Today, as I was heading out the door on an errand, I had on my satin bonnet and I really wasn’t ready to make my hair pretty, no thanks to the cold outside and the stress of putting on layers. Almost instinctively, I reached for my turban in my closet. As I was tying it around my head, I realized I hadn’t worn it in a while- at least in the last 10 months- and I started trying to piece together why I stopped wearing it.
The first incident occurred on the bus- on the Brampton Transit- one fateful day. If you know Brampton well, you would also know it has a large Indian population and also has Indian men with turbans commonly called Sikhs. Now the Sikh turban is tied in a very distinct manner, and has very deep connotations tied to religion. Whereas, yours faithfully puts her hair in a turban for convenience sake. So, on this particular day, I sat on the bus, reading a book, until I was certain someone was staring at me. You know that kind of stare, that gives you goosebumps as frantically search for its source? I zeroed in on this Indian guy sitting on the ‘priority’ seats ahead of me, and his silence spoke volumes. Over the course of our bus ride, he would not stop giving me weird looks and he had me wondering most of that day as to why he was acting strange. It wasn’t until subsequent incidents occurred, that it all began to make sense to me.
The second occurrence was in a subway station, somewhere in downtown Toronto. Again, this was one of those days I was heading back home and waiting to take the train. This particular station was extremely dingy and dirty and looked exactly like a prime location for a killer scene from CSI New York. Out of nowhere, this big, burly black guy shouts in my general direction in excitement. I turn around to find him staring at me, and speaking so excitedly. All 170 centimetres of me froze…in shock.. in fear… until I realized he was asking me where I was from. I mumbled Nigeria & he kept talking excitedly about my head wrap & how gorgeous it was… blah… blah…blah. Look! I wasn’t in the mood to converse, I was tired, and frankly didn’t understand what all the fuss was about my very regular head wrap. I mumbled thanks, and got on the train, making sure to sit as far away from him as possible.
A third event was when I had gone to visit a private college here in Mississauga around the time I was considering enrolling in a Post graduate degree. I had my turban on, and a simple ankara dress I’d brought from Lagos. While I was using the washroom, some random black lady comes up to me, takes one look at my get-up & asks with a straight face, “Are you a princess?”.
It was a struggle for me not to laugh out loud. I shook my head and politely replied that I was not a Princess as snatches of images from, “Coming to America” flashed through my mind.
The final straw had to be when I was waiting at the Mississauga City Centre terminal for my bus connection several weeks after, and this man walks up to me, to ask for directions and he prefaces his question with- “You are not from around here, are you?” and when I ask him why he would ask me that, he immediately points to my head wrap.
And that my friends is how I stopped wearing my turban, or any of my head wraps or scarves. Until two weeks ago, when I went to see my hair stylist. She mentioned how a mutual Nigerian friend had brought in turbans from Lagos for her in Brampton & how they were selling very fast. I smiled at her, and the universe because I guess that was the sign I was looking for to assume my turban-wearing persona.
This whole shenanigans got me thinking about how we morph, how we change. We shape shift and remodel ourselves, to make others comfortable with us. We switch our accents, to make it sound more like where we currently live. We bring fast food as lunch to work, or refrain from warming our home cooked meals in the office microwave for fear it will offend others. When someone asks us for our name, we offer our English name because we don’t want to have to correct someone for the umpteenth time on the right inflections that come with our native name. We sometimes even completely rename ourselves, picking a “cooler-sounding” alias so we can blend in. We dress in similar fashion in the places we reside, so we don’t stick out like a sore thumb. And in my case, one day, you wake up and decide to stop wearing turbans even though you like it, if only to stop the random & curious questions. This shapeshifting happens in stages, and for every time we deny our true selves of something we truly want, a little bit of us dies on the inside.
How much is too much change,so others can be comfortable?
How little is enough change so we don’t lose ourselves?
Should we change at all?
Should we remain who we are even when we arrive a foreign place? Is cultural assimilation something we should all actively participate in or practically be forced- screaming, legs flailing- to comply with?
I don’t think I have found all the answers, especially today, as I contend with a curious stare from another brown girl at the bus station who is pointedly looking at my turban. This time though, I don’t forget to wink mischievously at her, as she continues to stare, while I hurry along, to catch my bus connection.