Plain China

Field Notes on Hair

by Vicki Yang · Columbia College Chicago
Untitled, Katharina Windemuth · Brown University

After the brain thing1 the world became divided; there were those who knew the truth about my illness, and those who knew the easy-to-swallow version I personally lubricated for them. As much as I tried to prevent it, there was the cleavage of my life’s short timeline into two separate but unequal segments: before the brain thing, when I possessed coveted big-name qualities like Radicalism and Bright-Eyed Naïveté, and after the brain thing, when I lost a little bit of those things, and also, for several months, a lot of hair.

I should say now that this isn’t a sob story. Within these lines, you will find no hysterical account of how the world has wronged me or marred my idyllic youth. If I think it, I refuse to verbalize it, and I—I don’t think it except at my lowest of lows, the times when I toss my thoughts down like pebbles into the long waiting mouth of a well: silence; then, a tiny affirming plup. Still, I carry that scar within my head. I stand, divided in the wake of a Capgras delusion in which another me has replaced myself without due warning, living with phantom visions the way other people have to live with phantom limbs. The encounter, spanning the length of a Midwestern winter, left behind cold streaks of clarity in an otherwise muddled mind.

 

Hair loss begins and ends on its own terms.

 

The whole affair began on a winter weekday, the kind of weekday that, because the school term had come to an end and the absence of the usual regimen left blank vast stretches of time, blended seamlessly from Monday to Friday to Monday. At three a.m. I said goodbye to Tonya, whom I had been talking to online, and then I had my stroke. For some reason I like the sound of that—I had my stroke, as though I am talking about some private but routine gesture: in the afternoon, I had my coffee, and at the stroke of three (as if on cue, by clockwork) I had my stroke. Tonya, a quiet, warm-palmed Mexican Jew with perpetual bedhead, is one of my college friends who got the lubricated version. She likes to dress nicely, in a cardigan and loose button-down, for the girls she could picture as girlfriends. If you had a bad cold, she’d make you chicken noodle soup and feed it to you, too. That’s the kind of girl Tonya is: a girl who tripped over your softest falls. A girl I knew would apologize incessantly for things that were nobody’s fault. That’s why I could never tell her the truth about any of it, see—not about the nature of my illness, nor about the fact that she almost became the last person to see me alive.

So I had my stroke (a splitting headache, waves of nausea followed by vomiting, residual pangs that made me knead my temples hard). When it happened, I didn’t realize that it was a stroke. Strokes weren’t had by nineteen-year-olds. I consulted the wisdom of the Internet with search terms like “differences between stroke and migraine” and came to the unhelpful conclusion that the two often shared symptoms. I tried to go to bed and in the morning took an MRI, which revealed whole areas in my circulatory system that were missing capillaries. So it was. Back to the blinding white of Chicago.

No, not really white: light slate.

I moved into a shared room with a high school girl whose digestive organs were failing by the day. I heard her moaning through the heavy curtain between us, until I was transferred to a private room. Occasionally I would lumber about the halls with my own leash in one hand and the other clutching the train of my dress: a blushing bride in green with IV infusion sets as my bridesmaids. The halls were filled with construction paper posters for the sake of false cheeriness. NEUROSURGERY WINS AWARD FOR BEST CARE, one might proclaim.

Tests, some involving blood and others involving spinal fluid but all involving needles, became a routine part of my day (today, I had a CT scan, yesterday, I had a lumbar puncture). The nurses clapped and complimented my “skinny” frame (an absence of flesh folds made finding veins relatively simple—even so, we were running out of them by the second week). I began looking forward to morphine injections, which made the senses melt deliciously, like diluted watercolors.

All of this I learned to take in with serene indifference. I cried at first, because none of the doctors could give a definitive answer and the radiologist (a studious-looking man with overworked gray strands) kept averting his eyes. Of all the possible long-term side effects I dreaded this the most: “a decrease in intellect.” What kind of woman would I be without my intellect? Not a beautiful one, I knew.

At night I tossed and turned as much as I could without disturbing the plastic needle planted in the crook of my arm. My hair pressed against my face and made it greasy. In the daytime, I tried to keep my mind occupied by reading about the upbringing of John Stuart Mill. (He was, of course, infinitely more precocious than I was. Things like this used to make me agonize.)

 

 

Embolization One. I took uneasy trips into the REM world and brought back souvenirs. I dreamt of a North Korean footrace through mountains and classrooms with shattered windows. People stepped in the beads of glass dotting the linoleum and hardly noticed the red footprints they left behind. There were many casualties. The winner was awarded a large medal of yellow brass. If you looked closer, it probably came with a raised etching of the Great Leader—I couldn’t tell, since one cannot zoom in on dreams.

I came in second, or maybe sixth. I remember there was a small lecture to the ten of us forerunners. The speaker was throwing jagged pieces of Confucian maxims at us, except he attributed them to Kim II-Sung and I’m not sure if he knew the difference. There was a bony lady (the nurses would have no trouble finding her veins) with a pious countenance, who kept bowing little solemn bows and repeating, “That’s very wise, Professor. Ah, yes. That’s very wise, Professor.”

In the waking world a mere block away, my friends were celebrating the cancellation of classes for the second day in a row. This was a rare event that had not occurred at the university since 1999. A blizzard, so I heard, which had washed over the slate and made the city a true white.

 

 

Embolization Two, “stereotactic radiosurgery.” It was after that that the hair started falling away in earnest. Months later, back in the dorm room that I share with Eliza, I started making a list with everything I knew about hair.

 

You cannot tear out hair except from the roots.
You can cut hair, but you cannot hurt it.

And:

Mine is black.

 

Not everyone has black hair. Some have brown, dirty blonde, platinum blonde, salt and pepper. This I learned in Miss Morris’s classroom at the age of seven when I moved from Shanghai (where, at the cusp of the twentieth century, almost everyone’s hair was black) to Dallas. When I was younger I used to wonder whether people’s pubic hair always matched the color on their heads, so I compared notes with my ginger friend Bryce. I learned a new term that I still find kind of funny: firecrotch. At the hospital I met a young man with black hair like mine, except his was wavy and he had dark skin. Like the other resident physicians, he was startlingly handsome. All of the residents at the Medical Center, if they weren’t already going to be all sorts of -ologists, could have been models. I fantasize about eating in the hospital cafeteria—when I am better and in something other than pastel-colored hospital gowns—and trying to catch the eye of the curly-haired, dark-skinned ER doctor. But when I went back to school, I did not go back to the hospital cafeteria. Not because he’d seen me use a bedpan. Not because he’d already seen my breasts through the size XXL gown, the neck hole of which could fit around my waist.

At my parents’ house in Texas, the hair loss came like an afterthought several days after the radiation. Nothing happened on the first and second days. I washed my hair vigorously.

 

2-in-1 Shampoo & Conditioner ≠ shampoo + conditioner

 

Do you know what they mean by numb, technical sounding words like “stereotactic radiosurgery”? To be sure, it’s not serious the way chemo is, so forgive me for adopting a nihilistic attitude. First they have to affix a crown onto your head. They do this by drilling four evenly-spaced screws into your skull, and they stop when you can hear the screw crunching against the cranium, turning bone to fine powder like pestle on mortar. Then they bring in physicists to crunch the numbers: at what angle to aim the laser, how wide should the blast radius be, how long the exposure.

“This is not the elegant part of the procedure,” the resident doctor, who was preparing my head for the placement of the crown, admitted.

I remember saying to her (a nervous young woman with light brown skin, whose dark frames and tightly scrunchied hair kept her from metamorphosing into the heartbreaker that she might have been), to keep the situation light: “Oh, I am so screwed!” She laughed but hastily stopped herself.

 

Post-radiation hair is thinner, fluffier, and paler than pre-radiation hair.

You become deathly afraid that strangers have x-ray vision. And then you grow defiant (“Who gives a shit if everyone can see my bald patch,” you’ll reason, and then meaningfully leave that knit cap on the bedpost), for there is no room for your dignity to flower into anything except bleary-eyed defiance.

 

I don’t buy a wig. Most of the time a wig serves the purpose of making sure that other people feel comfortable; in my defiance I believed they had no right to that comfort.

 

Wigmakers are not only selling beauty, but also dignity. But that dignity is fragile.

 

Later, when the hair has returned, strangers will meet your eyes for the first time. “Oh, I recognize you,” or “I’ve seen you around,” they’ll say; neglecting to mention that they sat a few rows behind you in Intro to East Asia: Korea, and every Monday and Wednesday stared at the back of your yin-yang head.

 

Hair is a binary. Should it be a variable within your control, you’d input a 1 for true or a 0 for the absence of. Anything in between looks ridiculous, and the comb-over is not a valid option for girls barely out of their teens.

Good friends joke about bad hair days. Acquaintances ask What Happened To questions. Other people look everywhere but at your head.

 

That fallow patch measuring three inches across became my pocket guide to human nature. There is no inherent shame in this, but it is a curious spatial phenomenon. A sociology professor who had had nothing to do with me prior to the brain thing approached me one afternoon and said, “It is different for people like you and me, who have seen the other side.

“Even the Chicago sky doesn’t look so gray.”

 

Baldness, at least the involuntary kind, is not “shiny.” You get the shininess from repeatedly wearing down your scalp with blades, as though polishing the edge of a kitchen knife, and from moisturizers. Instead, the baldness of radiation is soft and pink—thoroughly unnerving to the touch, like eggshells soaked in warm vinegar. What was once alive now pulsates with vengeance at the living.

 

The truth about the brain thing is that it will always follow me. I don’t mean in an abstract way. I mean that every year I cast a die to determine whether I will have another stroke, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Should I write a will? If found while I was alive, my will would seem heartbreakingly idiotic, like a child’s drawing of her nuclear family, created with the intent of saving a doomed marriage (feet sprawled in crayon at impossible angles, hands like flattened cakes of Play-Doh)—but just plain heartbreaking if discovered after my death. I have nothing of value to give anyone anyway, except my books—the last vestiges of a brain-rose prematurely pruned.

 

 

Another time in the hospital, I had a terrifying dream. Half the world had suffered through a gigantic natural catastrophe of some sort and had to relocate. My family was doing the same; everybody’s front lawns were littered with possessions, waiting their turn to be carried into their new homes. All of my books—compacted into four neat bookshelves—sat there unguarded, tantalizing. And amidst the chaos of movers and children and carpenters, some clever soul decided to masquerade as the owner of the books and conduct an impromptu yard sale. In vain I screamed, THOSE ARE NOT YOUR BOOKS TO SELL, running from bookshelf to bookshelf, but I succeeded only in garnering jeers. I grew so flustered that my desperation devolved into violence, and I began hitting book-buyers left and right. Most of my blows were harmless, but I distinctly remember jamming the corner of The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate into somebody’s eye.

This nightmare bothered me for two reasons:

1) Why did the physical manifestation of knowledge matter so much to me? I was not generous with knowledge, as I should have been—rather, I hoarded earthly paper and ink as though they meant something on their own.

2) Why did I retaliate violently against innocent people, and was my reaction representative of a ruthless survival instinct in waking life? If so, my dream response suggested that I was morally decrepit. Or at least inauthentic. It must not be a coincidence, then, that the lesion in my brain is next to the pineal gland. Descartes, although he was mistaken about its location, believed the pineal to be the seat of the soul.

 

In the mornings, clear packing tape clears hairy pillows. The same goes for hairy consciences.

 

My neurosurgeon says things like, “You should be able to lead a relatively normal life aside from your unfortunate propensity—” and then he drops the but. But the but turns out to be surprisingly tame. “But,” he says with a winning smile, “stay away from heavy lifting, scuba diving, maybe things that make your blood pump a little too roughly.”

I think of asking about orgasms. I don’t.

 

 

On another trip to the dream world, I saw my mother. My mother is an illogical woman, as all mothers are prone to be, because her diet consists of far too much true crime. She’s forever drawing lines of causation between what I do and what grisly things happen to young girls like me on a daily basis. In my dream she is clutching fistfuls of her own hair. And now she is clutching fistfuls of the doctor’s hair. The thick strands turn into snakes when they fall to the floor, until the entire office is a writhing, rippling web of the capillaries I am missing. I scream and scream.

I remember to call my mother when I wake up. I tell her I should be able to lead a relatively normal life, but I should stay away from heavy lifting and scuba diving. She hears: I should stay away from anything that makes me too happy or sad or mad. She also tries to convince me to take the rest of the school year off, a suggestion I reject.

 

Your mother cares a lot about your hair, and she will cry over its involuntary separation. That’s because she sees the passage of time in the blackness of your hair, and every clump in the trashcan is another reminder that her baby is dying.

 

“But Mom,” I say, or dream of saying, “hair is inorganic. It can’t actually die.” Wrong. Hair is organic, because it is made from the protein keratin. You would know that if you studied chemistry like Eliza. Eliza is my roommate, a scientist and a positivist—a bright-eyed, golden-headed student with profound faith in reason, and logic, and the triumph of the superior argument. But neither of us is a very good mathematician, and neither of us believes in predestination. I tell her the truth about the brain thing, and we struggle to calculate the likelihood that I’ll survive into my sixties without another stroke. She reacts the same way I did, her eyes fogging up for a moment before returning to their original clarity. “I think it’s a permutation?”

And: “Wait a second, I think I have to use integration. We just learned this.”

And: “If I figure out the answer, do you want me to tell you?”

Sure, I say.

 

 

Even though half of it is thinner and fluffier than I remember, I have all of my hair now. A bit of it is already turning white, a quirk inherited from my father, who started dyeing his hair in his late thirties because by then it already resembled snow and slate.

But I won’t dye. A strand here, a strand there: Like so many reminders to live with authenticity.

 


 

“the brain thing”: Among friends, I almost always refer to it as such. To do otherwise would endow it with undue weight.

About the Author

Vicki Yang · Columbia College Chicago

Vicki Weiqi Yang is a fourth-year political science student at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include urban innovation, structures of governance, and the geopolitics of East Asia. She takes her coffee black.

“Field Notes on Hair,” which originally appeared in Columbia College Chicago’s journal, South Loop Review, has been selected for Best American Essays 2013.

About the Artist

Katharina Windemuth · Brown University

A sophomore at Brown, Katharina Windemuth studies politics, philosophy, and economics. Originally from Berlin, Germany, she enjoys fashion design, speaks English, German, and French, and studies Italian. She is currently illustrating for the Brown Independent and working in the theater's costume shop.