I was recently asked what it's like balancing a blog, university, freelance web design and the beginnings of an acting career. Is it fun? Absolutely. Do I sleep? Absolutely not.Read More
I started my locs in the middle of the 2000s, so like all teenage girls, having terrible highlights was a rite of passage. I was (unfortunately) always on trend in those days - I aspired to dress like every female actress on the Disney Channel, all at the same time. Every awful red-carpet look you saw in those days was probably emulated by me, doing the best I could with Edgar's, Mr Price,* a sewing kit and a bedazzler. I was once called into the school office because my outfit (a two-piece denim getup à la Britney Spears and JT, complete with a few choice bedazzles and a frilly aqua blouse) was too ostentatious for school. They said it wasn't considerate of the students from 'less fortunate families.' Boy, did that teacher get an earful when my mum told her all my clothes were from Jet*.
My highlights were no less 'flashy.' First they were blonde, then a worryingly bright red. At one point they were midnight blue, but as a fourteen year-old, subtlety was a foreign concept, so I went with a shocking plum colour immediately afterwards. Of course, I didn't just dye my locs. No, no, I had to perfectly match my braids to each coloured strand of loc so that it looked 'natural.' I took a firm 'no retreat, no surrender' approach when it came to my personal style, and even had the glittery-pink camouflage-print butterfly shirt to prove it (complete with a poem in French printed in glittery ink on the one side). Can you even imagine.
Although amusing, my hair choices were understandable - ultimately all I wanted was long and wavy hair with highlights just like my favourite stars. The people I looked up to looked nothing like me. I was fourteen and convinced I would be the next Cheetah Girl and someday marry Cole Sprouse, because that was my world. "Rockstar" was my anthem, and I truly believed that someday 'I might even be a rockstar' like Hannah Montana. I falsely believed that in order to do so, I had to change everything about myself. I daydreamed about getting a nose job, a thin one like all the girls on TV. I secretly rejoiced every year that my skin seemed to become lighter, a phenomenon that was thankfully just a result of my mum's genes rather than any bleaching creams.
For a long time I didn't have icons or role models that looked anything like me (except perhaps That's So Raven, and you can imagine how annoying I must have been with a psychic teenage fashion designer as a role model). The only famous people with locs I can think of were Stevie Wonder, Whoopi Goldberg and Lauryn Hill, and I couldn't even spell her name right at the time. In my naïvety, I concluded that it was because the rest of the world didn't care about people who looked like me.
It wasn't until later that I began to 'embrace my blackness,' as the saying goes. My parents introduced me to Lira, Zamajobe and Freshlyground. I began to see more black girls on television, and in Seventeen and Saltwater Girl magazine. I began to open myself up to the idea that I didn't need to look like a Disney star to feel good about myself, which in turn helped me to fully embrace my black hair without needing to hide it under braids. I had lost a lot of the confidence I had as a child, confidence that thrived before I knew what it meant to live in this skin.
One might say that my natural hair journey was a two-part saga. The first part began when I used Dark & Lovely* for the very last time, and the second began when I gained the courage to stop hiding my locs. I hardly used to talk much about them, or make a big deal about the fact that I had locs because I didn't want to draw attention to something so stigmatised. It was a confusing time because within Southern Africa, locs are revered and coveted. Long and luscious black locs are a sign of refinement and culture, and so thoroughly desired that they can be sold for astonishing prices (apparently you can even be mugged and have your hair sold on the black market). However, popular culture was largely dictated by the US, so I was cognisant that their attitude was the exact opposite. I still remember the day my friend shaved her locs in preparation for university in the States. It was a sobering reminder of how the rest of the world felt about my hair.
I kept quiet about them outside of my circle. I especially never engaged in much conversation online because in the natural hair community, locs are the minority and can still be stereotyped as the dirtiest or lowliest version of natural hair. Sure, they're stylish when everyone has pastel-coloured faux-locs, or when Zoë Kravitz and Rihanna take them for a spin, but all that does is highlight the same double standard that the natural hair community fights against.
However, I think the responsibility is ours to increase the representation of locs in the natural hair community. I recently I wondered, what if someone like me - a black girl with locs - had been there when I was growing up? What if I'd had something to aspire to with my hair? Someone to show me that they can be beautiful and feminine. Perhaps I would have embraced them much sooner. The truth is, locs are perhaps the easiest natural hairstyle to have - they're low-maintenance and easy to style, but they take a lot of patience to grow. It baffles me why so few women want to have locs, but then again, how can someone aspire to something they hardly see?
My cousin is a well-known hair blogger who embraced her natural curls and created a movement that has inspired so many young girls to go natural. When she first told me of her plans, long before she became Fro Girl, I never would have imagined how many people it would unite. With people like her being visible and vocal, young girls have something to aspire to. It's something present and tangible, and it makes people realise they're not alone. However, I do still feel alone sometimes because I'm not a 'curly girl,' and afros are not the only style of natural hair. The poster-child for natural hair has become mixed-race women with highly defined curls, which makes one wonder if there's truly room for unruly- and kinky-haired, darker skinned girls in that world. The fact is that we still need more role models and a greater diversity of them.
You might think this is the point where I announce that I'm going to become a hair blogger. I'm not. It's not my calling. I have my own fight for representation, and I promise to tell you about it sometime. However, I do want to be able to connect with people like myself and be a tangible presence for women and men alike who have locs, or might consider having them someday soon. I want to be vocal about these things because I've been lucky enough to create a platform through this website, which has reached over 72 000 views. That's not something that should be taken lightly. With great stats come great responsibility. I didn't want to make this blog all about the fact that I'm a black African woman with locs living in Singapore, but that is a huge deal. I do have to step up and speak out about all of this. I couldn't avoid it even if I tried - my name 'Iwani' literally means 'speak out.'
And thus I've decided that it's high time for me to start being more visible and vocal, and proudly talking about these issues without the fear of being stereotyped as an 'Angry Black Woman.' In the next few months I'm going to be starting a series on this blog called Singapore Stories, in which I will write very real stories about my life here - the good and bad. I'll also be taking part in a panel discussion on Friday 7th April 2017, so stay tuned for details! I hope that if you're in Singapore you will come learn more about black hair, and ask every question you've ever had without any hesitation. If you're in another country, comment on this post, or send me a message via email or through my Facebook page and I'll make a Q&A video! In the meantime, you can always catch my #blackgirlmagic on Instragram at @iwanimawocha.
Lots of love,
Pepper & Söl
Mr Price: a low priced retail chain. Approximately half the price of Cotton On
Jet: an even lower-priced retail chain. Approximately half the price of Walmart
Dark & Lovely: a common hair relaxer treatment
Before we started high school together, my best friend's mum made a deal with her. She could get her ears pierced if she cut her hair off. All of it. Not a choppy little bob or a small fluffy 'fro, I'm talking three millimetres short of being monk-level bald. For a few years, Langa was also the only vegetarian in a family of carnivores, so you can imagine that must have been a delightful time. She also went to a boarding school in the mountains. One might think she was going through some sort of eastern spiritual phase at the time, but she definitely played far too many video games for someone on a path to inner peace. Her mum had simply grown tired of the screaming and tears involved whenever Langa's hair was combed, so she decided that she'd very much like to shave it all off.
I think my mum got the idea from them. If Langa could make a deal with her mum, perhaps I would too. I wouldn't shave my head, of course. I had no intention of having a zuda* again (because for some reason I once asked my dad to cut it all off when I was a kid). There was absolutely no way I would give up the long and straight hair I worked so hard to get. I had it relaxed and treated regularly so that it was always straight and shiny and pretty just like my mum's hair (although my mum had it a bit easier, her hair is quite cooperative whereas I was born with curls thicker than a wire-scrubber).
Now, you have to understand that for most black woman, the idea of shaving one's hair off is ranked only slightly above 'pulling your fingernails off with a rusty tweezer.' Thanks to a history of oppression that I have neither the time nor the strength to get into right now, our short natural hair has long been seen as uncivilised and masculine. In order to prove our femininity and refinement, women had to abuse their hair with frightening looking chemicals and appliances that were better suited for house of horrors or a nuclear plant than for someone's head. Sadly, many of them are still used today.
Keeping it natural or cutting it off were not viable options if you wanted to get a job, stay out of jail, or even just be treated as a human being. Our hair also tends to grow slower, so it's hard to make a swift comeback from a big chop. Langa was understandably horrified by the idea of losing her hair, even though it caused her unbearable amounts of pain. (Imagine trying to slice frozen bread with a blunt plastic knife. Now imagine that your hair is the bread.) To someone else, a grave fixation on hair might seem trivial and unnecessary, but to a black woman, her hair is both her crown and her shackles. It means everything to her.
My hair was my crowning glory for a while, until it started to break. The years of acrid-smelling relaxer that made my scalp sting had taken their toll, and you'd think Chinua Achebe was my hairdresser with the way my hair was falling apart. I needed a change and I needed it fast. I was terrified of becoming one of the aunties whose hairline started behind their ears, so I tearfully conceded defeat. I would go natural and get braids on top, I thought. My mother thought otherwise. She suggested I get locs (although with African mothers it's never really a suggestion, is it?). I was affronted - nay, appalled - by her suggestion. Me? Get locs? And walk around with stubby porcupines on my head? No thank you, medem.*
But my mum was as wily as she is wise, so she brokered a deal with me: I could get my ears pierced if I got locs, and I could wear braids over my locs until they were long enough to appear in public. Ooh, she had me and she knew it.
I wanted earrings more than anything, but I'd never been allowed to have them. We went to a Seventh Day Adventist church, so we weren't allowed to wear jewellery basically because of how the Israelites lost their collective minds when Moses went up the mountain to talk to God. The SDA faith is a lot like Judaism, if Jewish people believed in Jesus, ate unleavened bread and mixed dairy with meat. You know, regular goyim stuff. My grandfather is so thoroughly religious that he'd convince you he'd founded Seventh Day Adventism. However, he was also obsessed with Jewish customs and traditions, and at one point attempted to convert his entire SDA church. They, understandably, did not comply.
I think we were most nervous to get them because of my grandfather, actually. Grandpa is a staunch but lovely man who lives out in a farm near Gweru, Zimabwe, and would probably be a perfect cat-lady if he weren't such a flirt. He believes that jewellery is evil, and that one cannot get into the Kingdom of Heaven with such evil in our lives. It's quite extreme, but looking back I think grandpa was really excited about Heaven - he's been threatening to die for as long as I can remember. "Eish, my child, maybe this will be the last time you see grandpa, neh? Next year you will come back and you will only find mushrooms." He says this every year we visit, but without fail every year he's still there. Quite frankly, I think he'll outlive us all.
Mum disagreed with grandpa, because there's obviously no checklist to salvation. Although if there were, on grandpa's list I'd probably have two counts against me - he thought locs were even more abhorrent than jewellery. He was in for a big surprise the next holiday when I came over toting both.
After much debate, and a fair amount of sulking on my part, I agreed to get my hair loc'd in exchange for a shiny pair of studs. I remember feeling nervous as we made our way into a dark building along one of the back streets in Mbabane*. I don't know what it is about locs, but I have a theory that the best hairdressers are always found in the dodgiest of places.
This time I was actually getting it re-loc'd because the first time around my hair was still too straight from all the chemicals left in it, so the locs didn't catch. They kept unravelling, which made me look like I'd escaped from a mad house. The first time they'd been done in a much classier-looking establishment with wooden floors and pot plants and Days of Our Lives on TV, which fits my above theory because the new place had five different layers of peeling paint, linoleum floors and an endless stream of Nollywood.
I had to start all over, and despite my initial reservations about the tiny turquoise salon, I was thrilled afterwards with how neat my locs looked the second time around. Obviously, I still wouldn't wear them out because they were too short, making me feel equal parts masculine and mad-hatter. I cried several times over the years, because I had convinced myself that I was ugly and undesirable with my locs, glasses, braces and big African nose. Looking back, I can laugh at how terrible I looked as a teenager, but at the time I sometimes looked in the mirror and absolutely hated what I saw.
zuda: closely-cropped hair
medem: madame pronounced with a 'Bantu accent.'
Gweru: a town in Zimbabwe
Mbabane: the capital city of Swaziland, where I was living at the time
In the words of the right and honourable champagne papi, "man, what a time to be alive."Read More
I'm always rather conflicted when I encounter someone who's never seen someone with locs, or perhaps never even seen a black person in real life before. Do I entertain their curiosity? Do I respond to their intrusive questions with an awkward laugh and a simplified explanation? Do I respond with a polite smile and walk away? Can I blame them for their curiosity?
There are so many things to consider, because nowadays there's a fine line between innocence and ignorance. Try as I might, I can't help but be polite and forgiving when I face an old auntie on the MRT who is visibly intrigued by my foreignness. Sometimes it's an overheard conversation - "look at that girl over there! So pretty, wah! She looks like she's from Africa," which always makes me smile. Other times, out of nowhere I'll feel fingers on the back of my head and turn around to see an old lady touching my hair. I very quickly pass from fright to surprise, then from understanding to extreme annoyance. However, out of respect, I keep my emotions in check and engage in conversation with as much patience as I can muster.
That's the problem of being an 'ambassador of your people.' Black people aren't common in Asia, so everywhere we go there's bound to be a reaction, whether good or bad. In Korea, apparently black people are met with star-struck wonder. In China, they here "" (black devil) muttered under people's breath. In India... well, let's not talk about India. It's a bit too depressing for this post.
Obviously, because we don't want to leave people with a negative impression of black people, we're often overly accommodating. At first encounter, it can be nice having people want to take photos with you as though you're a celebrity. But then it occurs to you that they'll probably share it to all their friends and family with the caption "look! I met a black person!" It's quite disturbing to know that your face is being passed around somewhere on the Internet as 'The Black Person.'
So what do you do? If you're black and you live, or have travelled around Asian countries, how do you handle these situations? Are we meant to sympathise with people who don't know any better? Or are we meant to expect more from people, in an era where information is abundant and black people have increased visibility? Is the feeling worse coming from a white American woman vs a Chinese woman? Is it equally discomforting?
For all other people, have you been in similar situations? Have you felt like more like a Zoo animal than a human being before? How do you feel?
I hope all of you let me know in the comments, because I am genuinely interested. I still haven't reached a conclusion myself. My default setting is to be patient and respectful, albeit rather uncomfortable. I doubt I'll ever stop being that way, but I do wish to tell all the aunties on the MRT, and all other strangers for that matter:
Please don't touch my hair.
Or at the very least, ask first.
Pepper & Söl
Don't touch my hair | When it's the feelings I wear
Don't touch my soul | When it's the rhythm I know
Don't touch my crown | They say the vision I've found
Don't touch what's there | When it's the feelings I wear
They don't understand | What it means to me
Where we chose to go | Where we've been to know
You know this hair is my shit |Rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine
What you say, oh?
What you say to me?
Don't touch my pride | They say the glory's all mine
Don't test my mouth | They say the truth is my sound
They don't understand | What it means to me
Where we chose to go |Where we've been to know
You know this hair is my shit | Rode the ride, I gave it time
But this here is mine
What you say, oh?
What you say to me?
1. If you're not East Asian, and you've never lived in East Asia before, you're probably holding your chopsticks wrong. Even if it works for you, it's wrong and you're a dork and there's a much less painless way to do it.
2. Where there is space, there will be a themed café.
3. Don't jaywalk somewhere unless you've seen an auntie do it before.
4. Whenever you're in Singapore and you are black, you will get excited every time you see another black person. When you go to a European city with lots of black people, you might strangely find yourself excited to any type of Asian person.
5. Sometimes people will stare at you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes they're bored, sometimes it is out of prejudice, sometimes it's a creepy old guy who assumes you're a prostitute (yup) and sometimes, once in a while, that's literally just their face.
6. You will endlessly be amazed by the numerous but very nuanced ways in which Asians are similar to Africans.
7. There will be days where you don't see a single non-Asian person.
8. Those will be surprisingly lonely days.
9. It is incredibly insensitive for a foreigner to tell a local how to behave in their own country. Whether that's how they chew, how they dress or what their beliefs are, it is not anyone's right to look down upon someone for doing something that is part of their culture when you are merely a guest in their country. However, it is ok, and highly encouraged, to tell fellow foreigners not to be d***s.
10. There is a particular brand of foreigner (*cough cough cough*) who is obsessed with being a Buddhist and says 'namaste' and possibly even writes poetry about the Sun. We all know one. Stay away from these people.
11. Asian Movies > Western Movies. Bollywood. Korean. Japanese. Hong Kongese. Just so good.
12. Korean dramas are everything. So are the cosmetics.
13. It is nearly impossible to eat ban mian whilst reading a book.
14. Though the prices of drinks in Singapore are high, being a woman will often make them free. I like to think of it as a small reimbursement for the price of actually having to be a woman.
15. Western media will lose its collective mind about some moderately attractive viral-guy who is "shattering stereotypes about Asian men" and you will roll your eyes because you can name hundreds of more attractive men who have always existed and don't need to be fetishised in the name of 'progress,' or in order to make people feel less ignorant.
16. Forget everything you think you know about Chinese food.
17. And Japanese food.
18. And Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean food, for that matter.
19. You will feel an eternal loss and blinding rage when you return home and eat "Asian" food.
20. No one makes better fried chicken than Koreans.
21. K-pop is not only 'pop' but is actually incredibly diverse,and to be a Korean star requires an incredible amount of talent and hard work. Here's my article on what you should listen to. You're welcome.
22. The Chinese language is so thoroughly fascinating, difficult and awe-inspiring, yet many English-only speakers will make fun of Chinese people's accents and grasp of English. Stay away from these kinds of people too. They're the same people who think 'will Will Smith smith? Yes, Will Smith will smith' shows the marvellous complexity of English and yet there's a beautiful and long poem in Chinese entirely made up of different intonations of the word 'Shi' that you could never dream of pronouncing correctly.
23. It is advised to never say "I'm basically part-Asian," no matter how much you may love any Asian culture. Living in a culturally-rich country for six months or even a few years hardly gives you a true understanding of what it means to be from said country. If so many born and raised citizens cannot fully answer the question 'what does it mean to be [insert nationality here],' then, my dear Becky, what makes you think you can?
24. No white dude has ever sounded cool whilst attempting to say 'lah.'
25. Most of your unexpectedly eye-opening memories of Singapore will come from having a meaningful friendship with someone who is actually from Singapore. Some like to pretend the expat bubble is not elitist and sterile, but it is often exactly that. My most heart-warming experiences have often come from the most obscure places in Singapore that I would never have known about without the incredible friends I've made along the way.
Pepper & Söl
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Step 1. Ask him out.
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