One day in the middle of my sophomore fall, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, I want to change something. Change would be nice. So, I called my mother and told her that I would never become an engineer. Instead, I was going to study Philosophy.
Instead of changing my major, I might have gotten a pixie cut— if not for a childhood trauma that has forever prevented me from shearing my hair above chin-length. When I was growing up, if you were a second-generation Asian-American kid, getting your hair cut at Great Clips or SuperCuts was never an option. Your salon was the garage, your stylist a parent, and their styling tools the sharpest pair of kitchen scissors in the house and a porcelain bowl. They would turn the bowl over on your head, and using the scissors, cut off every piece of uncovered hair. Then, they would hand you a broom and dustpan. It was your job to sweep up the scraps.
My father cut my hair. Unlike the countless other Asian parents in my Northern Californian suburb, he didn’t use the standard upturned-bowl method. He had grown up during Chinese industrialization, and immigrated to the US on a government-sponsored engineering scholarship. Approaching the task with the same, methodical meticulousness that had brought him to this country— — as he did our elaborate backyard garden, full of spicy peppers and spiky fushougua; the “American” rice-noodle “casseroles” and scallion “pizzas” that he would cook with Chinese ingredients; my elementary school science projects— — he employed a combination of professional-grade scissors, razors, and fine-toothed combs. Yet he always produced what looked completely identical to the standard bowl cut.
I had a bowl cut until the fourth grade. Then, I had my first crush and realized that a world in which we had the same hairstyle was a world in which I did not want to live.
I started growing my hair out. I didn’t cut it until eighth grade, when I went to a hair salon for the first time in my life. Well, it wasn’t actually a hair salon— it was another Asian family’s garage, this time stocked with some beauty products and a hair-washing station. My mother heard about the place from a coworker. She had wanted me to go to my father. I would have allowed this over my dead, bowl-cut body. This was our compromise. I gave the haircutter a picture of some Asian celebrity. I nodded uncertainly to the Chinese that she replied with. I came out with another bowl cut.
My mother told me it was a good look. It was nice, straight, and clean. The thing was— as I had flared— her aesthetic sensibilities were formed in Communist China, while I was born in America, and as she certainly wouldn’t know, American girls got cuts at Great Clips!
As I would later learn as a Philosophy major, once a pattern of argument is constructed, it can be helpfully reused in future debates. I did as much on that October night, when I told my parents that I would never study what they wanted me to study. They told me that engineering was a good, stable choice. I retorted that just because they needed engineering— to enter America, to find a job that would sponsor their visas, to buy a house and raise a family— didn’t mean that I needed it. I was already an American. And I was at Princeton. As I never had in the Bay Area, I was meeting kids with non-Asian mothers, who didn’t think that only “loose white girls” used tampons, razors, and even deodorant and so refused to stock them in the house. With non-Asian fathers with cultural interests outside of work, who went to their daughter’s band concerts without falling asleep with their mouths open. They were kids who had in high school, developed interests other than— whatever gets you into a good college! So you can get a good job! And raise our grandchildren!— and sometimes, even liked themselves.
So what did I need? Why Philosophy? What even is Philosophy? Although I had snappishly dismissed my parents’ questions as uninformed, I didn’t have answers to them. As my parents had worried, I wasn’t thinking much about my future. I was having a restless semester, where none of my classes stood out to me— until my political theory midterm came back with an unexpectedly decent grade. So I made a rash decision. But in that moment, I felt like I needed something rash.
I had spent my first three semesters at Princeton falling into stereotypes my identity laid out for me. This process began with OA. Throughout the entire trip, a boy in my group couldn’t identify which Asian girl was which. At his cheery apologies, I did nothing but wordlessly smile— eyes squinted, mouth closed, a perfect Chinese doll smile.
My first semester, I didn’t speak in my Classics precept. Instead, I looked around at all of my speaking classmates, and thought about how I was the “quiet Asian girl” in the room. I also thought about how because I was thinking about being the “quiet Asian girl,” I wasn’t thinking about the readings, so I had nothing to say, which made me think more about being the “quiet Asian girl.”
In some respects, I was more comfortable in a sequence called Integrated Science. Despite its name, students organically segmented into two study groups: white and Asian (the few “others” spread out between the two). We— the Asians— got lunch in Wu. We were collectively blasphemed by its interpretation of tofu stir-fry. At problem set sessions, we sang karaoke, real kala-OK, Guang Liang and Jay Chou and Wang Leehom. We stayed up late studying, arriving to lecture early the next morning to brag to one another about who got the least sleep. We compared problem set and lab report and exam scores. We talked about who was getting which Silicon Valley internship. The friends, and the compulsion to work myself to exhaustion, my parents would have been proud of.
My freshman spring, I flirted with an Asian boy from LA. He wore bro tanks and pennyboarded around campus. The next fall, I met a blond senior at a pregame. He invited me to study with him. On his Facebook profile, I could see that he was tagged in a lot of photos with Asian girls. When I met him at the library, he was wearing a Colonial sweater.
There’s nothing wrong with being forgiving, or quiet, or hardworking, or attractive to white boys— if you choose to be those things. In my case, I didn’t know if I was choosing. Looking at my path through Princeton, I couldn’t tell if it had been pre-cut; looking in the mirror, although the bowl cut wasn’t there, I still had my black hair, brown eyes, and yellow-toned skin. So just to exert some sort of control, I made a rash decision.
While jarring in the moment, my family and I have gotten used to it. In my first Philosophy precepts, I fell back into being the “quiet Asian girl.” After a few semesters of learning how to place words in my mouth, I’ve come to be confident in, and to genuinely like, Philosophy. My mother has stopped sending me emails with some variation of the subject line, “Liberal arts major earns six-figure salary after online coding course.” I’ve made some other rash decisions. I got a tattoo. I bleached my hair. My parents eventually adjusted to those too.
It took a while. When I first showed my parents my tattoo, they looked at me with shocked sadness. “I gave birth to you with a natural body,” my mother said. In that moment, I felt guilty. I had already forced them to watch me grow into a long-haired, foreign femininity; I was developing academic interests to which my father couldn’t relate. “We don’t have anything to talk about anymore,” he had once said over the phone, during a particularly long stretch of stilted small talk. He said this in English. My tongue had stumbled over one too many zhi chi shis for the conversation to continue in its hesitant, atonal Chinese.
I felt guilty: for being unfilial, and for not feeling as guilty as I should have felt for being unfilial. For after revealing my tattoo, contritely retreating to my room— so I could privately admire the fresh black ink behind my shoulder. For months later, loving my bleach blonde hair with an identical, transgressive glee. My middle schools days of hating the way I look have passed, though my bowl cut returns from time to time as the punchline of a funny anecdote about my ridiculous Asian parents, shared with my multicolored friends.
Sometimes, my parents tell me that I make these changes because I know they’ll disapprove. I like this narrative. It feels better— more daring, more rebellious— than the one where I make them because I can’t stand who I am.