According to our host in Saigon, An, the Vietnamese version of the boogey man is a fierce white man with a big beard. I can see why – beards are unnatural for those in this part of the world. The entire continent of Asia cannot grow a proper beard; Cambodians and Vietnamese, in particular, have almost no facial hair. For the past month, we’ve been in places where the native men have only a few more facial hairs than the women, who have none. Even the travelers we came across, people of European descent like me, cannot grow a beard such as mine.
This is my Beard. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Without me, my Beard is nothing. Without my Beard, I am nothing.
I began to grow the Beard the last day I was in uniform, May 12th, 2014. By the time I got around to having a going-away celebration with coworkers, it was already coming in strong. To those that had only seen me clean cut, it was a shock. Later, my friends at the gym were amazed that I was thinking about heading to steamy Southeast Asia with a full beard. My dad also noted that I had some fantastic beard-growing skill. I was surprised at how quickly the Beard gained notoriety, even back in the States where it seems every 20- and 30-something with facial hair has been experimenting with the look.
After we started traveling, it defined my existence. Usually, the tuk tuk drivers called out to ask if we wanted a tuk tuk. About every fifth driver, though, I would look over expecting the usual pitch and instead see a shit-eating grin on a Khmer rubbing his face where his beard would be, if he had one. Running down Otres beach near Sihanoukville, a group of 15 teenage boys did exactly the same movement, shit-eating grin and all. Our scuba instructor on the island of Koh Rong – Momo, from Serbia – told Jacque that growing this Beard is the manliest thing a man can do. (He also told me that my mask would leak because of the Beard, which it did.) For a group of volleyball players one afternoon in front of Monkey Island hostel, I was known only as “the guy with the Beard.” Everyone, locals and travelers alike, recognized and respected the Beard, even if they didn’t like the way it looked. The Beard was I, and I was the Beard.
Sometimes, the Beard looked perfect for the occasion: hiking up a steep cliff in the middle of the jungle with the rain coming down hard, the Beard makes the video look like a shot from Survivor. But the Beard can also be off-putting. Jacque started to complain that my moustache hairs would go up her nose when we kissed. At a swing-dance party in Saigon, one of the girls asked if this was a popular look in America with disgust in her eyes. Later that week, there was a family sitting next to us at a street café, and the daughter – a girl of about four – was misbehaving. Every time she did, the mother pointed at me; once, I smiled at the girl. She started crying immediately.
The Beard literally made little girls cry. And that’s not cool, man.
Jacque finally gave me a haircut a few days ago, on July 13th, 2014, almost exactly two months after the Beard came to life. I took the opportunity to ditch the Beard as well. I trimmed it down to a respectable length (depending on your definition) that seems much more palatable to the Asian community. The group of 20-somethings that we sang karaoke with in the Binh Thanh district complimented the look, but maybe they were just being nice to get us to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” off-key. I’m still getting used to life without the Beard. My face in the mirror is oddly skinny, but that’s probably because the Beard made me look fat. I don’t think I’ll grow it again unless I’m stranded on a desert island; it was nice while it lasted, though.
I’d like to propose a toast to the Beard. Wherever you are, grab a glass and raise it with me…
“You were a good Beard, thick and mostly brown in color. You were loved by many, hated by others, but people recognized you everywhere and couldn’t help acknowledging your power. I’m reminded of a quote by Lao Tzu: ‘The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.’ Even though you were only with me for a short time, you burned brightly for all the world to see. And, in the end, a man can ask nothing more from his facial hair. You will be missed.”