Don't Touch My Hair: my year abroad in Thailand

Posted by Janine Walker on

I was preparing for the experience of a lifetime. At 15 years old I was packing up my bags to move to Thailand for a year, but unlike the hundreds of other foreign exchange students from around the world in the same position as me. I was the only one that had to factor in things like how I was going to look after my hair for the year, where I’d be able to find the right products, and who I’d be able to trust to help me take care of my hair.

I had been getting relaxers in my hair for about 5 years, starting when I was in the sixth grade, and was practically begging my mom for a perm. I had already gotten my hair cut to chin length due to breakage and one too many ‘I’m just going to bump the ends a little with the flatiron’. I did consider installing braids, but what would I do with my hair after having to take them out? The new growth would be beyond me. 

Back in 2011, the natural hair movement hadn’t taken full force yet, so opting to go natural was not in the cards for me yet.  I was so inexperienced with my natural hair, and none of my peers or even the adults around me were natural at the time. Even prior to getting my hair relaxed, growing up I was used to getting my natural hair straightened at the hair salon for as long as I could remember. I don’t know if I had ever seen my hair in its unmanipulated, unstretched natural state. 

I had to weigh my options, and ended up taking the most logical next steps for my hair: I got a fresh perm, cut my hair the shortest it’s ever been, and I packed 4 boxed relaxers into my suitcase to last me my entire year abroad.

Once I got to acclimated to life in Thailand and got acclimated, my hair became an afterthought. Going short was easy for me and I liked how I looked. There was one time I ran home and frantically emailed my mom telling her I needed her to mail me some CLEAR hair gel, and not the thick, brown, Ampro Style gel I was used to. I found myself in the middle of rainy season with my hair soaked and dripping brown product onto my white school uniform shirt. I was horrified. My mom came through and sent me some clear gel along with some other much needed goodies from home like body lotions and soaps that didn’t have skin lightening/brightening additives in them (a story for another day). 

That year abroad in Thailand was life changing, it gave me a passion for traveling the world, meeting new people, trying new things and being unapologetically and authentically myself wherever I went. I feel in some sense I got lucky with Thailand. Yes, I was often the odd one out, but I never once felt left out. I did get stares and people occasionally pointed at me in public, but I never felt harassed or disrespected. One of the best parts of Thai culture is their respect of bodily hierarchy. Thai people consider the feet to be the dirtiest part of the body and at the bottom of the bodily hierarchy. For example, it’s disrespectful to kick your foot in someone else’s direction, or to step on a fallen coin to stop it from rolling. Whereas the head is the most respected part of the body, and thus at the top of the hierarchy.

In Thai culture it's respectful to keep your head lower than your elders. It’s common to see students sitting on the floor when speaking to a teacher or dipping their head lower when passing adults in the hallway. Best of all, not once during my time in Thailand did I encounter one unsolicited touch, stroke, or brush of my hair, because one of the biggest no-nos of Thai culture is to touch someone else’s head (without permission). 

I’m sure people were curious about my hair and the texture, because even with a perm it was not giving bone straight. I would get comments about my curls and my hair cut but that was the extent of it. When I think back on my time living in Thailand, I wonder how different my experience would be if I knew then what I knew now about natural hair, protective styling, and being armed with the skills to be able to style my own hair. Would I have gone natural sooner? Would I have been more adventurous with my hair during that year? Who’s to say what could’ve been, but I think we can all learn from Thai people, their culture, and not to mention Solange herself… Bottom line, don’t touch my hair.

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