Happy Birthday! Unless you turn out to be one of those once-in-a-blue-moon prodigies that can read before you’ve learned to walk, this letter will mean nothing to you. Perhaps you’ll rediscover these pages when you’re older and they will still mean nothing to you. Or maybe they will. Regardless, let’s make a metaphorical toast to this first of many letters to come.
Earlier today I was in a hair salon, where the walls were covered in faded posters of Korean celebrities and ragtag magazines lay strewn next to half-eaten bowls of ramen. There was an array of thin, waterproof-material jackets hanging by the door. Colorful sun visors dotted the wooden pegs above them. Have you ever noticed that the upper bodies of all middle-aged Korean women curve unevenly forward? Their cantilever chins protrude outward from their faces and their reedy appendages seem disjointed from the rest of their bodies. The shop lady that gestured for me to sit down resembled my mother.
I had to have my hair cut before your doljanchi, the special first year birthday celebration. What’s the point of having a big celebration when you’re too young to remember any of it? I suppose it makes sense: death rates in pre-industrial Korea were high enough that 1st birthdays became a milestone. Still, bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras and sweet sixteens are nice in that they celebrate a coming of age. In middle school, my best friend had a circus themed bat mitzvah, where Jimmy Kendrick kissed me under the broken lamppost at the end of Concord Street. In high school, the same girl—still my best friend—had a sweet sixteen, except this time Jimmy Kendrick kissed her under the lamppost. The only other big birthday for Koreans is hwangap, which happens when you’re 70 and nearly dead.
The hairdresser today inspected the purple ends of my hair. They were a bit rough because I did them myself at your mother's house, but they turned out just the right color: a really pigmented shade of the kind of pinkish purple you find in sorbet ice cream or in hibiscus flowers. I didn’t get my hair cut because of your birthday celebration. I got it cut for your birthday party. There’s going to be someone there, someone who it is imperative I impress. My dad had gotten me a job interview with a friend of his boss; the interviewer will be at the doljanchi. My mother told me first impressions matter and that purple hair was unacceptable.
I remember when I turned sixteen. It wasn’t fancy or anything—my friends and I spent 5 hours dancing at an outdoor basketball court. Kate brought her boom box, a huge old silver thing that looked like it came straight out a dance film. We even propped it under an umbrella, just like in the movies. My sixteenth birthday was the best day of my life and the next day, I dyed the bottom half of my hair the same color as the Jordans I danced in. I think dancing is the only time when my whole body feels good. It's like currents of energy are swimming through the marrow in my bones, extending to capillaries in the tips of my fingers until every bit of me hums warmly.
The sound of the scissors made me cringe. I saw a little purple wisp fall slowly—so slowly, that it seemed as if it was suspended in the hair for a second before landing silently on the grimy tiles. It also seemed like there was too much hair on the floor and I thought I might go bald. The hairdresser’s teeth were yellow.
At the doljanchi, you will be put front of a table of objects to select from. If you choose a book, you’ll be expected to be studious. Your parents might sign you up for after school prep classes that you may or may not dread. If you pick up money you’ll be expected to be rich, and your future career will be highly anticipated. I don’t remember what I chose, but it wasn’t a pair of Jordans or a boom box cassette.
I watched as sad lumps of beautiful hibiscus locks multiplied by the minute. When I turned my head to look at the clock, I felt the shock of blunt bottoms of new hair swishing over the skin of my shoulders. Strangely enough, my head felt heavier than before. And then I had this crazy thought: What if I brought a lock of my hair for the doljanchi table? I thought the color might attract your attention. After paying for the haircut, I ran back and picked up the most vibrantly colored pieces off the floor as the salon-owner looked at me in amazement. I found a clean sandwich bag and sealed my purple ends in it.
Imagine how the guests will react. Will I be kicked out? No, they wouldn’t kick out the birthday girl’s godmother; strange looks and poorly concealed comments are all I’ll have to deal with. My mother will be frustrated with me, actually furious. I imagine my oldest brother will just laugh quietly to himself.
I’m a bit young to be a godmother, but your mother is quite young to be a mother, so I guess you’re both lucky and unlucky. Lucky because you might be better understood than I was growing up. Unlucky because I don't really know what I’m doing or what the responsibilities of a godmother even are.
Bringing hair to a birthday party in a plastic bag? The idea sounds a bit silly now—I’m not sure what I was thinking. I must have wanted you to have just one more option on your doljanchi table, packaged in a zip lock bag and largely unidentifiable.
I should go change into proper clothing—I don’t want this haircut to go to waste. You’ll look so sweet in your hanbok outfit. May all your birthday wishes—heck may all your wishes—come true.