly hair and gave it style – though I had never coveted the time spent by my peers on “hair-epy,” I could now see that their locks were easier tamed than mine because of the constant war they had waged. With short hair, my image became younger (not exactly the best thing for a 16-year-old girl) and my face appeared rounder. But the trials of short curly black hair remained. There was no way to get it off your neck with a ponytail holder, my afro began to rise again in class photos, and I began to judge whether I was taken seriously with a spunky cut that frizzed out in all directions. The melody of regret arose.
But I had never enjoyed the process of growing it back out – why my hair was neither “here” nor “there” represented the times I was most prone to insecurity. So I kept cutting until I reached the wall.
The first time I straightened my hair was in senior year. I sat, trembling, in the salon chair and waited with trepidation. But after the ordeal of burning follicles and half my hair falling to the floor (or at least what looked like it), I peeked at the strange new face and… it looked good. It was long and soft; it wafted like all the natural straight hair that had been prized for centuries before. Needless to say that when I tried to go for this look at home, my head turned into a half-wavy rat’s nest, but there’s no need to talk about that. But straight hair felt like a betrayal.
As a darling child, the older women would lust after my natural curls – even as I screamed at cutting out the knots as if I were an unruly cat, I remembered their praise. With straight hair, I just wasn’t accurate. I looked more doll-like and ultra-femme than my nature warranted. But the compliments rolled in from peers: I was a beauty conformist.
It makes me wonder whether people enjoy conformity so much that, even when it is out of place, they applaud. I had (and still have) a very staunch response to hair dye (an emphatic “NO!”) because it screams out that plasticity is the way to go. I can’t abide by it. I wouldn’t be myself as a blond, brunette, or blue-headed person. Even though, I must admit, the last one has come to mind.
When I discovered conditioner washing, I thought it was a revolution for curly-haired girls (but it turns out I just came late to the party). No shampoo equals no frizz? Something led me to try it and I fell in love. There was no longer an excuse for me to twist up my curls or pick at them for hours with a fine-tooth comb that made it bubble up like a beehive. I felt unique.
These “hair revelations” led me down a lot of paths: the weird unkempt girl and the jungle child were there, but so were the poised femme and the secure experimenter. Hair never felt important in a larger context, but looking at all the time I spent wrestling with it says that may not be all true. Self-image is inextricably linked to hair in a way that you never thought possible.

What are your hair stories?

You might also be interested in opinion pieces like Discrimination and Mixed Metaphors, Single Sex Education for Women and Girls, and The South Asian Question in a New York Minute.
More writing and stories are also available for your reading pleasure.
You can also check out some more posts featuring my photography.

The South Asian Question in a New York Minute

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The New York Minute
Living in New York is a mixture of fast and slow moments - this week, I've experienced the latter half. But, even when God deals you an idle hand, you must embrace it. And therefore, we must write.
Thus, this week, I present to you a warm-up article for the actual one that I am writing to (hopefully) enter into Awaaz, our South Asian publication. This article is only an editorial, but describes some key issues I have been exposed to this week.

The South Asian Question
Second-generation immigrant children get a bad rap for living between worlds.
Though we may learn the language of both countries, we speak with an American accent. The schools we attend teach colonial history with an anglophile’s fervor. The food and clothes we prefer may shock and numb our parents and revert them to pointless adages such as “when I was your age…”
The source of these discrepancies, especially for a South Asian-American, rarely comes from a sense of abandoning culture and rebelling against it, but from a more ambiguous place. Cultural confusion and ambivalence reign strong in American teenagers – they are just trying to find their niche in a society where one needs the right clothes and the right slang to fit in.
Living between two worlds entails that we meld with both our parents’ South Asian society and the society of our peers, which is often multicultural and largely based on mainstream media. The expectations are high. Sometimes they are overt, such as when I am asked by my father’s friends what I am majoring in; when they hear “creative writing,” they will nod and change the topic, no doubt wondering how I will make an income in the future. Other expectations are much more subtle, such as, when going out of the house, I become hyper-conscious of how short my skirt is – even when I’m wearing tights. Even while living on the Barnard campus (where no one is short of personal expression), I sometimes feel as if I’m straddling a cultural boundary when I explain to people that I am not a vegetarian just because I don’t eat pork and the location of my home country, Bangladesh, is not north of India, but to the east.
Most people at Columbia, I am glad to say, are receptive to the idea that there is not just one type of South Asian. But simple acceptance is often not enough. South Asian youth are often muddled into one category, Indian, with little more than a second thought.
But what is Indian? And, for that matter, what is Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan? Just below the surface of this seemingly innocent question lies a startling answer that is mired in vague terms and body counts. If the issue is surrounding the unity of the subcontinent as a whole, these ties are sorely lacking. Following colonialism, border wars have continued daily – from the massive extinction of Muslim brother by Muslim brother in the 1971 independence war of Bangladesh to the long-ignored Sri Lankan conflict that is the longest running civil war, uniting the states of South Asia presents more problems than solutions.
And why shouldn’t it be difficult? We are of contrasting backgrounds, histories, cultures and languages. Our children grow up eating different types of meat or none at all, the education of our parents depends on their location, and even religious progress is questionable in a society where caste determines whether you are liberal or conservative or have no say at all.
This struggle is what South Asian immigrant parents retain with them as they travel the ocean to America – consequently, the way they teach their children about culture is reflected along the same lines. A Hindu may not understand a Muslim and a Sikh may not understand either of them, but Americans tend to see black as black, white as white and brown as brown. Thus, when expected to make new friends, second-generation immigrant children forego these distinctions and make friends of all stripes and colors. The question is: does this mean we are losing our culture? Are we, as the sons and daughters of parents who have left their countries, expected to uphold their legacy or walk our own paths? The question is one of stirring debate that has plagued every immigrant community, not just those of South Asia.
As youth in America, we are emboldened by the freedom of choice. There is always the possibility to forge your own path and make your own destiny; however, the culture lines that make our country the great salad bowl are still visible. Caught between two worlds, the children of the subcontinent must carve out a unique space in America – one that satiates individual expression and satisfies their quest for identity in a multicultural society.

If you're interested in more opinion pieces, take a look at Discrimination and Mixed Metaphors and Single Sex Education for Women and Girls.
You may also enjoy my audio-recorded story about South Asian women.
Check out some more posts featuring my photography.

Firefly Shadows

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Karyan flipped past an advertisement for makeup and found little pencil marks indenting the page. Sitting on her oversized queen bed one night, they had conspired against anyone who wore these atrocious things (half the school) and vowed to cut off their mock-goth hairstyles and burn them in a bonfire. Needless to say, their mothers were exactly happy about this plan, but they figured they’d do it later. Karyan was entranced by the neat tiny lettering that Jasmyn had pronounced her threats in. A combination of loopy cursive and bock print meandered over the page as their ideas grew bolder and bolder. Karyan watched the looping sprawl curve upward and disappear off the page.
“Turn…” commanded their combined script. Karyan turns the page and a void opens up in her chest.
A picture of two filthy children with their hair up in faux-hawks graces one model’s delicate features. In thick red nail polish, the word “NO!” is stationed at the bottom of the page, proclaiming their hoax as an act of treason. Karyan reorganizes her light brown skin tanning under the fluorescent bathroom lights and to her right stands Jasmyn, arms folded, a delicious scowl on her face. They look so comfortable, so lively, these two anti-establishment youths ready to take down goth in their flannel shirts and ripped jeans. Karyan feels tears press at the front of her skull. She wonders, as she sets the magazine down on the floor, whether Jasmyn knew.
If she knew why and how. If, maybe, she knew when. Because Karyan doesn’t belief people just shoot themselves out of sporadic need. There has to have been a plan, a motivation. Something that would make this all connect. There’s a banging sound just behind her and Karyan’s skin prickles as she hears it again. She turns slowly and sees that the screen kitchen door has been unlatched.
She gets up to close it, wiping her eyes on a sleeve to gain control. She approaches the door, tries to clamp it, but there, stuck inside the joint, is a small object. Karyan bends to retrieve it.
She produces a tiny silver bullet with a pink ribbon tied around it, and, for the first time in many years, Karyan is deeply, truly, afraid.

Short stories have always been a point of weakness for me.
I have tried many times to figure out where the "sweet spot" is in writing and, sadly, it either seems to be a drawn-out novella length work or a very very brief flash fiction. However, some ideas just seem better suited to short story. Henceforth, I embark on a journey towards writing one of my first few short stories.
The idea has been swirling around in my mind for a very long time, and it focuses around one central question: what happens to the people who are left behind when someone commits suicide? At one point, I had three different drafts running all at the same time in an attempt to get the words out correctly. Now I've consolidated the best bits and, little by little, am constructing the connective tissue known as scenes.
In my typical nature, I have added a few surreal elements - visions, beyond-the-grave items - to the work and have taken it upon myself to picture myself as that pinnacle character, Jasmyn. I first presented one scene to a writing group in Seattle and they were very receptive to the idea of using the actions as metaphors and the events as part of a larger story - my decision to integrate these ideas has come as a great boon since I can now put myself in my characters' shoes.
But, aside from all the shop talk about creativity and flow, much like putting myself in an insane asylum, I have committed myself to a mandatory set of rules regarding this story. Namely, my goal is to write 250 words or for 1/2 hour (whichever comes first) on this piece every day.
Call it preparation for NaNoWriMo next month, but it's been a tough and interesting way to break me of a months-long writer's block that has come upon me like a plague. So, vive la short story! I am hoping to get a first draft done by the end of this month.

Check out some more posts featuring my photography.
More writing and stories are also available for your reading pleasure.