Woman in Gold | perm

Woman in Gold

Zahra Elhanbaly


Sarah Shin

My grandmother gets a perm every six months. Right after a treatment, the curls that sit atop her head wind posessively close to her scalp in geometrical salt-and-pepper scattered spirals. When I was young, I would pat the bush of her newly-styled, inhaling that familiar pungent smell reminiscent of Fritos wafting from the chemical strands. I never liked the smell of her freshly permed hair, but I did like the feel of it against my hands. The way a curl wound itself tightly around my finger like the reflexive grip of a newborn’s fist… before slowly letting go. 

tension. release. repeat. 

In high school organic chemistry class during the protein unit, I read a research paper on the science behind the perming process. As I stared at picture after picture of hairstyles that looked eerily similar to my grandmother’s, I gained a microscopic glimpse into the reactions that catalyzed the textures and patterns of her curls. It was fascinating–how a chemical agent like ammonium thioglycolate, a word with letters in all the wrong places, could break bonds so easily apart. It was fascinating–how those pink plastic curlers could manipulate the molecules of keratin, creating shapes that held so stubbornly for the first few months… before slowly letting go. 

tension. release. repeat. 

Today, she has a fresh perm. Her hair is underneath a headscarf splashed with pastel splotches. Glasses perched on her nose, crouched on the floor, my grandmother is elbow deep in a massive white bowl of radish cubes and red pepper flakes. The white bowl has some Konglish inscribed on the brim: “Today is happy cheerful god day.” I sit on the floor next to her, basking in the meditative space of flavor and seasoning and color, drawing the nuanced smells of fermentation and spice deep into my lungs. 

Before she had left for her hair appointment early that morning, she had told me that she was trying out a new salon since her previous ahjumma hair stylist had moved away last year. 

“Your hair looks good, halmeoni,” I say, glancing back and forth between her busy hands and the new curls peeking from beneath the scarf. 

“It does, doesn’t it?” She flicks a knowing glance in my direction, and I laugh at the confidence in the curl of her lips. 

“Where did you go to get it done? I know that the other one moved away.” 

“Ah…” She clicks her tongue and sits back on her heels, breathing deeply at the effort of mixing the kimchi. I wipe a pepper flake from her wrinkle-grooved cheek. “A new lady did my hair today. She recently moved to town.” 

“Oh? From where?”

“Korea.” She begins mixing again, this time with renewed vigor. A drop of sweat from one of the curls at her hairline spirals down her temple. 

“Oh? It must have been nice to be able to go to another Korean person to get your hair done.” 

“She’s not Korean.” The drop of sweat makes it way down her neck, pausing in the complex terrain of wrinkles. 

“What do you mean? Does she speak Korean?” 

“Yes, better than you,” she says through a dry chuckle. 

“Is she a foreigner then?” 

“No, she was born and raised in Seoul.” 

Confused, my hand half-raised on the way to wiping her perspiration, I pause and catch her eye. There’s a weird light in the semi-black iris–an unspoken fierceness, an unidentifiable pride. “How is she not Korean then?” 

My grandmother sits back on her heels again and gestures for me to grab her phone from the kitchen counter. After I slip the phone into her outstretched hand, she wordlessly opens her internet application and passes the phone to me. A hair salon website fills the display, familiar and unfamiliar words in hangul running across the screen. At the top of the page, in the “about” section, a headshot of the hairdresser floats above a short biography, a woman with glowing skin, high cheekbones, double eyelids. Physical qualities that are all the envy of Korean society. Except for one detail: her skin is dark. 

I scan her biography, and through my jumble of weak Korean vocabulary, I manage to understand that Kang Minah grew up in Seoul, South Korea with a Korean mother and a Nigerian father, and after a short stint in university, she decided that she wanted to go to cosmetology school instead and open up an independent business. 

I look up from the phone, and my grandmother is watching me in the quiet, that strange light still echoing through the darkness of her eyes. 

“Halmeoni.” I gesture to the photo. “She’s Korean.” 

My grandmother immediately explodes with the sharp chiding noise that she uses to express displeasure. Another drop of sweat plasters one of the curls to the nape of her neck. “She’s not Korean. Look at her–look at her skin.”

I slowly stand up, shock running through my blood and making my the skin of my palms clammy. “So, you can’t be Korean if you have dark skin? She’s biracial, but she’s honestly so much more Korean than me. Halmeoni, you can’t just say that about other people, no matter how different they may look. Koreans aren’t any better than any other race. We are all human, we all have families, we all have histories, we all have souls. If you look down on other people because of the color of their skin–because of any physical characteristic–you are the one who is compromising the integrity and honor of your soul.” 

The set of her jaw tightens, and her hands return to the plastic bowl, pepper flakes dotting her finger and making her skin appear red and irritated. She’s silent, mixing and mixing and mixing. From my standing position, I stare down at the headscarf slipping down her freshly permed hair. It’s devastating–how destructive agents like prejudice and racism, words with letters in all the wrong places, can break bonds so easily apart. It’s devastating–how culture and pride can mold the molecules of presuppositions, creating sinister shapes that hold people so tightly in their grasp.