By Jenn Bacolores
For as long as I could remember, I always wanted straight, silky hair. Every girl at school had nice hair and could wear the cutest accessories, but I couldn’t. My hair was so wavy and big that once I combed it out, it looked like Mia’s hair from the Princess Diaries.
Getting ready in the morning when I was in grade school was a chore. I would get so upset having to separate my hair into five different layers and keep going over it for thirty minutes. I would comb each layer over and over, hoping it would stay taut – without a sight of a wave. When I was old enough, I saved up enough allowance to buy my first straightener, a white Revlon straightener with gold ceramic plates at Sav-On. I wanted the “Chinese” straight hair my cousins had; they had silky strands of black hair that straighter than what any straightener could transform.
My cousins teased me since I was the odd one out. They said my hair was “Islander Hair.” Having never been to the Philippines, I thought it was the biggest insult I’ve ever had. At the time, my knowledge about the Philippines (and probably life) was below average at best. All I could imagine was big, puffy haired women from Philippine Island Tribes – and I wanted to be nothing like that.
Boy, was I wrong.
My mom said I should embrace it – each strand was like the roots of our family and that it reminded her of her sisters and grandmother’s hair. As the (premature) sassy 5th grader I was, I snapped back and said “That’s because you didn’t have straighteners in your day. You don’t understand!”
My mom fought back saying, “It’s okay to be different.”
No Mom, it wasn’t.
I was one of the smartest students at my kindergarten through eighth grade school. I was prescribed glasses in the first grade and finally forced myself to wear them in third grade when I couldn’t see from the second row. I started cooking my own meals like I was Iron Chef since I was in second grade. I was really different Mom; can I at least make my hair straight and be somewhat normal?
I upped my straightener game year after year, asking for the latest straighteners on the market for Christmases and birthdays and using products that promised defrizzing and smooting properties. Once I reached high school, I knew I had the frizz under control and the waves were nowhere to be seen.
Fast-forward ten years of sun/snow damage, a couple bottles of hair smoothing serums, and about eleven hair treatments: I am a graduate student at the University of Southern California, specializing in Business Taxation. I will be starting full time with a global public accounting firm in the Fall of 2015 as a tax specialist. I am also a 2014 graduate from Syracuse University, where I received my Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Finance. And lastly, I am a 23-year-old Filipino American woman, and I take pride in my hair regimen.
If I haven’t lost you yet (especially those of you who had to Google search “Revlon straightener gold plates” a couple paragraphs ago), my hair regimen includes a deep conditioning mask once a week, daily use of sulfate free products, and a Brazilian Blowout every two months (be careful Googling that one).
My hair regimen attempts to do the opposite of what I’ve done to my hair for the past ten years. I am actually trying to restore it to its “Islander” condition, in the same way I am trying to reconnect myself to my heritage.
To this day, I still haven’t visited the Philippines or met my 20+ family members who live there. My knowledge of traditional Filipino recipes includes dissecting fast-food orders from the restaurant around the block and the aromas that sneak past my Bath and Body Works candles from the kitchen into my bedroom. My understanding of Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines, is nowhere close to what my titas and titos (aunts and uncles) tell me. My Ilocano, the dialect of my family’s island, is even worse. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t time to restore that connection.
My first international vacation will be to the Philippines. I want to be able to host a dinner for my family, comb the beaches of Cebu, and ride the Jeepneys like a pro. My boyfriend and I share the same love for sinigang, a sour slow-cooked pork stew, and patis, a fermented fish sauce basically good on anything (well … we think). I am currently using my Iron Chef cooking skills and family stories to learn how to make it.
Once I finish my graduate program, I am picking up Rosetta Stone and learning basic Tagalog so one day, I can finally answer back coherently.
So Mom, you were right. It’s okay to be different, but it’s also important to understand why.
This month, and every month, regardless of what “box” society tells me to check when I fill out a survey or a standardized test, it brings me back to understanding my worth. I know that even if I check the box or decline to state, I are more than just a label. In a world full of constants and normalized actions, I have come to realize that everyone is different. The true beauty is embracing their differences, especially my own, and sharing that with the world.