I recently made a video detailing the reasons I gravitated to wearing extensions/wigs more while abroad. I would go between being braided and wearing a weave – the same way I did at home when I’d feel like a look change. But after about 2 years, I started to notice a difference in the way I was perceived (by the police) and maybe unknowingly by some members of society.
Friends and strangers on the street seemed to love my braids. I loved the deep burgundy and blonde Expression packs and would have it super long. It was almost always the starting point of my conversations. People not paralysed by their shyness or reservations wanted to touch my locs. At schools, in the first week teaching, children would slowly inch towards me, carefully studying my vibes before finally standing right beside me to stroke my forearm (because chocolate skin) and then run their fingers through my braids. It would be rare to walk into a new building or office and not have any comments on my hair from my new corporate group. If I was walking through the park, or if I was alone somewhere, they were wanting to take photos sometimes. The one time a lady just sat beside me on a bench in Gorky Park and held up her phone to start recording a video. No “privet” (hello), no “selfie”, she didn’t buy me a drink or anything. They used the word “exotic” a lot.
Basically, I was a rock star.
But then I would get into the Metro (subway) and the attention turned less attractive. The Russian police has the right to stop anyone anywhere and ask to see your passport and ID. Some people disagree saying in fact they do not have that right. (I joined an expat group on Facebook where many Filipinos said their embassy told them not to comply to being questioned for no reason) anyway.. The Russian police would “randomly” stop people in the subway to ask to check that their visas weren’t expired and that they had their migration cards and registrations in order. I noticed then that when I would have my braids in, that they were stopping me often. The whole process would usually take only a few seconds since everyone’s in a rush to catch their next stop. But sometimes it could take minutes of questioning and verifying facts. It wasn’t a daily occurrence, it happened less than 10 times in the span of 4 years. But when it happened I didn’t like it.
I then learnt that Russia (Moscow) has issues with illegal immigrants coming into the country from all over the world. Or people who’ve come into the country legally but have overstayed their visas and don’t plan on leaving in the hopes of a better life. Sadly, many of the people doing that are Africans (Nigerians, Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Congolese etc), among many Filipino and many from the countries bordering the south of Russia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan). Apparently, some African women were resorting to prostitution to make ends meet. (in fact I recall reading an article in The Namibian years ago where Namibian students were complaining about NSFAF not paying out their tuition or stipend and were now resorting to prostitution). And this is some sort of widespread stereotype up there – that if you don’t appear to be “well kemped” you’re either a student or maybe a prostitute. Because what else could you be doing? You’re not going to get a real job (language barrier being the biggest block and then maybe lack of qualifications). The options are very vey limited. And so police would be drawn to those of us who look distinctly different. Some Russian friends say they’d been stopped too, but not as much as us with darker skin or Asian features.
Sometimes I felt embarrassed standing there being checked out while the police squinted their eyes extra long and hard at my documents. I was worried that everyone else walking passed me thought that I was in fact up to no good. But then it would be over and I’d go on for a few months before my next “random” check. However, lo and behold, when I had my hair straightened or had extensions or a wig, I didn’t stand out to the police as much. They never stopped me.
Talking to Russian friends and colleagues, I learnt that when I straighten my hair, I don’t seem like I’m black from Africa. I seem like I could be black from Europe or African American (which is better?) – that I’m “Euro-black” or “International black”. Which by extension implies I probably have the right to be there and couldn’t possibly be illegal. As long as I don’t look TOO African. Then the pieces finally came together, and I understood why I almost got in trouble that one time I forgot my passport. (I’d gone out to buy a candy bar near my apartment and the police had suspected I was a prostitute. I’ll tell that story in the next issue).
I succumbed to the pressure and didn’t want that kind of attention anymore. I didn’t want anyone staring while being questioned in the metro by police. I wonder if I should have stood stronger and shown my African pride reflecting it in my hair. I always made it a point to speak openly about my heritage and boast about my country, explaining how good life is here – that I’m not running from political unrest.
But I also wanted to survive, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do in our own ways?
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