Sample Story from "Calendar Boy": Hair



First, they prepared the eggs. Dai Mo, great-auntie, the one who chose my Chinese name, reached for the carton, her hands turned into a careful claw. She plucked out three oval shapes and placed them in the small pot filled with water. They added the dye, bought from a herb store in Chinatown, and lit the gas stove. The white shell slowly turned pink, then red, the insides hardened. Dai Mo hit the eggs with the spoon so the shell would crack and the red colour would transform the insides as well.

And then they were ready.

I only found this out years later. Mother and I in our basement, she was opening up the big black safe, the kind that belongs on movie sets. I have no idea where my father got it. She was storing away part of her small collection of jade carvings. Her hand exiting the safe paused at one of the shelves, reached into a shallow cardboard box and pulled out an envelope. It was marked with my name and a date: August 7, 1969. “This is a piece of your hair from your first haircut,” she explained. We open the envelope gingerly, I don’t dare breathe upon it. Inside, at the bottom of the envelope is a small clump of black down. “You had so much hair when you were born!”

Dai Mo cracked open the eggs and left the shells on a cloth on the kitchen table. Then she rubbed one of the rubbery hard-boiled eggs all over my small, soft head. “Why on Earth did she do that?” I asked.

“Well, it was to get you used to the feeling of something on your head — scissors, hands — it was for your first haircut, it was so you wouldn’t cry.”

“Well, did I?”

“I don’t remember that,” said my mother, and I saw her twenty years younger, not so different really: a more youthful face, blacker hair, the same calm pleased look as today, the older relatives all hovering over her, and over me too — grandfather, days before his death, Dai Mo’s husband, probably drunk on Scotch like always, some of my father’s brothers or sisters. Her youngest son, his first haircut.

I have always had mixed feelings about my name. Things could have been worse. Chinese daughters often get the names of flowers: Peony, Pansy, Jasmine. The sons get names of odd British men plucked from history: Winston, Byron, Percival. Growing up I had a theory about this. However antiquated these names might sound to Anglo-Canadians, Chinese families had no mental associations with them at all. They were simply names, one basically as good as another, so why not have something a little more flashy and important sounding than John, they thought, eyes lighting up with ambition.

I suppose that is how I got the name Samson, which I tried to hide under the moniker Sam, but which failed whenever a teacher at school would read out a role call at the start of the year. The biblical reference was not so bad, as most kids didn’t know who Samson was anyways, but once it started, it stayed, and from time to time, my classmates in the schoolyard would tease, Samson, oh Samson, where is your long hair? At least it was better than the kids that called me Samsonite, after the luggage company, the name with a faint Japanese ring and sounding like Superman’s deadly poison.

People tell me I look different according to each of my haircuts. If I have it short, I look boyish; if it is long, I look older. It looks very different in a ponytail from when it is loose. Just as Ibelieved others were marked for certain paths, I also felt that my destiny was linked to my hair due to my name and my biblical namesake. While I surmised that Myrons would always be awkward, that Jeffs would always be friendly, that Louises would tend toward cigarette-smoking, I knew that I, Samson, and my strength would always be linked to the long strands of straight Chinese hair springing out of my scalp and downward with gravity.


I went through many phases with my hair.

The first was the barbershop, the Greek barbershop that my father and brothers went to. It smelled of talcum powder and blue after-shave. There were mirrors behind the barber chairs and in front. When I sat down in the worn vinyl, I could see my head multiplied a million times, the smallest one receding off into the distance, somewhere too far away to see the end. Someday, I figured that I would visit that place.

There were four barbers. Leo would nick my ears, Mike seemed so sloppy. Con was OK but it was his cousin Steve who I liked, his large hands cupped around my head, the warm buzz of the razor against my neck, the blades of his agile scissors hovering around my scalp like the wings of a hummingbird. He would always give me the same haircut, just above the eyebrows, a bit above the ears. He would ask me each time how long I wanted my sideburns. He would shave the nape of my neck up to a precise horizon that curved around just below my ears.

It was when I was a tender fourteen that my outrageous friend, Luis, told me about model nights at Hiro’s hair salon. Luis was outrageous because he wore stylish Italian clothes that were bought during summer visits to his grandmother’s home in Rome, he wore a Speedo bathing suit for swimming instead of baggy athletic shorts like the rest of the boys, and he couldn’t care less about the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, the idols of the neighbourhood kids. He liked English bands with black dyed spiky hair. Of course, he would know about these special nights at the hair salon. Call them up, he advised. I decided it was time to leave the Greek barbers.

I went in for my first appointment. A young hair stylist named Chachka greeted me and led me to the back of the studio, all angles and black plastic and track lighting. The mirrors here did not reflect each other but instead other parts of the stylish interior. I was placed in a chair, my head placed back in a sink, caressed with sweet-smelling shampoo, massaged by strong lean fingers, my hair rinsed by a glorious spray of hot, hot water.

Chachka spent an hour on my hair, trimming single hairs here and there, consulting with her supervisor, clipping and unclipping metal clips used to divide my hair into sections. Instead of the crude equal lengths of the fluorescent barbershop, here at Hiro’s they measured and primped, angled and gelled. She left my hair a bit long on top, incrementally angled upwards on the sides from short to longer. She trimmed off all remnants of sideburns and showed me to how to gel my hair after she’d given me a second glorious shampoo. Blow-dried it all into place, and told me to come back in a few weeks. All for five bucks.

I returned many times. It was those days that I first became conscious of how I appeared to others: I started to spend longer in front of the mirror, squint my eyes to see how I might look differently. I didn’t like my face. The eyes were fine, a simple almond shape, like Mom’s. I had heard of Chinese who had gotten an operation to have their eyes “fixed” so they would appear more Western. A slit here, a tuck there, voila! Eyelids. But I didn’t mind that mine were hidden. The nose and the jaw were another thing. The former was flat and tended to sprout pimples right in the middle. I would have liked something smaller at the time, a bit more angular and delicate. As for the shape of my face, I couldn’t stand its roundness. No one I had ever met who was considered handsome had a round face like mine. They had Superman jaws, angular V’s or squared U’s. Not my round ricebowl face. If I couldn’t change my face, at least I could do something with my hair, which luckily for me, grew quickly.

I went through several variations of the gelled hairstyles that were popular in those years. I received them from a series of young, stylish, ambitious men and women who were at various stages in their salon careers. I made idle chitchat, asked how long they had worked there, what they did before the salon, what kind of hair they liked to cut best. One of the stylists, a rough-looking fellow Chinese named Alexander, asked me about high school and studies. Just as he was finishing a final blow-dry, he asked if I had a girlfriend. Or girlfriends? It was not something I had really thought about, although I knew what answer was expected. Still, I was never good at lying. “No,” I mumbled and, when pressed, said something about being shy. “Shy?!” he exclaimed. “Cman, you can’t be shy about these things.” He continued his pep talk as I placed a blue five-dollar bill in his hand and moved towards the door. I didn’t return to him.

One of the next stylists, talking with his hands the way many of them did, described a wave in the air and said, “Your hair’s getting long enough. You know what I’d do? I’d put a wave in it.” I was starting to feel at the time that all Chinese hair was the same, and no matter what I did, I would look like all the other Chinese kids I knew. So I imagined that shape on top of my head, my hair sweeping over to one side, an ocean curve. It seemed daring and original.

Of course, this is not what happened, and I should have stopped it all when the rollers went in. “Samson! What did you do?” Mother asked in mock horror, although I could tell she thought it was quite funny: short at the sides but the rest of my straight Chinese hair bound up into curls on top of my head. Have you seen Chinese people with perms? I hoped people wouldn’t think I was trying to hide my cultural roots. How embarrassing! My only consolation was that it was summer holidays and no one from school would see me. Also, it was easy to take care of. Pat it into place each morning; no need even for a comb. It was, however, a long summer and I decided then that I would grow my hair long.


Long hair! Long black hair! Silky, shiny, thick. The girls flock to it, they feel it, they braid it. “I wish I had hair like this,” they exclaim. I reply, “I think you might look a bit odd with Chinese hair.” Still, they giggle and flirt. I am different from the other boys. They are attracted to how little I care about the masculine requirement for short hair. However, they cannot seem to guess that I care nothing at all for masculine requirements.

That’s not entirely true. The masculine requirement that I truly discard is that I should be interested in these girls who are interested in me. On other fronts I do want to be masculine. Or at least appear masculine rather than effeminate, which is what I’ve heard gay men are supposed to be. It scares me, this idea, not only that I am supposed to act a certain way but that Imight be identifiable and subject to taunts or worse.

I manage to avoid accusations though, and it takes me some time to understand that as an Asian male, I am viewed as neither masculine nor feminine, or so I believe and so I carry myself. This allows me to meet those flirtatious looks with a completely blank stare that looks like innocence rather than distaste. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I wonder, how did you know who you wanted to let your hair down for? Was it really love that climbed up those locks?

I grew my hair long the same time I left for college. While my mother thought my perm had been vaguely amusing, she was horrified by the increasing length of my hair. “Shouldn’t you get a haircut?” she asked whenever I would appear home for weekend visits. The repetition would echo in my ears and off the walls, and I knew to expect it twice, three, four times a visit. There was no irony or playfulness in her voice when she asked the question. She simply hated that I had long hair.

It was about the same time that I was considering coming out, and somehow I managed to link the two issues firmly together in my mind. If mother couldn’t accept my long hair, after my repeated moans and groans to stop asking me to cut it, how would she ever accept it if I told her I was gay? I kept my mouth shut. I kept my hair long.

When the girls would braid my hair, I felt the strands twist around each other, and I felt them twisting around myself, tight cords that held me in all sorts of ways.


I have forgotten the dates when adolescence arrived. I only remember images. The hair that sprouted above my penis, all twisty like the shrubbery that grows next to the ocean, the curves and bends eluding the sea wind, rooting itself in place. I think I tried not to look those days, I much preferred to be smooth and hairless. I thought of my dentist’s hairy hands reaching into my mouth, the tufts of chest hair rising above his unbuttoned collar. I felt nauseous.

I was lucky though, since I never grew much hair, hardly any on my arms, a bit on my legs. As for other places, I watched my father cut his nose hairs and hoped I would never have to do the same. Eventually I would, that familiar revelation that we all become our parents one day.

I entered university. I told my parents I was gay, my father was confused and my mother cried, but she stopped complaining about my long hair. Within the year, things were relatively back to normal.

My mother started dyeing her grey hairs black. (I hoped that my sexuality and her grey hairs were not linked.) As for me, I discovered my first grey hair while on a drive in the countryside one sunny fall with a boyfriend, Paul, who was sweet but who would only last three weeks. “I can’t believe it, I think I have a grey hair,” I exclaimed in panic, holding it up and peering into the side and rear-view mirrors.

“Where, where?” asked Paul as he lazily reached over while keeping one hand on the wheel. He found the hair and plucked it out with a sharp quick motion and a smirk. “Not anymore,” he said.

Although I was annoyed, it was an easy solution at the time to the problems of aging.

I got crabs from the boyfriend after Paul. While I didn’t particularly mind a bit of physical infidelity here and there (mental infidelity was another matter), I was dismayed at the physical consequences it had on me. I was going through an especially busy time at university and had started swimming again. I convinced myself that the itch was due to the chlorine. I almost fainted when I actually saw what was crawling around. Not only at discovering the denial of what my body had been telling me but also at these small horror movie creatures with their white legs and prehistoric-looking forms. I considered shaving off my pubic hair, but realised that the simple powder was an easier solution.

After swimming I took up weights. Not only did I get to ogle beautiful men, but it also gave me a good topic of conversation, since it seemed that every gay man I met was going to the gym as well. It also appealed to my sense of vanity, and after believing my skinny Asian body could not gain weight, I was quite pleased with the results.

I was amused with another discovery that summer. After admiring innumerable sets of perky, rounded pectoral muscles, some of which would lead down to an incredibly ridged abdomen, some of which would perch on top of a rounded or smooth torso, I started to wonder why they looked all the same, as if put through an assembly line to make parts of cars: hub-caps perhaps, or fenders.

I called my best consultant in the city, Randolph. Although he knew all the latest trends in the gay world, he never got too caught up in them. “Randolph, I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend lately. Why do all the men in this city have the same chests?”

“Ah,” he put on his academic voice, which became more precise daily as he worked on his doctorate in social anthropology.

“Perhaps my dear Samson, it is because not only are men body-obsessed these days, but they are all shaving their chests to appear even more masculine and true to form.”

“But I thought hair was masculine.”

“No, no. Where have you been, my boy? Gay men are dying into a sea of hair and ashes. Now, they all want to appear boyish and hygienic and hairless. The boy next door. It seems more healthy that way. Have you been frolicking with the gym Nazis lately?”

Hair. No hair. Shaved hair. Shaved chests. I thought about all of this with some satisfaction and some resentment. Resentment since I could never fit into these gay North American obsessions. I may be a Chinese neighbour, but I would never be a boy next door. At the same time, I felt some sort of secret satisfaction. My chest was smooth, I would never have to shave it, I would never have razor cuts over my heart. At least, in a technical sense, according to the whims and styles of the gay community, I was one step ahead without having to do anything at all.


I travelled the country and other continents with my mane of black hair. I revelled in the attention it brought me. Sometimes, I would be angry that it was all people could see. Many times I was addressed as “miss” or “madam” and would answer in my deepest, most resonant voice. Watch them try to hide their embarrassment and surprise. While some white male friends with long hair would tell the same story of people approaching them from behind mistaking their gender, I don’t think they’d ever been met directly face to face and addressed as a woman.

Where have these people been? I thought. Have they never seen a Chinese face? Can they not tell the difference between my slanted eyes and Suzie Wong’s? Is my Adam’s apple shrunken like our cocks are supposed to be? Are the breasts of Asian women so flat that they look like a thin man’s chest?

Or do people not look? Do they see only a flash of black hair? A flash of something strange and foreign and unlikable so they turn their heads, so they speak with the first word that arrives to their tongues, so they stand, as in Columbus’s supposed encounter with the indigenous peoples on this continent, awed by each other’s strange tones of skin and manner of movement?

At the same time, I enjoyed hiding behind that hair. I could twist it when I was bored, I could cover my eyes with it when I did not want to see. I could hide my ethnicity in mystery. It was the Chinese who arrived in Canada in great numbers, my grandparents who owned produce stores and bought property, who raised children who moved step by step further into society. Yet still they did not understand us, or they believed that they understood us too well. The same questions over and over: What do you eat at home? Do you speak Chinese? Were you born here?

With long hair I could be almost anything. Few Chinese had long hair. People would ask me if I was Japanese, Filipino, Thai. They would ask too if I was Indian, a native Indian, they would not know what word to use to least offend: Indigenous, First Nations person, Indian? I could spin stories like thread, or I could tell them the truth, which was a long threadlike story since mother and father came from different generations of immigrations as well as different countries, even though all of our ancestors came from villages in the same province of Canton. If I wanted, I could be the ultimate Chinese. I was growing my hair, braiding it into a queue, to return to my roots, to wear my hair as the first Chinese immigrants to Canada did, if they managed to escape the white man’s scissors.


There was another trend in the gay community that took me a while to notice. Randolph, of course, noticed right away, but knowing some of the background to my long mane of hair and secretly liking its connection with my name, he kept his mouth shut. The trend followed the same reasoning as the shaved chest phenomenon. If a hairless body, at this point in our history, was somehow more masculine and hygienic, what about hairless heads?

Gay men were shaving their skulls, their pates peeking out into daylight. Some had blue veins, some had razor cuts, others had odd bumps and lumps. If they were not shiny bald, then at least, hair was short. Short, short, like crew cuts, a military allusion. Or short everywhere except for a cowlick that would rise up from the brow, like the Belgian comic book character Tintin.

I began thinking seriously about this trend. After all, it had been four years since I had seen my hair short, and I was admittedly tired of the long black hairs that would appear everwhere, thick Asian strands in the carpet, in the sink, in the shower and on bathroom tiles. I wasn’t tired of the attention, but I was tired that it only came from women. There was, I must recount, a crudely drawn poster outside Toronto’s Glad Day Bookstore that advertised a club for long-haired gay men and men who loved them. But to me, this seemed no different from the specialty classified ads that appeared in the back of the community biweekly seeking boot-licking slaves or water sport fanatics. To the mainstream gay man, I was definitely out of fashion.

Still, it was not an easy decision to cut my hair. When I told friends, most lamented what a shame it would be to lose such hair. Perhaps something clicked when I spoke with Terry, an actor friend of a friend. People always told me how intelligent he was but I had never seen this. He seemed to express only mild interest in me, and we only made idle chitchat when we met. Besides, I was envious. I was deeply attracted to his physical form, a blond boy next door with a handsome rugged face, a football player’s physique — a body that somehow avoided looking too planned and precise, unlike those of so many others on the gay scene.

“Don’t listen to that crap,” he said, his eyes elsewhere, sneaking a look at who his ex-boyfriend was talking to elsewhere in the bar. “Why would you follow some stupid trend? Why would you need to follow the crowd? Gay people can be so superficial.’’ His attention altered to watch a tall brunet cross the floor. “That’s not a comment on you, it’s just — why would you need to?”

I adjusted my ponytail, my hair drawn back and held by a thin black elastic. It’s a game, I thought to myself. Checkers, Parcheesi, Poker. I want to play, and how can I play if people won’t even let me into the game? I got up to leave and felt a flash of anger. I swallowed it. Heat bounced uneasily against my interiors. Ronnie could wear whatever he wanted, the most out-of-style clothes, the most garish colours; he could grow his hair into a river of blond; he could keep his chest unshaved if it wasn’t already: he would still be pursued as he probably had been pursued all of his life, men buckling at the knees at first sight of him. And he would never know that he did not need to play the game because he was it. He was the game.

When I shaved my head, I felt glorious. It was a nice surprise to learn my parents had given me a strong, round skull. I sent my braid to a Chinese-Canadian artist friend who thought he could work it into his next piece, a pseudo-museum display on the cultural artifacts of a composite Chinese-Canadian family. I showered and felt the hot spray directly on my head. My hair did not need drying. The number of hairs in the carpet slowly diminished.

Most important, I walked along sunny Church street and felt the weather on the very top of my body, and amazingly, like a miracle predicted but not believed in, heads swivelled, other eyes caught mine. There is no way to describe to someone with no experience of swimming in the ocean how the salt smell rises into your head to the heights of your senses, how every inch of what surrounds you feels alive and in motion, how the salt leaves its traces on your skin as you leave the water. Ever since I had come out of the closet, I had had long hair, and I had never known what it was like to be close-shaven. More accurately, I had never known what it was like to be recognisably gay, and to walk on a gay street on a hot summer day. With all that mess of hair, the denizens of my gay world saw only an exotic creature with foreign roots. They could not see my desire through the forest of hair, could not name me as one of them. For with my skin already a different colour, they needed another signal to call me their own. Shaving my head, I had learned to play the game I wanted to play.

How many of you have ever seen your head bald, seen the lines and veins and patterns of the skull, to see how nature has formed that skull without the adornment of hair? That summer I saw it, and it was a revelation. Its round form showed me the shape of the world in which I was learning to take part.


When I arrived in Europe to start my first real job, in the office of a human rights organization in Brussels, my hair was fuzzy, thicker than the skin of a peach but not so thick that the white of my scalp was hidden from view. Still, it was starting to jut out from behind my ears, it was losing its clean and even look. I was far too busy packing my bags before I left to give myself a quick shave; now I realized that the shape of the plugs was different here than in Canada, and before I did anything, I would have to find an adaptor for my razor.

It took me a few more days to find an electrical shop and even then the man handed me a small white plug that to me did not look sturdy enough for anything. When I tried it out, my plug still wouldn’t fit into it. “Oh, that’s easy to fix,” said my French co-worker, Jean-Pierre, as a pocketknife suddenly appeared in his hands and he deftly enlarged the holes.

That night I was to meet an American friend, Reed, also new to the city. He had come to work for the European branch of an American newspaper. We were ready to explore Belgian gay bars for the first time. He would meet me here at the apartment where I was staying, which belonged to a friend, Thomas, who was away for the weekend. I finished work early and decided after eating some paté on bread that I would shave my head, take a bath, and be ready for action.

I stripped off my clothes, plugged in the razor and knelt in the bathtub, a mirror in one hand, and the razor in the other. As I pushed this warm buzzing creature in straight lines back from my forehead, it reminded me of the Greek barbershop of my childhood. I started from the centre of my head and moved off to the right, the razor traversing my scalp like a sailor across rounded oceans. I could tell something was wrong, but it all happened so quickly. A small voice told me that the razor was overheating and that I must shut it off, but another voice said “Just a few minutes more.” As I considered what I’d look like half-shaved, the second voice won. I heard a tiny pop, everything went dark, and a sweet acrid burning smell arose from my razor.

A few seconds passed before my eyes adjusted to the darkness, before I knew that not only had I blown the electrical circuits, but that I knew no one in the city who could help me. I stumbled around the apartment by the glow of the streetlamps outside. I found a candle and lit it. I found “electricians” in the phone book just in case. Then I found the fusebox in the kitchen. Much to my dismay, despite fifteen or twenty minutes of flipping the switches into different formations, the power did not come back on. I took a bath in the dark and worried and felt sorry for myself.

I finally found the courage to call Thomas at his parent’s home in Britain. Luckily, he was home. “Oh, you’ve blown the circuits, have you? Well look, you have to go down to the night store below the apartment, and ask them to let you into the basement to look at the circuits there.”

It all worked out in the end. I covered my head with a bandana, Reed and I had a good night on the town, and the next day I sheepishly removed the cloth from my head at a hair salon and asked the woman if she could finish the job. She was more pleasant than the European boys here, who were shy and hard to approach. I was the only Asian in the bars that night, and to me it felt like I was moving backwards in time, to a place whose cultural homogeneity had not truly been broken. We learn our lessons in one place, only to begin anew in the next.

Still, I figured that shaved would be the form in which I would stay in Europe. I arrived in this world with a full head of hair. Perhaps now to amuse myself, I could turn into a bald child, my round smooth cranium glowing in the light of new days ahead. A retelling of my entry onto this harsh, strange planet. If only it wasn’t so cold in the wintertime. If only it wasn’t so cold.