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My abuela’s hands were the only ones I trusted with my hair. Growing up in a Dominican hair salon, I was particular about who could straighten my delicate, spiralling curls. It was a process—wash, condition, roller set, blow dry, flat iron—the works. I inherited my grandmother’s pride in how to care for my hair. As the matriarch of our family, her gentle, patient touch taught me that my hair is worthy.
Every summer of my childhood, my family would fly to Santo Domingo to spend the entire break with Abuela in the same home my father grew up in. She is a professional beautician, and for 40 years, Salón Margarita was where women and men from all over the capital would get their hair done, from diplomats to la vecina (neighbour). My grandmother was the person to trust with your hair.
Hair tells the complex story of racial identity and self-love within the community. Dominicans are known for our hair-straightening skills. On one hand, we’re able to handle the varying hair textures that exist in the racial mosaic of Dominicans. On the other hand, the perfection of the blowout is weighed down by the internalised racism/anti-black desire to “refinar la raza” (“improve the race”). For Dominican women, our beautician is sacred.
How I ended up in a salon in Shanghai China was pretty straightforward. The summer of my second year, I was studying at an economics program at Shanghai Lixin University of Accounting and Finance — and I was curious. A knowledge seeker, I wanted to expand my mind beyond the West. I am the first in my family to travel as far as China. We were a group of 20 students from Miami Dade College and all over the world, including Venezuela, Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Russia. Studying in China created a bridge between our varied worlds and the possibilities of life on a different continent.
After spending a month navigating our everyday routines in another language and country, we were preparing our return to the United States. For me as a 20-year old, it was through daily, mundane activities and communal living that I learned about myself. The tight bonds formed during this time, plus my curiosity, emboldened me to do something unheard of — get my hair straightened outside of Abuela’s salon. My friend Angela, whom I met on the trip, was the third reason. During our time in China, I discovered that, before she migrated from the Dominican Republic, she used to visit Salón Margarita. She knew how important it was to find a good beauty home.
It was 2011, and online reviews were not a thing, so we depended on suggestions from local students in our exchange program and our innate salon intuition. Gathering our hair and salon knowledge, along with all our newly minted Mandarin words, we took the train an hour to the Pudong District in the centre of Shanghai. Set amidst the city’s futuristic landscape, Create Pretty Salon was compact and familiar. Alerted by the door chime and friendly greeting from the receptionist, the hairdressers leaned in to see the new walk-in appointments. As two Caribbean women, we were used to getting looks, as if we were from another world.
The many words and phrases we learned in Mandarin to help us bargain at artisan markets and order food at the corner street vendor from our dorms did not prepare us to ask for a wash and blow dry. After a few hand signals and puzzled faces, a hairdresser with a frizzy hair cut like mine walked me to his chair and handed me a cup of white wine. As he draped a white towel over my shoulders and ran warm water through my curls, it felt like my abuela’s salon hug. I felt at home. As we shared the language-less ritual of brushing, taming curls into straight layered patterns, I wondered how I could express in Mandarin that, his hands felt like my grandmothers’ hands, and that sitting in his chair, surrounded by the smell of Sebastian professional hair products, transported me to the salon she left in the city of Santo Domingo after moving to Miami with my father.
“Her hair is so curly!” my hairdresser exclaimed. I realised that I may have been the only Afro-Latina woman he’d ever had a chance to turn curls into silk. He combed and finger-curled my hair with soft, tender fingers. As soon as the blow dryer hit the steel-bristle of the round brush and my curls into a static, soft mane, he started laughing joyfully. “WOW!” He studied my hair with awe, and when he stepped back, cocking his head like an artist, something in me told me to pull out my phone to snap a few pictures. He called his fellow hairdressers and handed them each the blow dryer, gesturing towards me. Each hairdresser took turns with the blowdryer to see how my curls went straight, laughing incredulously and calling another to try. “How many people does it take to straighten Andrea’s hair?” a Facebook friend later that month commented when I uploaded the photos.
For years, this was a great story to tell at the dinner table, and yet what I learned as a young Afro-Dominican woman finding her way in the world lingers like the memory of his hands in my coils. I learned that my curls can be bridges to new worlds and home can be found in unexpected places. The hairdressers were able to see the easeful possibilities of straightening curly hair, and I was able to see the importance of travel in everyday spaces. Across culture and geography, I felt seen and loved on with all my curls— something not typically experienced by women who look like me. Not once did my frizzy-haired stylist pull my hair while blow drying, and his gentle touch reminded me of Abuela’s lesson that my hair is worthy.
After Angela and I had both been transformed, paid our bill and taken photographs with the hairdressers, we walked reluctantly to the door. As we departed, my heart brimming with gratitude and affection, I bid farewell with ‘谢谢’ (xièxiè – thank you) and ‘我爱你’ (wǒ ài nǐ – I love you) accompanied by a respectful bow. Those were the only words my excitement allowed me to remember at that moment. I’m happy he used the sleekest flat iron to seal in my newly straight mane, because I was able to enjoy my hair for our last two days in China before nature prevailed and I returned home to Miami wearing my natural curls.