Untangling Roots

By 
Mary Chen

I have my mother’s hair. It is a thick, deep black—the kind she calls wūhēi. The strands fall straight down my back after I wash it, glossy and sleek like the feathers of a crow. It never holds a curl. 

I have only ever had it cut in malls, or in the basements of different aunties my mother befriends. Often, I stare into the smudgy mirror ahead of me, quiet as my mother and whichever auntie we’re visiting this time chat away about their aging parents, about soaring housing prices, about which universities their children attend. Sometimes the aunties have bold red bobs. Others have curled long hair they tie up into a bun, their grey roots only visible when they lean down to snip at the ends of my hair. And almost all of them have tattooed eyebrows, fading from brown to green, which sit high above their brow bone and give them a constant look of casual surprise. It’s never longer than twenty minutes before my long hair is wrangled back into neat, straight edges. 

But today I have booked an appointment at a real salon. I am cutting it short. When I tell my mother this, she looks up from where she’s making breakfast. Scrambled eggs, coffee, rice. Shredded pork floss in a little dish. 

“Why? Won’t you be cold?” she says. “Summer’s ending.”

I want to raise my eyebrow and joke, “What respectable queer woman has long hair?” 

But I don’t. I shrug and sit down at the table instead, resting my cheek against my palm. “I just feel like it.”

She fills a bowl of food and takes out the creamer for the coffee. She places them both in front of me, then smooths her hand against the back of my head. “Well. I’m sure you will look very pretty. You’re my daughter.”

~

The salon is on the corner of a street in Gastown, tucked between a liquor store and a sandwich shop. I am too early, so I pace around the block in slow, measured steps. As I walk, I catch glimpses of the staff twisting their hair into braids and spreading magazines, artfully haphazard, across their pristine countertops. By the time they finally illuminate their open sign, my hair has snarled itself around my shoulders like it’s tethering itself to me.

The stylist is wearing sweatpants and has her hair tucked up in a perfect bun. She is so pretty I have to force myself not to feel guilty for looking. But I still have the urge to check if my lipstick has smudged. 

“I’m here to have my hair cut?” I say. My voice lilts up like I’m asking a question and I can feel my cheeks heating up at my own idiocy. What else would I be doing here? 

The stylist just smiles. “Wonderful. Come on over.”

I make myself smile back and sit where she gestures. “Okay.”

“So, what are we thinking today?” she asks. She runs her fingers through my hair as she asks me, manicured nails grazing lightly against my scalp. It makes me shiver. “Wow. You’ve got really lovely, healthy hair.”

Somehow, it’s embarrassing for someone who touches hair all day to compliment mine. It feels like I’ve brought a paint-by-numbers painting to an art show and fooled everyone into thinking I did it on my own.

“Thanks,” I say again, fingers twisting around the ends of my shirt. “I, um. Want it cut short.”

She nods. “Like a bob?”

“No, shorter than that.”

“Pixie cut.”

I bite my cheek. “Shorter. I want it buzzed, except the top.”

We meet eyes in the mirror and she raises her eyebrows. Lifts a lock of my hair and lets it fall, each strand cascading down to kiss my shoulders. “All of this? That’s a big change, hon.”

I think of the countless hours of brushing, of untangling. Of doing and undoing knots. My hair, this heavy beast who’s grown with me—who’s held me, closer than I’ve ever let a woman touch me. 

“That’s okay,” I say, and it is, even though my voice wavers. I take another breath and say, more surely, “I think I need a change.”

She takes out her scissors and snips. I watch the first cut locks fall to the ground, light and soundless as eiderdown. Then, what is left of my hair fans out where it has been severed, and it reminds me of the way my mother used to give me and my sister matching bowl-shaped haircuts. They were always slightly crooked because we wouldn’t sit still when she tried to trim our hair. But now I hold myself still and watch as the stylist takes out the shaver. Watch as she runs it across the back of my head in slow, steady strokes, until the soft pink skin of my scalp is exposed.

~

The house is quiet when I come home. I wonder for a moment if my mother has taken the dog out for a walk, but then I see her shoes are still stacked neatly on the rack. 

I find her asleep in the family room, curled up on the couch. The dog is there, too. His ears poke out from beneath the blanket close to her feet. Back when I was in elementary school, that had been my spot—cuddled between her and the cushions. We took a nap together every Monday. I don’t remember when we stopped, but when I see her like this, it sometimes makes me wish I could make myself small again, just for a while. 

“Mom,” I say. “I’m back from the salon.”

“Welcome back,” she murmurs, still dozing.

“Mom,” I say again. I feel bad for waking her, but I need her to see me. “Look.”

I do a little twirl, and it feels strange not to have the corresponding swish of hair brush against my neck. But my head also feels very light, and it’s thrilling. “What do you think?” I ask.

“You—” She sits up, dislodging the blankets. “You never told me you were getting it cut this short,” she says. 

I smile as bright as I can. “It’s cool, right?”

But she has her hand pressed to her mouth, and her gaze flicks from my face to my head, over and over again. My smile stiffens. 

“Never mind,” I say after a moment, and turn away.

Upstairs, I undress and leave my clothes in a heap on the floor of the bathroom. Small hairs still cling to the back of my neck and I brush those to the floor too, before stepping into the spray. I make the water go as hot as I can stand, but the back of my neck still feels cold without the mess of hair to envelop it.  

~

I am lying in my bed, feeling as spineless as a jellyfish, when my mother comes into the room. I see her in my peripheral vision, but I don’t move.

She comes to sit at the side of my bed. After a moment, she runs her soft hands in the fuzz of my head, very slow. Very quietly, she asks, “Amian, why did you cut your hair so short?” 

Amian. It’s her nickname for me. It means “my life.” I feel sudden tears well up in my eyes. Without my hair to cover me, I have to turn my face into the pillows so she can’t see. 

I want to tell her: Because I’m tired of being told to keep it long. 

I want to tell her: Because I wasn’t a person: I was an Asian girl with long hair. A fetish. 

I want to tell her: Ama, I like to kiss girls sometimes. 

But I have been brave enough for one day, I think, and my heart feels too soft. So for now I tell her: “Because I wanted to.”

And she doesn’t say anything, but she keeps combing my hair with her fingers, very gently, and it feels good to let her do it.

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Mary Chen is a writer/illustrator living on unceded Coast Salish territories. She holds a BFA in creative writing from UBC, and her work has appeared in LooseLeaf, Currents: A Ricepaper Anthology, Room, and elsewhere. Lately she’s been learning to look up at night. Orion is her favourite constellation. cymary.com.

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