Photo by Carter Schneider.

Dyeing My Hair Rainbow Colors Will Never Make Me 'Less Asian'

Rather than my race, my hair became what people recognized and distinguished me by. But as my white friends began to accept me, I realized that my acceptance of myself was suffering.

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Mar 25 2019, 4:47pm

Photo by Carter Schneider.

This Is Fine. is Broadly's weekly newsletter about the previously private and highly personal tactics people use to make the world less harrowing. In this week's letter, Michelle Zhu dyes her hair to honor the queer, Asian identity that's permanent no matter what aspects of her presentation change throughout her life. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy from Broadly and This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.

Recently, the mysterious Cloud function on my phone restored long-misplaced photos from my past: trips I took to China as a teenager; failed relationships gone by. As I scrolled, I came across a selection of pictures I took with my white high school friends. I was usually in school, young and bright-eyed and wearing a hideous, homogenizing school uniform. My body language was closed-off, and I was always the only person of color in a given photograph. In them, I noticed, I didn’t look happy.

I don’t know how the fuck the Cloud works, but it felt like the universe was poking at me, waking up dormant memories of ostracization and assimilation. In these photos, I recalled the beginnings of an experiment I’m still conducting as I test out looks that brought me further, then closer to my identity.

Growing up in Australia, I worked tirelessly on my appearance in hopes that my white friends would approve, or notice. Standing out became my priority and dyeing my hair was a big part of this. But that wasn't always my intention in dyeing my hair. The first time I changed its color, as I watched the deep, smooth black turn into a straw-textured sandy gold, then aquamarine, I did it because it felt right: I could change myself with the stroke of a brush.

Michelle Zhu as a baby.
Me at age three, with the black hair I was born with and haven’t seen in 10 years. (All photos courtesy of Michelle Zhu.)

When my blue hair made its public debut, one of my white high school friends offered what they thought was a compliment: “Wow! You don’t look as Asian anymore!”

Was I supposed to be flattered instead of hurt? I convinced myself that it was the former. That’s largely how high school went for me: I jumped into friendships because, given my difference, I was honored that anyone wanted to befriend me in the first place, and then these “friends” rewarded me with racist microagressions like this one. Still, I thought that one day I could convince them to stop asking whether my family ate dog meat, or that they would at least say hello to my mother when they walked through my door.

All the girls I was trying to befriend had blonde hair, so I thought that if I stripped my hair of its darkness, they would overlook my difference. Since dyeing my hair apparently made me “less Asian” and, the implication went, whiter, I kept at it, bleaching my scalp raw for years.

Rather than my race, my hair became what people recognized and distinguished me by. But as my white friends began to accept me, I realized that my acceptance of myself was suffering. I pleaded with my mother not to speak in Cantonese to me in public, in fear that we would bump into one of my “friends,” who might be put off by it. I still find myself sliced in half with shame when I think about it.

That led to multiple crises regarding the choices I made and the intentions behind them, and how they had transformed under the desire to be seen. I had never meant for my hair-dyeing to become a means for me to escape myself—it was meant to be a way of self-expression. Yet I was pushing myself away.

As my friendships continued to unravel, I found myself at sleepovers full of white girls, thinking I’d finally made it. They’d play with my hair while making fun of the international Asian kids at my school, then turn to me and say, “But you’re cool, Michelle—you’re not really Asian.”

Michelle Zhu dying her hair blue.
Dyeing my hair aquamarine at 20 years old in Tokyo.

Once I graduated high school, I took a trip to China. That changed everything for me. The trip allowed me to immerse myself in all of the things I had spent the last few years rejecting. The colors, foods, and people there felt familiar, even though I was experiencing so many of them for the first time. My idea of ancestry came to me through spirituality, language, and textures. For the first time, I felt sorry not for myself, but for the people who feared our differences so much that they would never be able to encounter the depth and richness of my culture.

When I came back, I made the decision to distance myself from the white friends who'd commented on my hair and face. I realized that validation from white people would never be what determined my identity—and that my ancestral roots didn’t disappear along with the ones on my head.

After dyeing my hair Technicolor, I also noticed a decline in the attention I got from straight men—just as I was coming into my own queerness. I had always known I wasn’t straight, but now it felt like others could see that, too. As I considered this, I noticed that colorful hair was a prominent part of queer expression as I observed it in white, cis gays, too—and it seemed, once again, that I’d found myself excluded.

This time, I knew the score. Just because white bodies were still placed at the forefront of the conversation that surrounded queerness didn’t mean that queer folks of color like me were limited in their expression. I was too familiar with that narrative, and my control over my own appearance now belonged solely to me.

Michelle Zhu with blue, orange, green, and pink hair.
Some of my hair colors over the years.

When I see fellow queer POC who have dyed their hair the way they like it, I know they went through arduous hours of bleaching, toning and complicated processes to achieve the color. Our hair requires shea butter, coconut oil, salves, and ointments to get there—it takes work. It’s all worth it for me when I see myself in the mirror, looking as Asian and queer as I am, without anybody telling me what that means.

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Every color I have chosen has symbolized a different period of my life: green for growth; blue for healing; orange for warmth. Now, my hair is a vibrant of neon pink to mark how unapologetic I’m becoming in regards to my queerness and identity—and how romantic I’m becoming toward every part of myself. I know now that I dye my hair because I love it and it feels right. It can really be that simple.

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