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Hair, Hair, Everywhere



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I’m going bald,” I told my older sister, Sonja, as we stepped into a boutique.

“No, you’re not,” Sonja replied with­out looking up at me.

Instead, she began to browse through a rack of clothing. Stopping at a pair of cream-colored pants, she ran her fingers across the fabric. “Do you think I could wear these with my tan jacket?”

“I’m serious,” I said. “My hair’s falling out!”

My hair was brown with strands of red and blond. It had always been thin, like the hair of all the women on my mother’s side of the family. We preferred to call it fine, delicate.

But now it was very thin. When I wore it down, it hung around my shoulders in dull strands.

“Maybe it’s just getting a bit thinner,” Sonja said, briefly looking up from the pants.

But I was sure it was more serious than that. I was sure I was going to be bowling-ball bald.

“Watch this.” I slid my hand down the side of my hair and gently pulled on it. Triumphantly I held up several light-brown strands of hair, then let them drop to the floor. I turned and pulled on the other side. Again, five or six hairs dangled from my fingers.

“There’s so much hair on my bedroom floor that I have to sweep it every day. Here—feel how little hair I have left.” I turned around and leaned my head back.

Sonja handed me the pants and combed her fingers through my hair. She measured the thickness between her thumb and index finger.

“It’s a bit thin,” she admitted. “I don’t know. Maybe you have worms. One of my friends was losing her hair, and she found out she had a parasite.”

I thought of the mason jars lined up in my high school biology lab. Inside, roundworms floated in yellowing formaldehyde. They wrapped around each other, slowly dancing as flecks of grime swirled in their liquid home. I imagined the worms slithering around in my stomach.

STRANDED

Both Sonja and I were living in South Korea. Sonja taught at a university, and I was a student missionary at one of the Seventh-day Adventist language institutes. I taught English.

The following Monday I wore a brown hat to school. It matched my brown jacket, my brown skirt, and my brown shoes. But mostly it cov­ered my thinning hair.

Walking into the classroom, I greeted my stu­dents. Most of them were my age. They were stylish, vibrant.

On Sunday I’d played basketball with several of the guys. For a couple hours they’d stopped treating me like a teacher and had driven the ball hard. But most of the time, if my students and I went for hot chocolate, I was given the best seat. If we went bowling, they politely ap­plauded my gutter balls.

I could rarely blend in. Although we were the same age, we spoke a different language, had a different culture, played different roles.

My separateness was most apparent in the classroom. I sat on a tall swivel stool in the center of the room. Most of my students sat bent over their notebooks writing down the informa­tion I’d put on the board the night before.

This morning they didn’t seem to notice as I self-consciously tucked strands of hair into my hat. I looked at my watch and stood up. It was 7:00 a.m. Time to begin class.

“Today’s slang word is junk,” I said brightly. I gestured toward the whiteboard. The word junk was underlined, accompanied by a defi­nition and appropriate examples. “Let’s say it together: ‘Junk.’”

“Junk,” 20 students echoed. Their foreheads were lined in concentration.

I’d promised them a slang test this Friday. The exam would cover 30 words and phrases, including snob, get along with, and hang out .

A year ago I would have laughed if I’d known I’d be giving tests about expressions such as fast food. But during the previous term an em­barrassing experience had convinced me that my students needed to know slang.

One of my students then, Byeong su, had liked to brag to me after class. He was tall and suave, and the girls were crazy about him.

“You sure have a big head,” I’d told him one day.

I expected him to laugh with me, but instead his face had frozen. He’d looked at me for about 10 seconds and then quietly agreed.

“I’m just joking, Byeong su,” I’d said, trying to laugh. But I knew I’d committed some cultural faux pas.

Later, I’d realized that Byeong su had taken me literally. In Korea it’s an insult to tell some­one their head is large.

So the first slang expression I taught was big head. My students loved to use it.

Now, after explaining junk, I placed the stu­dents into conversation groups. Everyone had a conversation partner except for Siwon.

Siwon was one of those beautiful people. Her lips were a deep mulberry, and her eyelids shimmered. She had perfect skin and natural poise. Her hands rested demurely in her lap. I didn’t have to see them to know that every fingernail was pale pink and glossy.

“Hi. May I join you?” I asked her as I sat down.

Siwon slowly looked over at me. Everything she did was deliberate and elegant. Next to her I felt like an eager, overgrown puppy.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Fine,” she replied. She looked at me briefly and then stared back down at her manicured nails.

“Do you like to go shopping?” I asked.

Guessing from her attire, I figured she en­joyed shopping very much. She was wearing an angora sweater and black pants. Her shiny hair was swept back. When she turned her head, I could see several rhinestone hair clips.

“I like,” she replied.

“OK, let’s see what today’s conversation is about,” I said, opening my book.

Siwon opened hers as well.

I looked down at the first question. “Do you prefer going to the mountains or going to the beach?” I asked her.

Siwon muffled a yawn with her perfect hands. “Beach,” she said so softly that it was almost a whisper.

“Why?” I asked.

I felt nosy, meddlesome, but also irritated. If she didn’t want to speak English, then she shouldn’t be here.

I glanced over at the other students. The room was filled with conversation. I could hear laughter coming from the far corner.

“Romantic,” Siwon finally replied.

I refocused my attention on her with a bit of effort. Why are you bothering me? her eyes seemed to say. I blinked back.

Often I could have real conversations with my students. It was during these times that I learned that some Koreans still go to matchmakers to get married, that throwing food is considered disrespectful, that public opinion is divided about the American army bases dotting South Korea.

But with Siwon I didn’t venture from the questions in the textbook. We obviously had nothing in common.

She’s spoiled, I decided. And she’s so vain. In the future I’ll try to avoid being stuck with her for conversation time.

HAIR AND THERE

“Do you still think you’re going bald?” Sonja asked me that night over the phone.

I was sitting on a large stuffed seat. My legs dangled over one armrest, and my back leaned against the other. On the wooden coffee table in front of me lay a stack of student journals waiting to be graded.

“I don’t know. I guess,” I said. “I wore a hat today, and a student asked me why I don’t wear hats more often. He said that I should wear a hat every day.”

“Oh, that’s awful,” Sonja laughed.

“I might go to the doctor and get checked for parasites,” I told her.

“You really should,” she said.

After I hung up, I picked up one of the jour­nals. It belonged to Siwon.

I sighed as I thought about our conversation today. She was so enigmatic, so different from me. Next to her I was all angles and strained sophistication. An ugly duckling.

But at least I was friendly to her, I thought, trying to comfort myself.

I opened her journal and turned to today’s en­try. It was titled “My Agony.” I sat up straighter and set down my red pen.

Everyday I am no happy. A woman’s beauti­ful is her hair, and my hairs are falling out. My friends they tell me to no be worry, that winter is making them come out. But Sari, I am so much afraid I going to be baldness.

For several minutes I sat stunned, my mouth agape. If Siwon’s hair was thinning, that meant we had something in common. But Siwon was too perfect to be going bald.

What surprised me most, though, was that she’d confided in me. I felt warm and fuzzy at her gesture of friendship and trust. Her letter was raw and sincere, and it spoke to my heart.

Obviously I’d misjudged Siwon. She wasn’t cold and proud at all. She was probably just shy.

HAIR WE GO

It’s easy to judge people on the obvious. If someone’s tall, we assume they play basket­ball. If someone’s quiet, we assume they’re dull. If someone’s beautiful, we assume they’re a snob. If someone’s unpopular, we assume they have nothing to offer. If someone excels in sports, we assume they aren’t smart. If someone dresses unfashionably, we assume they’re odd.

This problem of assumptions has been around a long time. The Old Testament tells about Samuel, who was given the task of find­ing the next king of Israel. Before Samuel went out to interview potential candidates, God had a chat with him. God knew that Samuel would take his job very seriously.

Like most of us, Samuel was probably think­ing he should find someone who was respected, had an excellent résumé, and had experience in a leadership position. And if the man was tall and handsome, that certainly wouldn’t hurt either.

But God had other ideas. He told Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). From appearances, young, inexperienced David made an unlikely candidate. But he turned out to be a man after God’s own heart.

We humans rarely are heart readers. But if we were—if we took the time to look be­yond the conspicuous—we might find a daz­zling kaleidoscope of friends. God is the best heart reader, and He’d be happy to show us the ropes.

I challenge you today to give someone the benefit of the doubt. In the cafeteria, sit with someone you usually don’t sit with. When you get together with your friends over the weekend, invite someone you usually wouldn’t invite. Give a former friend a call, or get to know someone new. Ask questions, and then really listen. See if you can read a heart.

So, what happened to Siwon and me? Well, it was the end of the term, and Siwon stopped coming to the language institute.

Ironically, she became my sister’s student. We sent each other warm messages through Sonja, and we occasionally met in the evening and chatted over hot chocolate.

Neither of us went bald.

This story originally appeared in the November 30, 2002, issue of Insight. Sari Fordham earned a B.A. in history from Southern Adventist University, a master’s degree in English from Iowa State University, and a master of fine arts in liter­ary nonfiction from the University of Minnesota. She’s now an associate professor of English at La Sierra University in Riverside, California.

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