“Why Don’t You Wash Your Hair?”

At lunch time yesterday I went to the school cafeteria as usual. It is fairly uncommon for an elementary school here in Japan to have a cafeteria, but after so many years at this school it is our normal.

The children typically go up to a counter and get their own trays and plates. Teachers have a different serving area which is more self serve. The meals are typically better than anything I was served at school growing up.

Here, the students have their assigned place both for their class and their own personal seats. Home room teachers often change the lunch groups so students eat with a wide variety of of the kids in their class. Home room teachers always eat with and supervise their classes. Other teachers are typically free to eat at a teachers table or join a student table. Most days I grab a seat with the kids, chat while we eat, and when I’m finished I’ll say goodbye and go finish preparing for the afternoon lessons.

Anyway, now that you can envision our system, I’ll get back to how yesterday I found myself sitting down with a group of first graders. Six year olds can be very high energy and quite fun to eat with even if it can be a little tiring to give them all the attention they want. They are also known for asking interesting questions.

Like when one of the girls suddenly turned and asked, in Japanese “Why don’t you wash your hair?”

I was a little surprised and also nervous that perhaps more than the typical amount of fluff or dandruff was stuck to my hair. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“If you washed your hair more it wouldn’t be curly.”

More confusion washed over me. And then it clicked. I have naturally quite curly hair, and am likely one of the few people that this child comes into contact with who does. And, most likely, her mom uses the threat of curling hair to get her to regularly shower. Thus, to her, my curls are a result of not showering.

It was adorable. And hysterical. All I could do was throw back my head and laugh. Some of the other girls at the table seemed more aware that natural curls were a thing and together we tried to explain that was just how curls worked. She was still suspicious. Then I told her how when I washed my hair, I got more curls not less. This, to her, was impossible.

I’ve lived in Japan for fifteen years, and for almost all of those years I’ve worked in education. Sometimes it is easy to forget that even here in Tokyo one of the best, if sometimes subtle, lessons I can give is to just serve as a reminder that the world is filled with variety.

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