Darkness, solitude and the echoes of hyenas shrouded me, trapping me inside the tent where I sat, overwhelmed by the past events of my trip to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It was 3 a.m., and I could not stop scratching my head. I was wearing three pounds of hair extensions that had not been washed in almost half a week. Days of touring in an open-window Jeep gave me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see wild African animals close up — all while my newly braided hair captured every bit of sweat, sunscreen and dust that came with this experience.
A moment of brain fog led me to get the three-foot-long braided extensions to look just like the local Maasai. At first I loved the braids and how beautiful they looked. Now, feeling like millions of ants were crawling on my scalp, I was ready to have them removed.
I opened the tent, watched the beam of the flashlight shine directly into the endless darkness and looked for the stars that usually gave me guidance and comfort, but they were now obscured by the heavy clouds. The frustration overwhelmed me.
It had been a week since I discovered that my parents divorced eight years ago. It was ridiculous to find out that all the maturity and independence I thought I had was an illusion and that my family did not even trust me enough to let me in on the truth.
As an only child studying in the United States, I felt responsible for bringing joy to my parents in China, even if I only got to live with them for two months a year. I cherished every late-night video call, knowing that my parents were on the other side of the earth waiting for me.
Only after my parents told me about the divorce did I realize all the signs I had missed in those eight years. One time, during a group video chat with my parents, my mother turned her camera off the moment my father joined the chat. Another time, two hours before my flight to the US, I hosted a family meeting at the airport, as it was my only chance to see my father that year. Instead of being a joyful time of hugs and goodbyes, the meeting felt stilted and awkward as our conversation gave way to deadly silence.
All the little details I should have noticed came back to me. I felt stupid for not realizing sooner. Why was I not around more? Since when did this start? Since when did my family become strangers to each other, living on their own? How come I was the only one who did not know? Why...
I kneeled on the ground, held my breath and started pulling out the hair extensions one by one with all my strength like a game of tug of war with my own head. Feeling waves of satisfying pain, the voices in my head ceased.
I walked out of the tent to the bathroom a quarter of a mile away to wash my hair. The wind had finally pushed away from the stubborn clouds, revealing a perfectly still star shining peacefully underneath. I brushed my newly freed hair, feeling the pain disappear. Using the flashlight as a walking stick, I felt strangely calm walking towards the unfathomable darkness. The sounds of the wild seemed to be singing “Hakuna Matata” — no worries.
Out of that tent, I was no longer a kid.
The African sun finally took me into her heart, and I no longer felt overwhelmed by the heat as I jogged to the daycare center where I had been volunteering. Upon my arrival, two three-year-olds shouted out to me “Mama” — mother in Swahili — while pushing each other to try to occupy the more significant part of my arm. At that moment I accepted the responsibility of that word for “mother,” which had been given to me by those two children.
I realized that those kids would always hold a special place in my heart. I would protect them at any cost, shielding them from all the turmoil in this world so they could live a happy and careless life under this rising sun.
My experience in Africa, caring for those children, helped me to realize how deep my parents’ love is for me. What I had initially viewed as deception was their way of protecting me from the harsh truth, so that I could look back at my childhood without focusing on the quarreling and separation, remembering only the moments of joy.
Thinking back to the beautiful memories I formed with my father and mother, I wanted to spread their care and love for me to others.
Two months after my trip to Africa, I decided to shave my head. This time my hairstyle change was not for aesthetic reasons but for a good cause. I donated my long and troubling hair that once caused me pain to The St. Baldrick’s Foundation to create a wig for a child with cancer.
“The hair that has been shaved will grow out stronger and healthier than before,” The St. Baldrick’s Foundation host said while admiring my shiny bald head.
Likewise, the heart that has been broken will heal to become stronger and more independent.
Tory Hu is a freshman from Shanghai studying International Studies and Psychology.