Back when I was in elementary school, Mother used to pin up my hair with chopsticks—soft pink with cherry blossoms creeping along its narrow circumference. The silky threadlike strands of hair that hung from the top of my head never stayed up for longer than a few hours, or half a day at school. And when jetblack came tumbling down the back of my neck, splaying like a drawn curtain against the back of my white cotton uniform, panic usually followed.
Fumble with the chopstick.
Take a deep breath.
“Hair must be neatly tied back away from the face. Bangs must be kept above the eyebrows or pinned back.”
Fumble. Fumble. Fumble.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH!
“So… how has school been?” the therapist asks again, gently waving her fingers in front of me. I stare at her dimples, deep craters that have been made in the sides of her face, and think about the people-traps that my brothers and I used to dig along the beach. The dimples remain, frozen into a fixed smile that stares back at me.
We tried to conceal those holes with big palm leaves. Nobody ever fell in.
“I don’t know. Same old I guess.”
“Okay… Well, this week I want you to write what you feel down. I think it’ll really help you understand yourself better.”
The tissue in my hand is now crumpled. And I fumble. Fumble. Fumble. Why did Mother put those damned chopsticks in my hair? They always fell out. Why didn’t I just tell her?
Tuesday: I’m supposed to be writing my feelings down this week. I got another B for math today. Mother’s not going to be happy with that… How do I feel about that? Like I’m supposed to be smarter. At least, that’s what Elle texted me today after we got our quizzes back.
“Dude, aren’t you Asian? Aren’t you like bringing shame on your family or something LOL?”
What does that even mean… I mean, am I not Asian? Is wanting to be more Asian even a feeling? It should be.
Wednesday: I feel pain. But that’s just because Mother caned me with the bamboo stick today. Good doctors aren’t supposed to get B’s for math. Especially not in high school.
Thursday: Mother nearly found my feelings. I’m scared Mother will find out about therapy.
Sunday: I don’t think anyone really wants me to have feelings.
The next week, the therapist says she wants to see me again, and I turn the word want over and over again in my head. I gather the mass of hair spilling over my shoulders while beads of sweat squeeze themselves out of the pores in my forehead. The air-conditioning is weak against my back as I step out of what the therapist calls “the safe room.” I coil the strands round and round atop my head, like a big ball of yarn, before securing it with a hair tie. I am careful to not let the strings unravel and the ball of yarn stays intact the whole bus ride home. As a kid, I soon discovered that the secret to keeping my hair in place was to stay as still as possible, aware that any movement could be my undoing. I remain unmoving.
When I arrive home, I find five chopsticks—two pairs and one straggler—that I have abandoned in the pencil jars full of broken, non-functional stationery I keep on my desk next to a neat stack of college revision books.
I have since learnt how to weave the stick in and out of the tight swirl on my head. But my hair has grown thicker, and I have to nudge the pointy end in before the unforgiving strands part slightly. My scalp tingles at each tug and pull of hair, and when the chopstick is finally almost all the way through, the wood splinters and gives way.
The strands unfurl like snakes set loose from a cage, slithering down my chest and shoulders.