A hairstylist once said my ‘Malay hair’ was ‘disgusting’, without realising I understood Chinese
To be fair, she didn't say it to my face.
A couple of weeks back, some British man mentioned that Singapore is a “Disneyland for adults” because it is “so easy” to live here.
One of the reasons why it’s not difficult to live here, apparently, is because that the amount of racism in Singapore is “so small, it’s ridiculous.”
Granted, racism isn’t as prevalent here as it is in other parts of the world like in the U.S. and France.
I should know, I’ve lived in Singapore all my life.
A “strawberry” phenomenon?
In Singapore, we have what the youngins would call “micro-aggression”. Another term for it is casual racism.
Casual racism typically comes as off-hand remarks that rely on negative stereotypes or prejudices to say something about a person’s race or ethnicity.
Take this article, for example:
While it’s not a deliberate act of discrimination nor is it meant to cause any harm (in fact, some remarks may even be well-intentioned, although erroneously so), it still leaves an impact on those who are on the receiving end.
But some people have dismissed it as a “strawberry” phenomenon, or just millennials being too sensitive.
However, these are perhaps the same people who have never experienced blatant acts of racism — acts that affect the way we look at the insidious forms of micro-aggression.
“Can look more Chinese, like your friend”
My first unfortunate experience with outright racism happened some years back in a hair salon.
Wanting to be just like my other cool 15-year-old friends, my friend and I wanted to get a layered haircut (it was the “in” thing back then, ok).
But just like my other cool 15-year-old friends, we had a very tight budget.
Atas hair salons that serve you tea while they blow dry your hair was out of the question.
Instead, we walked into a neighbourhood hairdresser that had the sign “S$3.80 HAIRCUT” plastered all over their walls.
But you know what, since I had a crisp S$10 bill, I felt like a baller and told the hairstylist: “Cut and wash, please.”
I still had some change to buy a can of green tea after the haircut.
The hairdressers sat us down and got started on our cuts.
While my friend’s hairstylist went on to ask how she’d like her hair cut, mine proceeded to ruffle with my thick, wavy hair and scrunched her face while asking me:
“Girl, you want to rebond your hair? You rebond your hair can look more Chinese, like your friend.”
Ah, the typical hard sell with a teeny touch of insult.
I like my naturally wavy hair… And I only had S$10 in my pocket, so I shook my head with a sheepish smile and said: “Maybe next time.”
The M word
The hairdresser resigned to the fate that I was a cheapskate, and continued to talk to her fellow colleague in Mandarin as she began to cut my hair.
While I should be bothered that she was fiddling my hair with a pair of scissors while looking at her colleague, I was actually more disturbed by what she was saying.
Now, I’m not proficient in Mandarin, but thanks to a compulsory conversational Mandarin class that I had to take in school and my several years’ experience of watching the 9pm dramas on Mediacorp’s Channel 8, I knew fairly well that she was talking about me.
In fact, I fully understand what these three phrases meant:
- 恶心 (Ě Xīn) which means “disgusting”
- 头发 (Tóu Fǎ) which means “hair”
- 马来人 (Mǎ Lái Rén) which means “Malay people”
My Mandarin teacher would have been so proud of me, but I digress.
Didn’t tell her off
While the right thing to do would be to tell her off, I didn’t do it.
Of course, I didn’t do anything because as I mentioned, I had (and still have) the Mandarin-speaking abilities of a five-year-old.
Besides, maybe they weren’t talking about me, how would I know?
(Also, the hairdresser was holding a pair of scissors that she could potentially use to either screw up my hair or attack me with it. Not worth the fight, man.)
“I’m so sorry…”
Close to 45 minutes later, the hair cut was over and let’s just say it was truly worth less than S$10.
That day, I learnt that I can’t pull off the layered look unless having a mop on your head is considered fashionable.
“I’m so sorry about what happened,” my friend said once we walked out of the salon.
Was she talking about the dead cat that the hairstylist tried to pass off as a haircut?
Taking my furrowed brows as a sign of confusion, she told me what actually happened.
“Your hairdresser said Malay hair tend to always be curly and disgusting.”
Oh my god, did I just give two days’ worth of lunch money to a bigot?
Micro-aggression is mega uncomfortable
Some of you may think that I probably deserved it for not speaking out for myself.
While others may think that I’m being a strawberry for making this an issue only a few years later, coincidentally, when casual racism and Chinese privilege became such a “sexy” topic.
But you see, it isn’t about me wanting to be part of the trend.
It’s because micro-aggression is mega uncomfortable for the victim, especially if that person is only 15 years old.
And if I’m already facing it then, at a young and impressionable age, can you imagine how much worse it could get when I’m older?
Oh, it got so much worse.
“Malays are bad at math”
I’ve been to an interview where the human resource executive joked that she wouldn’t hire me because “Malays are lazy”.
I didn’t hear from her after the interview.
Another time, an ex-colleague would stand next to me at the cashier while I prepare change for customers because she heard “Malays are bad at math”.
I told my manager about this and she just laughed it off, saying that my colleague was just “looking out for me”.
Not so casual
Before writing this article, I was afraid that I would receive comments like these:
And I guess the fact that comments like these still exist in 2019 is one of the reasons why I’m writing this article, after all: To let people know that casual racism isn’t the least bit casual.
While others can laugh and pass it off as a joke, it leaves a sting for the person on the receiving end.
In my case, I felt self-conscious for a few years when someone speaks Mandarin in front of me, fearing that they were talking about me.
It also left its mark a constant reminder that racial tolerance — as opposed to acceptance — can crumble with just a few words.
But hey, maybe this article really is about me being salty about a horrible cheap haircut when I was 15.
Top image by DigiHub via Getty