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On having unusual hair in Seoul, South Korea

April 7, 2010

My hair is really, really curly and I think for my students the word “curly” conjures up slightly wavvy tresses at the tamest and Shirley Temple pipe curls at what would be considered outrageously curly. They were unaware of the curly hair I have…the kind that makes up an afro.

Having my kind of hairstyle provides a unique experience of living here that I can’t imagine many other people have. No one in my town quite understands my hair. I know this because I am frequently asked what kind of perm I have or if I’m wearing a wig and what I have to do to my hair to make it the way it is. At first, my explanation was something like “It just grows that way” but after living here a few months I just responded with “NATURAL NO PERM” That answer seems to temporarily satiate the masses.

And even more outrageous than my spherical doo, I can change my hair style daily…hourly which I guess is a big deal here. I’ve worn my hair straight, in braids, in pigtails, in soft waves, in big curls and with various accessories (scarves, barrettes, pins) Students have a hard time understanding that my hair shortens when its curly, so they often ask if I’ve had a hair cut or the equivalent of a weave. I only bring all this up because Kristin-touching-fever seems to be in full swing again in class. Students ask to touch my hair and…I let them. It seems really weird while typing this out and yet I do feel somehow compelled to get it through their heads that my hair is 1) real and 2) extremely different from theirs.

I don’t really have a problem with letting a student touch my hair HOWEVER when random Koreans SNEAK UP ON ME IN THE STREETS to do so, it’s really more than I can take. With students, I can at least be mentally prepared for what’s going to happen and I know that for the most part it’s out of curiousity. With the older ladies (ajummas), I never quite know the motives or the timing. The first time this happened in public, I was shopping in a clothing store when I was suddenly convinced a hanger was somehow stuck in my hair and immediately began to freak out. Turns out, it was just an ajumma being goaded by her friends to stroke my head. Of course, she was surprised to learn that I could feel what she was doing and just sort of jumped. Since then…maybe once or twice a month, I’ve caught Koreans of all ages and genders (yes, ALL genders)  touching or about to touch me.

I don’t think the actual touching is what pisses me off – I generally like to help inform people of whatever information I can provide even if it’s just about hair types – what really irks me is a certain lack of empathy that suggests a lack of common sense. You cannot convince me that if I snuck up on a random Korean person  and petted their hair, that nothing would happen. I hate to resort to this…but in America, this sort of action would put you in jail or at least leave you with a fine or sensitivity training courses.

I’ve heard of hairy armed/legged foreigners getting petted as well. Weird.

For the suggestion box of Korea I would put “Petting Foreigners = ALWAYS CREEPY”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2010 1:08 am

    I feel for you, because the same stuff happens to me. I’m okay with the kids touching my hair if they ask but I cannot stand when strangers just do it without asking. I just think about all the germs they are spreading to me. It happens a lot on the subway. I have my hair in braids right now, and will take them out soon and go back to my afro. It will be interesting to see the kids reactions. Like you, they do’t understand that I can style my hair in different ways as much as I want.

  2. Angel Cartagena permalink
    April 13, 2010 5:36 pm


    I agree that people shouldn’t touch your hair without your permission. But I do also agree that it can open relational doors. I remember being in South Africa on a missions trip with a friend who is blond. One of the best memories I have of that trip is our visiting a school in one of the townships outside Pretoria. The kids wanted to touch her hair, so she sat on the floor so that they could all take turns touching her hair. Most of the kids said they had never seen blond hair before.

    Anyway, do insist (in a Christ-like way) that people ask, but please be patient. Some folk just REALLY don’t get it. I pray for you every day and look forward to seeing you this summer.


    • aukissed permalink*
      April 14, 2010 11:51 pm

      There’s certainly a difference between discovery and seeing what you can get away with.

      I suppose hiding things in my hair like trinkets or small artificial birds would be the wrong way to deal with this.

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