I’m Asian American. I was born and raised in the U.S. I lived in a town where the minority population was less than two percent. I was one of two Asian kids in my class. One of six in the entire elementary school. I’m also a child of the ’80s, with the big hair, perms, and hairspray that probably caused the gaping hole in the ozone.
My first bad haircut was in the fourth grade, because I thought I could pull off the feathered and layered top, which was followed by a fountain of long hair that I saw a redheaded woman sport just before I got my own hair styled. I remember the stylist telling my mom, “That’s going to be a hard haircut to take care of.” But I was unmovable, stubborn, and stupid. She looked like Heather Locklear, and I wanted to look like her.
Call it a futile attempt to conform to my surroundings or a subconscious cry from my id wishing that I belonged. Whatever it was, I left feeling ten feet taller than my four-foot, fifty-pound frame. It was my fourth grade picture, placed alongside all those cute, curly-headed, blond and brunette girls in the yearbook that showed me how foolish I looked, like I had grown tired of cutting on my nonexistent Barbies and took some scissors to my own hair, and then gave myself a mullet on top of it all. I would never look like them; I could never look like them. And I was devastated. Would I have loved to know that there were little girls that had hair just like mine, with hairstyles I could actually pull off.
While You Were Sleeping
Fast forward to high school, where age and much counseling from my mother and aunts made me grow my hair out, and with little maintenance, I could style the little tuft of bangs that I had to my heart’s content. But I was the definition of low maintenance, and really never had that desire. It was then that a certain boy I had a crush on chose another cute brunette with a perfectly styled coif instead of me that etched into my young mind that I was unattractive comparatively, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
I was always seen as the “little sister,” even if the boy was my dongsaeng because I was always the runt. No one ever had any romantic notions about me, and I looked the part of the tomboy, without makeup, and always looking younger than I was, at least compared to my American counterparts. This was probably the reason I focused so much attention on studying and music, because that was the only way I was going to stand out.
Answer Me 1988
It was after I watched a few K-dramas that I realized that the me of the past was just like these heroines I saw, forever awkward, navigating coming-of-age, and it was just like looking in a mirror. Why was their hair so terrible? Not just the girls but the boys too? They all look like their aunts cut their hair. And that’s probably close to the truth. My aunt cut my hair on occasion. In Answer Me 1988 when Deok-sun looked like a child putting on her sister’s makeup, it made me see how ridiculous we all are at that age. Not just ridiculous, but also incredibly fragile, and I cried real tears when her dad reaffirmed that she was special, that she was worth something, by giving her her own small birthday party.
But it was the boys’ hairstyles that I gravitated towards, reminding myself of my awkward haircuts, and how I should have just owned them. These kids were not defined by what they looked like, because they looked like everyone else. (They were instead defined by class and intelligence, which is no less harmful.) But it wasn’t until this show that I realized how much representation matters in the lives of minorities in a majority Caucasian country. How much less self-conscious might I have been navigating my primary and secondary years if I had stopped comparing myself to a physical ideal that could never be reached?
In the present day, with my own children, now with the newfound knowledge that there are Asian hairstyles that they would look amazing in, I’ve started following K-dramas for the hair. Recently, my son sported the Hwayugi cut after my husband took him to the barber, and now he has Taek’s hair towards the end of Answer Me 1988.
I’ve also started following a Korean hairstylist in Korea who cuts Seo Hyun-jin’s hair, and I’ve learned how to “curl” my own hair without actually using any rollers or a curling iron! It’s magic! I even found myself subconsciously cutting my long hair last February after seeing the first few episodes of While You Were Sleeping and then realizing later that it was Suzy’s haircut!
But one thing that I have never done, even though it’s common in every K-drama I’ve watched, is dye my hair. It’s my dark brown-black hair that actually defines my look now, and even as gray hairs appear, I’m owning them just as Assemblywoman Chae in Lookout did. I’ve even seen my husband be influenced by what he’s watching, as his hair is now at least three shades of brown lighter than it was before we started watching K-dramas! None of us is spared.
So, for some it may just be a bad haircut or hair color on your favorite actor or actress, but for me, it’s much more—it’s representation and a sense of belonging.