My husband makes fun of me because the first time I ever stepped foot into a barber shop was earlier this year with our host child, Rell. He chuckled while looking at me endearingly, but what he was really saying in the nicest way possible was that I grew up in a little Asian bubble and that I was not cultured. While I beg to disagree on the bubble, he was right that it was in fact my first time in a barber shop, and it was not just any barber shop–it was a black barber shop. We had to make sure of it.
Rell is half black, and his biological father’s exact words when guiding us to pick the right barber was, “Make sure the people cutting his hair look like him. We don’t have the same hair like you.”
We knew exactly what he meant.
So we made a few phone calls, got on yelp, and found some places that seemed to fit the bill. The next day we went in, and Rell got a very nice, clean shape up. It looked great! Before he even got down from the swivel chair, I was texting pictures to his father to get the thumbs up.
Thankfully, dad was very pleased–phew. Hair, I know, is really important to his father.
But as the months have passed, Rell has seen that in our family, I am the one who cuts everyone’s hair in our home. Nothing fancy, but I can get the job done. And whenever it has been haircut day, I could see Rell watching from the corner of his eye as everyone else in the family got their turn in my makeshift barber chair and got their hair cut with my amateur set of Bed, Bath, & Beyond clippers.
I knew right away that he wanted to be part of this as well. He can care less about his hair and even less about how well I can cut it, but he does desperately want anything and everything that says he is part of our family too.
The reason I never offered to cut his hair though was because I was too afraid of messing up. From the beginning, this was one of the first things everyone talked to us about (his hair), and all I was told, really, was to diligently rub in this olive oil lotion after bath times and then comb it real good with this special brush, both of which were one of our first purchases when he came.
This ritual has now worked its way into our daily bedtime routine, and I thoroughly love doing it–I run my fingers through his textured, soft, curly locks, marveling at how God made us all so different and beautiful in our own way.
I love his hair.
Cutting it, however, has always been an entirely different story. Oh no… I dared not try… it felt completely foreign.
But his eyes. Goodness gracious, his eyes. Big, round, and you can see them glistening a mile away. Every time I got out my hair cutting kit and everyone got lined up, there he would be looking so sad in the corner of the room with his eyes crying out, “how about me!” For a while, however, he never said a word, but the other night, he finally had it in him to say something out loud.
As I tied my apron around my back and called over the first child to be cut, he bravely walked over to me and asked me in his husky little, high pitched, 4-year old voice, “Why every time me go to the barber shop and not you do it. Every time. Me want you cut my hair, umma. I don want to go to the barber shop anymore.”
Goodness. What could I say to that?
Well I could have probably explained to him very nicely that his hair is a little different, and that umma doesn’t know how to cut his hair. Except in my gut, I knew this was a really big deal, something that would speak volumes to him today and tomorrow and everyday as he looks at his “different” hair. It was also an opportunity, an open door, for me to draw him closer to us and to close in on the distance that has been growing between us lately.
It has been almost nine months since he came to us and since he is only four, that is almost a fourth of his life. He came to us like a baby and now he is this big boy who has not only learned to ride a 2-wheeler, use the potty, write the ABCs, and maintain a conversation, but he now also thinks very deeply with higher order feelings.
He asks lots of questions, knows when things are not fair, and everyday, I feel like he realizes a little more how different he is from the rest of us.
For example, he sees how Korean relatives come over and don’t interact with him the same as the others because of the language barrier. Although, he can now speak almost just as much Korean as my other kids. He sees how the others go to Korean school, and he doesn’t because Korean school is on the weekends and many weekends he is visiting with his parents… otherwise we would put him in too. He sees how strangers pause and look at our family, especially him, whenever we go out. He then sees them ask us questions about who he is to us and where he came from.
Through his 4-year old eyes, he sees and sees and sees and knows that he is different… and this one night, he was asking me with the same concerning look: can I please just get a haircut… can I please just belong like everyone else.
So yes, I said yes. Of course I did. I gave him a haircut.
I took a deep breath, rolled up my sleeves, youtubed a couple videos, turned on the clippers, and slowly began trimming my way around his perfectly shaped little head. I even had him pray aloud that God would help Umma not to mess up his hair.
At first, it was hard. I could see how the texture of his hair really did make a difference and it responded differently to every touch of the blade. The fading was particularly unforgiving, and I had to have just the right pressure and angle to get it right. But as I persisted, I got into a rhythm and found it wasn’t really all that different like I thought. I just had to work slowly section by section and be a little more delicate with each touch.
And every time I came around to the front of his head and caught eyes with his, there he sat smiling at me, beaming with joy.He was so happy.
When I was done, I gave him a big kiss and passed him on to my husband to be bathed, thanking God I did not butcher his hair. Then there I was left in my kitchen with nothing but hair that had fallen to the floor all around me–some curly, some straight, some thick, some thin, all different. Slowly, I began to sweep it all up until it was all gathered into one pile. Then I smiled, because once it was all brought close together, I couldn’t even tell the difference from one strand of hair to the other. It was all just hair.
And that is how I have come to see Rell in relation to us. Standing alone, he may seem very different from the rest of us. Different hair, different skin, just different. But as we have gotten closer and closer over this past year, I have seen how we are really not that different after all and share so many of the same qualities as well. Although he will always have his God-designed differences, just like all of us do and awesomely so, we are also so much the same. We are people. We need unconditional acceptance and love and validation. We need time to play, time to mourn, time to celebrate, time to laugh, time to cry. We also need family.
These days, I look at Rell and while acknowledging and celebrating his unique background, traits, and culture, I love that he is also one of us and we are like him as well.
We are different, but not as different as we think. I love Rell, I love his hair, I love our differences, I love our similarities, I love our coming together. We are family.