Within ten minutes, my hair was eight inches shorter than it was.
Having long hair for most of my life, I often get asked why I decided to get such a drastic makeover, and why so suddenly. I would often tell people it was simply for a new beginning–the start of a new chapter in my life, but my story delves far deeper than what sugar-coated it on the outside.
I was angry–angry at the fact that so many people who didn’t know me judged me solely based on my feminine appearance. The memories resonated in my head. Getting told to move to the security screening “para las mujeres” at the airport in Guatemala City when I, as a Spanish speaker, clearly knew the difference between un hombre y una mujer. Getting asked several times to pull my hair back at the airport in my own motherland, so I would look like my boyish self in the passport photo from my childhood. Constantly seeing football players giving strange looks at me in costume–looking almost identical to the girls on my high school’s color guard, and then hearing “Is that a boy or a girl?” or a conclusive “Gay,” as I made my best attempt to passively walk away.
Though I believe hair shouldn’t define a person, cutting my hair made me feel safe, and as I walked out of the salon that warm Friday afternoon, being able to feel the sun beaming on my cheeks for the first time in years, I felt as if I were born again. I was confident–the preconceived notions I would hear about me seeming to disappear into thin air. People I met around my community thereafter seemed to look at me for who I was, not simply judging me for what I looked like. Up until Ecuador.
Here, it isn’t what my hair looks like that defines me, but rather something I can’t change–my race. I am constantly labeled as a “chino,” despite my proud Taiwanese heritage. I get the “gringo” (white person) treatment from taxi drivers, even though I can speak their language. A young girl half my size even called me a “gay Americano” as I was walking on the streets of Quito. I had said nothing to her.
These descriptions of me bring me back to the days when I had long hair, when people made generalizations about me. Most statements that the locals here say about me are true. I am a foreigner from the United States. I am an Asian American. But even though their statements are valid, I still feel like I’ve lost my individuality and am living under the umbrella of what typically defines a foreigner here.
In a few weeks, I will be moving from Quito to Riobamba, where I will teach Environmental Science and English while developing a school garden and recycling program. I’m scared of how people are going to perceive me, and what my daily life will look like. Are people going to accept me? Are people going to treat me as one of them or just as another foreigner? I am vulnerable. I am fearful of what the future holds for me in a new place, but I am confident that by stretching myself to my limits, I will learn so much about myself and what I’m capable of. After these seven months, my life will never be the same.