I vividly remember the feeling of freedom that encapsulated my being as a child. Every day was fresh, disconnected from the last.
My only concerns: how large I would build my garden frogs sanctuary, where I would hide next to scare my sister, the slow bubble of frying tonkatsu or laborious stir of mochi construction with my grandmother.
The only pain my being ever knew was the physical. Constantly exploring, I found new ways to jump from rock to rock in the front garden, often resulting in a scuffed knee or elbow. All I ever needed was a band aid and loving kiss to patch me, then I was off again.
Other than that, very little was a bother. The occasional bickering with my sister, a tear shed for my incarcerated father. At the time I was too young to understand the damage this void would cause. That story is left for another time.
I didn’t realize the extent of pain I could feel until my first experience being bullied.
My first memory of this was in seventh grade, history class. I remember that day, vivid, a photograph imprinted on my mind.
It was one of the first weeks of the school year. I wore my favorite blue skirt that my mother bought me from Salvation Army, a soft cotton that meshed perfectly with the heat of the summer day. I did not notice it showed off the black leg hairs that had begun to develop the prior year. I thought nothing of it.
During lecture two white, blonde haired, blue eyed boys looked at me with a face of pure disgust — lips turned down and gaping to reveal their teeth. One pointed downwards to my legs and said loudly, “your hair, that’s so gross. You are gross.”
I was in shock. That moment of cruelty slammed into me and was gone before I could even realize what happened. I buried my head beneath my arms on my desk and broke into tears. As I wept, the boys snickered. It seemed exposing my vulnerability and sadness was a game to be conquered.
Looking back, the word choice of these boys was mediocre at best, but the pain and mortification of that moment — it has stayed with me forever.
Growing up Japanese in a predominantly white area, I never noticed that I was of a minority. I was friends with peers of many cultural backgrounds, where we all appreciated and admired our differences. I had a handful of white friends as well, though none took note of my jet black hair. For all I knew, they saw me as the same.
In that instance during history class and the hours following, self awareness of my perceived “differences” began to eat away at my self worth. I had become so aware of my body, of its non-whiteness — my self perception soon morphed into a lacking. I didn’t have words to describe these feelings at the time, though they manifested as anxiety, self loathing, and fear of rejection. It led me toward a desire to be erased, invisible.
That evening I went home, borrowed my older sisters razor, and shaved my legs and thighs.
Soon after I was ridiculed for the hair that sprinkled my arms. Classmates compared me to a gorilla. Horrified and embarrassed publicly yet again, I began to shave my arms.
Later on in high school, the dark hairs above my lip began to thicken. Called a man and a creep; my tweezers became my best friend. Each pluck another tear developed, I saw the pain as necessity. Whatever I could do to fit in, to make me perceivably white.
I remember wishing my hair was blonde — I would even settle for a light brown. Anything but black. I fantasied about growing out my hair again, bleaching it all to the paleness of wheat. My mother refused me any sort of modifications. She told me my hair was beautiful — mimicking of her own — that anyone would die for it. Yet I felt I would die because of it.
I tried bleaching my head hair with lemons and sunlight. Days in a row of sitting in my backyard, head pungent with the kiss of citrus. I would examine a lock of strands, pulled closely to my eyes, my efforts to no avail.
The self hatred was palpable.
The shaving, plucking, and waxing went on for nearly a decade. The whole time, I never even saw it as an option. To be beautiful in the eyes of every person who ever spewed an unkind word about my hair — that was my aesthetic purpose.
And it worked for awhile. I stopped receiving comments about the striking polarity of my pale skin to charcoal hair, because there was only bare skin to be seen.
Then a mental and really, spiritual, shift happened. It began to feel wrong every time I lathered my arms in shaving cream and grabbed the tweezers before applying makeup. As though these choices were pulling away at what made me, me.
A few years ago, I stopped shaving my arms. Just a few months ago, I grew out the hair on my thighs. This past month, my underarms are now glazed in dark hairs. My upper lip has a soft shadow which I’ve stopped plucking away as well; all of which are reflective of my Japanese roots.
There are moments when I feel a sense of self disgust, no doubt. Just because I stopped shaving and plucking does not mean the voices of those boys and others who pointed out the darkness of my hairs aren’t still there. The soft shade of my mustache and the hairs beneath my arms are the biggest aggressors. Even this morning, I was closer than ever to picking up the tweezers, the sun flecked upon my skin in the perfect light to reveal the mouth of a teenage boy.
I also know if one day I choose to shave, pluck, or wax, it will be my choice, not that of the aggressors who chose to pull at my fragility. And that is okay. But for now, I choose to grow it long. To not only make others who are confused by this hair uncomfortable, but push the boundaries of my own self comfort.
I am proud to be pale skinned with thick black hair. I am proud to display my Japanese roots through the black hairs upon my body. And I will no longer feel shame for the anti Anglo traits that veil my skin.