Chopping it off for charity

Two-year-old Hailey Chan with her aunt, Ala Yee. (Courtesy Hailey Chan)

Two-year-old Hailey Chan with her aunt, Ala Yee. (Courtesy Hailey Chan)

I have short hair now, for the first time in two years. When people describe me now, I’m the Chinese girl with the short hair.

Back at the hairdresser’s, I’m sitting in the chair. She asks me to put on a black robe.

One of the pieces of the velcro that’s supposed to keep the robe together has fallen off.

The robe is too big, and keeps slipping. I’m frowning and my mind is racing. She tells me her name is Heloise. I tell her I’m terrified.

Where are the scissors? Please make it quick. I shut my eyes, tight.

I always cry after haircuts. This is the hair I went through university with; it shielded me. And now I’m graduating. It’s all going to be gone.

Thank goodness I took that selfie earlier, while I still had my years of hard work hanging off my head.

I used to proudly wrap my top-bun two or three times as my friends exclaimed about how long my hair was.

Now Heloise puts it in ponytail, one last time.

The end of it sits low on my back, as it always has. It won’t in a few minutes.

Her steady hands move towards my head. It’s not like a laser, where it just comes off clean. It’s like a dull knife, sawing through a tree trunk.

It reminds me of getting my wisdom teeth out — I knew it wouldn’t physically hurt because my gums would be frozen and in this case, my hair isn’t really a part of my body — but there was this heavy, gnawing, pressure that my dentist warned me about.

My hairdresser hasn’t warned me at all.

Soon, she holds up my 14-inch pride and joy and I’m staring at this short-haired stranger in the mirror.

No tears, no shock.

I don’t really feel anything. A strange, high-pitched noise comes out of my mouth.

They’re all gathering around me now, smiling wide. “Are you donating it?” “You’re doing such a good thing.” “Good for you.” It’s just hair.

I’m not a hero.

I’m not the one fighting for my life.

My aunt is the hero.

She lived with us for a few months last summer, and when she went back to Hong Kong, she found out she had stage four breast cancer and that it had spread to her spine.

When she was living with us, she was always bright and happy when I came home.

She was staying in my room and she left behind her hair conditioner and a sponge she used as part of her face-cleaning routine.

It’s still there.

My sister and I looked through old photos after we heard the news.

We found an old photo of my sister and my aunt, whom I call Ala yee ma (Auntie Ala).

The photo had been taken 10 years before and my aunt had long hair, just like mine.

She’s had it for as long as I can remember. She kept it long, halfway down her torso, and she had straight bangs. Now, it’s short — Emma Watson post-Harry Potter short.

Now, my own 14 inches of hair are in a paper bag, waiting to be sent off in an envelope to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, which gives free wigs to women fighting cancer.

I find myself loving my new hair. I find myself quite happy when I bend over and don’t have to angle my head a certain way so that my hair won’t sweep the TTC floor. I can’t help but feel a little guilty.

People come up close and tell me they don’t recognize me.

They ask me why I cut it and when l tell them I donated it, I hear that they love my hair even more.

I didn’t do this to get praise. Everything in my life comes back to my faith.

I found the very act of cutting my hair equally paid tribute to my aunt and brought honour to God. Now I find it’s directing attention and glory to me instead.

When I tell my aunt about it, she asks for my picture.

She tells me I look kinder and smarter because “you have a kind heart.”

Thanks, Ala yee ma.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 9, 2014.


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April 9, 2014 Issue