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Hairy Situations

You mess with the 'fro... you got to go.

By 4 min read 6


“Pa-ma? What was he talking about?

We were on the basketball court getting ready for the next pickup game. Not wanting to create an awkward silence, I gave my usual smile and slight chuckle. My signature move for evading communication obstacles. While we were taking practice shots I kept playing the word over in my mind: pa-ma…pamu…poma, palm? Ahh, my teammate wants to know if I can palm a basketball!

“Pa-mu?” I said, while holding the top of the ball with one hand in front of him.

“No, no, no, different” he muttered in Japanese. Then he pointed to the top of his head. Oh, perm! Perm? No, this unkempt head of hair isn’t artificial.

“All natural” I replied. My teammate couldn’t believe his eyes.

This hasn’t been the first time in Japan where my hair has been a topic of conversation. Whether I’m fro’ing it out, sporting a medium cut, or am practically bald, everyone seems to have something to say about what’s on top of my head. This has come as quite a surprise to me. Something I’ve seen as a nuisance to keep up monthly instantly took on an aura mystery.

Every once in a while some of my junior high students approach me. In a moment of awkward courageousness they mutter, “Head, touch. OK?” Although it is an unusual request, I respect their confidence to ask me such a question. Getting them to speak English in class is already hard enough. I let them feed their curiosity. Quickly.

My elementary students don’t have the patience to even ask me if it’s okay. If I’m sitting down they’ll try to reach up and touch my hair. If I’m standing up, they’ll stand on chairs. One time while I was having lunch with some of my rowdy fourth graders, a group of three to four students crowded around me. I successfully evaded their lunges for my head while downing my ebi tenpura.

Yet in those few short seconds a curious crowd had gathered. Each one wanting to behold the alien that invaded their classroom, as if I were some museum display. Too hungry to care, I gave up and let them take turns petting my mini-fro. All the while, the homeroom teacher smiling from her desk in the corner (I think the teachers secretly enjoy my subjugation). I have learned not to mind though. I would rather have a class full of inquisitive students than one full of smart, yet quiet children.


Children are instinctually curious. For many of my students, especially the younger ones, I am probably the first black person they have ever known. Putting myself in their shoes, I can see how something as trivial as hair, height, or even shoe size, could spark so much interest. I believe that my role as an ALT, beyond English teaching, is to inspire and perpetuate curiosity within my students. Perpetuating their interest in the world beyond their neighborhood forces the students to use English with me outside of class time.

Questions about my hair style branch into conversations about a variety of topics. I am their portal to the outside world. The more they exercise their curiosity, the more I know I’m doing my job right. I’d be doing a disservice to my students if I swatted them down every time they reached for my hair, or tried to take off my shoe and compare it to theirs. They’re just little scientists; investigating the phenomena around them. Why should I get in the way of their research?

Now I’m sure some of you reading this may think that Japanese people, children in particular, have some farfetched obsession with curly, black hair. Aspiring teachers or visitors to Japan, I can safely say that kids won’t be preying on your head around every corner. If anything, many students will be very shy around you at first. Over time, as kids grow comfortable in your presence, things similar to my experiences may occur.

If you’re very particular about what’s on top of your head, the best action to take is prevention. Tell your superiors ahead of time so that the homeroom teachers will be more mindful of it in the future. If it’s happening in the moment, I’ve found that simply saying, “Stop” accompanied by a playful expression of annoyance will get most students to settle down. Taking aggressive disciplinary action is not advised, and may very well be against your contract. Besides, this type of action will negatively effect your relationship with the students in the long term.

So my fellow teachers, is there anything your students find interesting about you? How do you deal with it? Feel free to write about your experiences below.

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  • Mapo says:

    I’m white, but I have curly hair. I’ve had Japanese people ask me about it frequently for as long as I’ve worked with them in school or on the job. In college a lot of Japanese students would ask me about it, if it was natural, if they could touch it… I only became an English this year, but I’ve had some of my youngest students try to touch my hair, some coworkers ask to touch it, and one class of eight year olds dub me “Kuru-kuru Sensei” (kuru-kuru being the word for very curly hair). It’s usually pretty amusing.

    I’m worried about going to the barber, though. I have my doubts as to whether the typical Japanese barber or beautician would have any idea what to do with curly hair. For the first time in my life, I’m seriously considering learning how to cut it myself.

  • Lena Sinex says:

    I had to actually learn how to take care of my black hair since moving to Japan living in America its so common to just get a relaxer to straighten it ..I could get a Japanese version of a relaxer but I’ve been to worried they wont know how to do it on my hair
    ..I finally found conditioner here that works with my hair type called mama butter and have been going it all natural for 4 years now its been an empowering, frustrating, crazy hair journey

    • currentlycornrows says:

      where can you find mama butter? These conditioners and what not are terrible for my hair I feel.

  • Mark Guthrie says:

    I can kind of understand the curiosity of my high school boys sidling up to me in the urinal wanting to check the validity of the stereotype, but when the teachers do it too, it’s rather disconcerting…

  • currentlycornrows says:

    I have my hair either in cornrows, twists, or my fro. There’s one thing that I require of my students and that is that they must ask me. Though they are curious, they must realize that their curiosity does not give them any rights over my body, and I have no problem slaping a hand away for a kid bing rude. I think that is a lesson that will serve them for quite some time as they meet others in the future. I know had some stranger on the street let their curiosity get the best of them, they will surely be met with a swift fist to the chest.

    That being said, I also find it unnaceptable when teachers believe that their curiosity gives them rights to touch my hair without asking. I don’t play that mess. More often than not it happens to be the female teachers who do it. If i can’t catch them, I just have to give a stern look. If I’m able to see it comming I’ll either lean away or stop it, and tell them straight up that such behavior is rude.

  • Char Aznable says:

    I have blue eyes and body hair and both entrance my elementary school students. Finally some 1st graders built up the confidence to invade my office and they literally screamed in amazement when they saw my eyes up close. One even shouted “monster!” in Korean as she clutched her head and ran around in circles.



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