Haircuts, as they relate to perceptions of race and ethnicity

Yesterday I got a haircut at Eldoret’s new (only?) shopping mall. It reminded me of a post I wrote last year, when I was living in Mbale, Uganda. The title of the post was “I’m looking less Asian today” and this is what I wrote:

A month ago, shortly after arriving in Mbale, I offered some initial reflections on what it means to be an outsider and specifically a muzungu. A few days later, I learned that not everyone was quite sure I’m a muzungu. While visiting an orphan’s program in Bududa, one of the older kids said he thought I might be Chinese. I’ve gotten similar comments more recently. In the last few days, two more people have guessed I was Chinese. A third Ugandan, after hearing me tell his friend that I’m not Chinese, guessed Japanese. (All of these opinions were offered unsolicited.)

Why the ethnic confusion? My grandfather was from the Philippines, and many people in the US have guessed that I might be part Asian. Personally, I’ve never been sure what about my looks conveys that. When I asked my Ugandan friends Eddie and JB about it, they had a clear answer: my hair. It also explained why I was getting more comments recently. Something about the way my hair flops down as it gets longer looks Asian to Ugandans. (In fact, if you watched the Spain-Honduras game last night: Eddie says the Japanese referee looked like me.)

So this morning I got a haircut. I didn’t do it specifically to avoid looking Asian, as having long hair in the Ugandan heat is pretty annoying on its own, but the guys agree that I look less Asian now. I’ve got no clever cultural commentary on this. I just think it’s kind of funny.

So that was last year in Uganda. Since getting to Kenya almost two months ago, no one has suggested that I’m Asian – until I went in for my haircut yesterday. The barber asked if I’m from Hong Kong. I decided to get a buzz cut. Not because it makes me look less Asian, nor due to the heat this time (Eldoret is pretty chilly), but simply because a buzz cut is the safest bet when your barber is accustomed to a different type of hair and different language.

With that in mind, I have two follow-up comments on last year’s post.

First, on looking less Asian…

According to my site stats, dozens of people have made their way to this blog by searching the web for “how to look less Asian” or something similar. In case any of you are still reading: I apologize that the only advice I’ve offered you is to get a haircut. I imagine you’re only slightly less disappointed than the reader who searched for “rhyme Kampala” and ended up on this post. If that person is still reading: try impala, koala, or Paul Begala.

Second, on racial and ethnic systems…

In response to my prior post, my brilliant sister pointed me to Race and Nation: Ethnic Systems in the Modern World, edited by Paul Spickard. Here’s the relevant bit from the introduction:

The old man and I sat in the dust of the bazaar, our backs against a whitewashed wall, hiding from the sun in what little shade we could find. Radio Beijing blared from a loudspeaker on a pole nearby, unheeded by the people around us. Like my companion and 95 percent of the people in Turpan, this little oasis town in the Takla Makan Desert in China’s far western borderlands, they were Uygurs. Hawk-nosed with slanted eyes and tawny complexions, they spoke a kind of Turkic and very little Chinese. When they talked about their Chinese colonial overlords they spat with contempt and used words like “hate” and “kill.”

To pass the time, the old man and I tried to make conversation using the few Chinese words we each could command.

“So you’re Japanese,” he declared.

“No, I’m American,” I answered.

“What’s that?” he asked. Aside from the radio playing overhead, there was no local means of learning about the outside world. No Uygur language radio, no television, no newspaper. Few outside visitors except for Chinese bureaucrats. No way of knowing about the United States, or much else outside Turpan.

I tried to describe my country to the gentleman. He wasn’t buying it. No place like that existed, so far as he was concerned.

He knew about three kinds of people. There were people — that is, Uygurs of many tribes and lineages. There were Chinese, the hated colonizers, and, as it turned out, there were Japanese. Every two weeks a minibus brought about a dozen Japanese tourists to Turpan. Outsiders, in this man’s worldview, people who were neither Uygur nor Chinese, were ipso facto Japanese. A White American like me was Japanese.

I expect that things have changed a lot in Turpan since that hot spring day in 1989. Probably today I would not be labeled Japanese. But that day I was not mistaken for Japanese; I was Japanese, in the language of the Turpan racial system of that time.

The book is composed of essays on the differing ethnic/racial frameworks around the world. I haven’t read it yet but it looks fascinating. You can find it here.

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