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Grandma, Braids and a Night at the Chinese Opera

Dreaming of the opera

I’m seven years old. I’m sitting on the floor reading a book and Grandpa is sitting on the couch, watching a Chinese opera show on our dusty box television set. The women, animated in grainy pixels, sing in keening, high pitched voices. They enchant me in their ornate gowns with flowing gossamer sleeves, their faces painted in pale white, their eyes and cheekbones dusted in scarlet rouge.

It’s time to get ready for school, and Grandma beckons me over. “Hurry, Zizi,” she calls to me in Cantonese, “It’s nearly 8 o’clock.” As I scramble to sit cross-legged on the floor at her feet, I tell her I want my hair to look like the opera maidens on the TV. Their hair is piled on their heads in elaborate braids and buns, topped with glimmering gold embellishments. They look like goddesses, I think.

Grandma laughs as she brushes my hair with a pink plastic comb. We murmur to each other about the upcoming day. Her brushwork is gentle; she coaxes out every snag, every knot with precision. “Zizi, your hair is so beautiful,” she tells me, pinching my cheek affectionately. As Grandma’s fingers weave deftly in and out of my hair, I think that my hair feels like silk. I tell her this as I turn back to the TV. She laughs, her breath tickling my ear.

“My little silkworm.”

******

The songs of the opera still ring through my head, reminding me of nimble fingers and braids on a quiet school morning. Though it has been many years since I’ve last seen a Chinese opera, the art form has recently revisited me in dreams.

Chinese opera is a form of musical theatre with a long and intricate history, and one that has branched out into several incarnations, combining various Ancient Chinese art forms – such as song and dance, martial arts, acrobatics, costume, makeup and literature – to become a diverse, stunning form of theatre. While Peking opera is the most celebrated incarnation of this theatre, Cantonese opera was always a favourite of my Grandparents. There are two types of Cantonese opera; Mou and Man. Whilst Mou focuses more on martial elements, Man on the other hand is a gentler, more elegant opera; long lengths of silk known as water sleeves are used extensively in Man plays to produce flowing movements. With the tumbling movements of the acrobats, the gleam of an unsheathed blade, the ribbon-like movement of the water sleeves, it is no wonder that I thought the actresses to be goddesses.

I loved to watch Chinese opera because it was a way for me to connect with my grandparents, and reach across that great, bottomless intergenerational rift. They would sit me down and patiently explain the roles of the characters, the story, and the meaning behind it. It had long been Grandma’s  great sorrow that I had never learned to read or write in Chinese, and so she was always overjoyed that I wanted to sit and watch the opera with her.

Once I admitted my obsession with the operatic hairstyles to my Grandma. I could not tear my eyes away from the character of the young maiden, whose braids formed a delicate lattice that floated above a low bun, and I’d squeal with glee and clutch at Grandma’s sleeves whenever the fairies, who wore their hair long and loose, appeared onstage. “I want to look beautiful like them,” I would say. “You’re already the most beautiful girl in my eyes,” she would reply, stroking my hair tenderly.

When I remember these affirmations, I am moved to think about hair as a site of political discourse, particularly when discussing the pervasiveness of patriarchy and decolonising beauty. Women of colour are told to have less, have it differently, have it longer, have it in a certain colour, in a certain style; and this is only in the most explicit sense. The hidden, subtle ways in which Western beauty standards invade our subconscious is even more nefarious, because whiteness poisons everything. It is everywhere in this world built on the ruinous legacy of colonialism.

I was looking through some old photo albums with my grandparents the other day when we came across a photograph of me at eight or nine years old, sitting on the floor with my younger brother and my older cousin at some family gathering. My brother has stolen my cousin’s sunglasses, but they are too big for his toddler head and make him look like a beetle. I’m staring into the camera, a gremlin-like expression on my face and a cheap plastic tiara on my head. The tiara pins a stretch of canary-yellow tulle to my head, a far stretch from the blonde colour that I had hoped to imitate.

I have no memory of this party, or of this photo being taken, but even still I was filled with an unspeakable sorrow. I was a child who lived with one foot in my daydreams, and yet I could not imagine myself as a princess with dark Chinese hair.

The fact that I’ve been ensnared by this particular memory feels a little bit silly; undoubtedly, it is rooted in a generic sense of diaspora angst that many of my coloured friends know well. This incident is by no means the greatest injustice ever wrought by colonialism and whiteness. Yet, I cannot express the hurt that I feel as I rewind this memory over and over in my mind. It starts to make my fingertips ache.

I don’t know when I started idolising Rapunzel and Goldilocks and stopped dreaming of the water-sleeved women of Chinese opera.

The contempt for non-whiteness begins like a dull ache; it begins with beauty standards and evolves into an amorphous, poisonous hate for my non-whiteness, for heritage in the colour of my hair. It took me a long time to realise that the ache was there; it became a part of me. Nowadays, I try not to think about the ache, but I know it’s always there; so, I cling to the fond memories of my childhood. They stick out like so many glittering islands littering the horizon, and I am a sailor lost at sea.

I think that it’s important that we work to decolonise our bodies and our minds as we work towards a more literal decolonisation of the world. We must weed out whiteness stem and root, in every corner that it resides, because I cannot accept a world where non-white children are raised to believe that they are not enough.

Looking back, the ritual of hair became a practice of love, self-care and a site of intergenerational connection for Grandma and I. With every criss-cross of the strands, she wove her love into my hair. I wish that I had those brief moments of quiet every morning, feeling her fingers run through my hair. Though fleeting, the minutes spent cross-legged on the floor, my Grandma and I whispering in each other’s confidence made me feel whole.

******

I’m seven years old. I’m getting off the school bus. In the distance, I see a shock of silver hair; it’s Grandma stepping out onto the nature strip in front of our house. She is laughing and waving at me. Clutching my school bag, I run across the road, down the grassy knoll. I run towards home, braids flying behind me like water sleeves in the wind.

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