“Keep Your Hair Neat, Keep Your Head Up”
by Dongning Bai
Every morning, the first thing Grandma did was comb her hair. She had a fine wooden comb, hand-made with small hand-painted flowers on the side. She combed her hair slowly and carefully. She always put a few drops of jasmine tea on her hand and ran her fingers through her hair before she started combing. Then she parted her hair in the middle and put two hairpins on each side of her head right above her ears. In the morning, a ray of sunshine shooting thorough a crack of the window, the air smelling like jasmine tea, it seemed as if Grandma was combing the sunlight.
I always watched her from behind. I was five or six years old, lived in Beijing with my grandma whenever my parents were sent away. It was the time of the Great Cultural Revolution, a movement intended to purify the souls of Chinese citizens through Maoism and Marxism and to sanitize the communist team by eliminating enemies to the party. Regularly, throughout the year, intellectuals and other city people were sent to the country to be re-educated by the peasants. My parents were sent away all the time. I never knew when they would leave for the next trip or how long they would be gone. Often, they did not know they were going until the day before they were ordered to leave, which left them very little time to explain things to me. They just left me to Grandma.
Grandma lived a block away from our home. During the Great Cultural Revolution, all forms of entertainments were banned and many books were burned. Children had no books or toys. People had only minimum food and clothes. Hair brushing was a routine to fill those long empty days.
Grandma wore her hair short, cut to her shoulders. I did not think it needed a lot of brushing. But she brushed it with such care as if it were the most important thing in the whole world. I was amazed by how different she looked each time she finished brushing. She looked so well put together, neat and graceful. Although the old blouse she had been wearing for years did not really flatter her, she looked like a new person. Her face glowed and her eyes sparkled. Taller, her back straight, this “new” grandma would then look at me, a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth, and say: “Now it’s your turn, Dongning”
I sat on a stool, facing the window. The sun was brighter than it had been earlier, and it shined through the curtain like spotlights. As Grandma brushed my hair I tilted my head back a bit. I half-closed my eyes, watching sunlight dancing on my eyelashes. Grandma would put a few drops of tea on my hair and on the comb, and brush my hair gently and thoroughly. Then she would part my hair in the middle. The middle line had to be very straight. Not a single hair could be out of place. She brushed the two parts again separately, and put them into two pig-tails or braids, and tied red yarn on the ends in knots, which looked like two flowers. After she finished brushing our hair, she put her comb away in a little drawer where she kept her most important possessions. Grandma was always nice; she allowed me play with any of her things except the comb. And if I sneaked the comb out to play, she would get very angry.
During those dull winter days and long summer days, we always took a nap in the early afternoon. When we got up from our nap, Grandma would go through the same routine. Dampen the hair a little bit with tea and brush it carefully for as long as it took. If I ran outside to play afterwards, she would yell out behind me: “keep your hair neat.” If she saw me with messy hair or a loose braid in the street, she would pull me back into the room and sit me on the stool and say: “Sit still. Don’t move. I need to brush your hair.”
I never understood why she was so obsessed with hair. As a child, I really did not care about hair that much. Many times I refused to comb my hair just as often, I lost the battle and ended up with neat hair. I did not ask the reason behind my grandma’s stubbornness about hair until many years later after a conversation with my mom.
During a visit back to Beijing ten years after I moved to the U. S., my mom and I went to see the old house where we’d live in my childhood. The old place reminded us many things in the past. My mom and I talked about the craziness of the Great Cultural revolution, the dreadful aspects of the movement. We talked about how awful the country was, with people being wrongfully persecuted, beaten and tortured, families being torn apart. We also talked about how I had spent so much time at Grandma’s house during that period. “Well,” I said, “Grandma seemed to live a quiet life, away from all the terrible things. She seemed to care more about her hair than anything else.”
Mom was surprised and a little upset. “A quiet life?” she said. “She never told you? She suffered a lot.”
Mom told me that grandma had been dragged into the street, beaten by the Red Guard only because she was the wife of an army officer in the Republic of China – a job my grandfather had held before the Communist Party took over China. It was staggering to me to learn these things. It was also the first time I heard stories about my grandfather. I only knew that he lived in the countryside, growing food for the “city people,” as Grandma had put it.
In the Republican Army, Grandpa had worked as a horseback riding trainer to support his family. During China’s civil war in 1949, his troop surrendered to the People’s Libration Army – the Communist Party’s force. He did not fight against the party or the government. He was very glad that his troop had chosen a peaceful resolution during the power switch. After the liberation, he chose to leave the army and took a job on the staff of Xin Hua News Agency in Beijing. He was glad that he could live a peaceful life then.
However, his peaceful life did not last long. Having had a history of working for the side opposite the Communist Party, he was considered an enemy with the potential to over-throw the new China. The communists believed their enemies must be crushed like harmful pests, physically and spiritually. Even though he meant no harm to anyone, Grandpa was arrested and sent to the countryside to “be reformed.”
When Grandpa was sent away, Grandma was allowed to stay in the city, not because of any mercy from the Red Guards, but for the purpose of tearing the family apart, thereby destroying the spirit of everyone in the family. To the Red Guards, Grandma was the dirty ugly wife of the enemy’s officer. The guards singled her out from her neighbors and beat her in public. One day, the Red Guards dragged her into the street, pinned her to the ground and shaved half of her head – leaving her head half-covered with hair and half bald. The Red Guards called the hairstyle “Yinyang style”— a lasting humiliation and punishment. “Your grandma had to wear a hat for a long time before her hair grew back,” Mom told me.
My grandma had never mentioned a thing about this to me. Nor did she show any sadness or distress. In my memory, she was always calm and pleasant. She was busy all the time, cooking, sewing or doing household chores. She made me her little helper, setting the table or passing her a pair of scissors. Sometimes, she would send me to the small grocery store around the corner to buy soy sauce or pickled vegetables. She also read me stories from books she had saved, the books that had not been burned by the Red Guard. Of course, she spent a lot of time brushing her hair and mine.
I was shocked to learn of my grandma’s suffering. I could not relate the Yinyang style to her beautiful face and neatly combed hair. I suddenly understood why she cared about her hair so much. She was not only safeguarding her hair; she was also defending her dignity. Then I remembered that every time she yelled out to me “keep your hair neat”, she had also yelled out: “Dongning, keep your head up.”
I went to visit my grandma after my conversation with my mom. It was the last time I saw her alive. She was staying at a nursing home. She was sitting in a wheelchair in a hospital gown when I walked into the room. Her head was lowered to her chest, her eyes closed. Her cheeks were sunken and her hair was dry and grey. Her hair was also messy and short – only a couple inches long, a cut, I learned later, given to all the female residents of the nursing home, because it was easy to care for. I was shocked to see her like that.
I sat by her wheelchair. “Grandma,” I said.
She opened her eyes, looked at me and said: “Oh, Dongning, you are here! You are back!”
I was overjoyed that she remembered me. I had tears in my eyes. With my digital camera, I took a picture and showed it to Grandma. She looked at it for a long time: “Who is that person?” she asked, finally.
I was heartbroken. I put the camera away, pushed the wheelchair to near the window, and took a comb from my purse. “Grandma,” I said, “let me comb your hair.”
I combed her hair slowly and carefully. Grandma tilted her head back slightly and closed her eyes. The sun beamed through the window like a spotlight, the sun golden on Grandma’s cheeks. I could smell the jasmine tea.