When I took a job teaching English at a middle school in Japan, I knew that I would have to hide certain things about myself. I have tattoos, including one just below my right wrist. It’s my most cynical piece, which reflects my attitude throughout my youth in the public schools of California. Whenever I raise my right hand, even while wearing cuffs, you can plainly read the word, “Why?” written in black cursive script.
I remember being tossed out of class a few times in middle school, usually because of my asking that very question. Despite this, I got mostly As, and teachers even liked me, somehow. But seeing me, you wouldn’t have expected that. I didn’t have any tattoos then—instead, I had my hair.
It was as different from anyone else’s as it could possibly get. I had a rat tail—a relic of a bygone era when I idolized my Japanese karate teacher—but shaved the sides short. To top it off, a mop of Manic Panic locks that nearly no adults ever approved of.
My mother always said that it was a good way to rebel: “Hair grows back.”
I never really fit in, and the hair expressed that. I was a quiet introvert, but marked myself on purpose, as I didn’t want anyone to think they knew me from afar or what was going on in my head. Green, blue, deep red, and sometimes a purple when the dye didn’t take … or, when washing my hair, a mixed rainbow mess. I was as complicated as the border around my face.
I came to Japan with something less shocking. I was ahead of the curve on hipster haircuts, modifying the standard Mohawk of my 20s into something that better suited the natural swoop of my hair. At my placement school, the kids, teachers, and the errant parent alike would comment on how cool my haircut was.
It was then that I started noticing their hair. The teachers all seemed to ascribe to a rather short list of possibilities. But there was something even more off about the kids, who looked like they had to choose from five different pictures clipped out of a military guidebook. I brushed it off as just another cultural difference; after all, the kids wore uniforms to school every day. This was Japan, and not my problem to fix.
I didn’t worry about it until I got my first haircut here. I found a barber who spoke English and had him give me the same cut I had when I got off the plane. It was fresh, short, and felt good. I relished in shedding the shag that developed in the months since my last trim.
At least I did, until my board of education representative cornered me after a meeting. Everyone else had filed out the door, but he put his hand on my chest and pressured me back into the room. He said a few words in English, then proceeded to chew me out in Japanese. It was the hair, I gathered. He was usually so nice. Apparently, he forgot what I looked like at orientation. I seethed for days.
I felt like that middle-schooler again, raising his hand, wondering “why” he did his job and worked as hard as he could. I rode my bike to school in 35-degree weather, through typhoons when necessary. There was no commendation for good work or overtime, but a haircut somehow earned me this little tirade.
At the start of the second semester, there was a gathering in the gym from which the kids lined up to file out as they always did. Only this time, the teachers formed up on either side of the procession, stopping the students to check their hair. They made the girls lean forward to see where their bangs fell. If, when the girl stood up, her hair didn’t naturally fall out of her line of sight, she was shepherded to the side. The boys got the same. Too long around the neck, the sideburns, the fringe in the front? Get to the side. I watched as the entire second-year class was vetted, being given the “you need to do better to represent the school” speech. The children were made to sign a paper saying they’d get it fixed, and then let go.
There, but for the grace of being born in another country, went I.
I worry about them a lot, the introverts among them. The mosh pit of shaggy students naturally featured some of my favorites: kids who never wanted to be noticed in class, the ones who sat with a book while the others ran around. I wish I could tell them what it’s like in other countries where a piercing or a tattoo doesn’t preclude you from polite society. Where your haircut doesn’t matter as much as what you do, and who you are.
For now, I’ll just keep cutting my own, until someone can answer my question.