By Andrew Biggs
“Oh my god Khun Andrew … what is this?”
It’s not a week after Songkran and I’m in a studio to record a radio show. The incredulous voice belongs to my co-host, Puk, who has just arrived. She walks towards me, eyes wide open.
“A beard!” she announces.
“Yes, a beard,” I say. “I grew it over Songkran. God knows I had nothing else to do.”
That was meant to be a joke but it goes over her head.
“It’s not very long,” Puk answers. I want to reply “said the actress to the bishop” but two jokes in a row falling flat would be too much for my ego to bear.
“When will you find a knife and kill it?”
I know exactly what she means.
“When will I shave it off?”
“I haven’t thought about that. Maybe I’ll keep it for a while.”
Puk furrows her brow. “You can’t do that.”
“Why not? Don’t tell me the military is cracking down on beards.”
Puk begins to unpack her notebooks. “You’re a teacher. You can’t have a beard in the classroom.”
“That’s news to me.”
“A teacher cannot wear a beard. No, wait. What I mean is, a beard like that.” She points to my chin.
“You mean some beards are okay and some are not?”
“If it’s a thick beard like Santa Claus, then it’s okay. That’s a happy, friendly beard. But a short beard like yours …” She shakes her head. “It’s not a good look. It looks … scary.”
Twenty-seven years in Thailand and I still get thrown by the occasional unearthed cultural more. Here was one being thrown right in my face — the lower region of my face around the chin and mouth.
I take a deep breath. “Let me take this opportunity to teach you an English saying. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Have you ever heard it before?”
“Then despite the clear obstacle that is growing on my face which obstructs my ability to teach, let me explain. It means you cannot judge somebody by how they look.”
“But you can!” shoots back Puk, who happens to be a public speaker of national fame. “You can judge somebody by the way they look!”
“You mean if I grow a beard it may mean I’m a child molester?”
“Have you noticed how many child molesters have beards?”
Good lord. She had a point there, dammit.
“For every saying, there is another one that says something different. For example in Thai we say cha cha dai phra lem ngarm: To make the knife sharp, you have to work on it slowly and carefully. But at the same time we have nam kheun hai reeb tak: Quickly draw water when the tide is high.”
Slow and steady wins the race. Make hay while the sun shines. I was too fixated with my beard to explain those two English equivalents.
“So you’re saying if I wear a beard in class, it doesn’t make me look good?”
Puk nods. “It’s a Thai culture thing. People will think you are dirty.”
“No. That’s Thai.” She pauses. “Have you noticed no Thai teachers have beards?”
“Thai men can’t grow beards like we can. Western genes are more conducive to growing beards. Thai guys would if they could.”
“Are you looking down on Thai men?”
I can’t win today! But I’m not finished; as they say, it’s not over until the fat bearded lady sings.
“Let me tell you something, Puk. You say appearances are everything.”
“In our culture, yes.”
“And I have to look clean-shaven and presentable to get ahead?”
“Because clean-shaven and presentable means I’m a good person.”
“Then I have two words for you. Stephen Hawking.”
Puk does a quick search on her iPad and she realizes she knows him. But I’m not finished. “According to your argument, Stephen Hawking would never be welcome in a Thai science classroom because of his appearance. And yet he is one of the greatest scientific minds on Earth.”
Puk peers at Hawking. I have crushed Puk. It feels kind of good, so I stroke my beard.
Suddenly she points at the screen and says triumphantly: “Yes! He can come into the classroom! He does not have a beard!”
At this point I give up.
Bizarrely, just three weeks ago I met a new Australian teacher, Tom, who had arrived in Thailand looking for work. This young man had great credentials and a very pleasant demeanor — and a big, bushy beard. If he ever wanted a change of life he could join the circus as a ventriloquist.
My Thai School Director was adamant. The beard had to go. “Corporate students may not accept his beard,” she said. “Young children may be frightened.”
I tried to explain that beards were a fashion statement among younger guys these days, particularly the fuzzy under-the-chin and neck look so favored by ISIS suicide bombers. How furious ISIS must be to know they inspired a western culture fashion statement.
When I was in Europe late 2014 young guys were sporting them everywhere; in inner city London I spotted more beards than a gathering of Republican politicians’ wives. Here in Thailand you’ll find lots of beards at hipster gatherings, Carabao concerts and vinyl record stores, but Puk and my School Director are right. You don’t see them in classrooms. So what to do about Tom?
Tom’s beard was not of the Muslim terrorist kind. His was a more full facial swirling beard favored by the likes of Santa Claus and gun-toting Trump supporters. My Thai School Director is not often wrong in things of a cultural nature, so we had to at least ask Tom if he’d depart with his beard.
Being yellow-bellied, I instructed my Head Teacher to call and ask. “He’s willing to trim it,” my Head Teacher reported back, “But he doesn’t want to shave it off. He values his beard immensely. He’s part of a special Facebook group for people who wear beards.”
“Oh for crying out loud,” I said. “He’s Australian! We don’t have strong affinities for things like beards!”
But back to Puk, who is still pointing at my beard, making clucking sounds. As she is doing that, I can’t think of a single well-known Thai who has a beard. I’m not counting straggly wisps below the nose and chin. That isn’t a beard; it’s “bumfluff” as we say in Australia. Even in the period piece soap opera that is all the rage at the moment, where there are lots of buff Siamese lads, their hair may be long and straggly but their faces still resemble baby’s bottoms.
Just as we are about to start recording, Puk says something quite out of the blue. “You know, maybe you’re right. Your beard makes you look more … “
“… distinguished? Handsome?”
“The first word. It’s all grey so it makes you look like an old man. There is a little bit of black, but not much. It’s mostly grey and silver, like old men have. Without your beard, it’s difficult to tell how old you are. But like this, it is clear.”
She nods, and I wonder if she’s being honest or just very, very sly. Because as sure as the sun rises tomorrow morning, I’m losing that beard the moment I can get to the bathroom.