By Jaime Woo
I used to put a lot of effort into my hair. As a teenager, I dyed it a variety of colours, including a few years of that icky coppery colour that was en vogue for the briefest of nanoseconds. For my convocation, I rocked a mohawk, and later in my mid-twenties it became a fauxhawk. With the consistent salary of a nine-to-five, I frequented fancy salons with tiers of stylists and someone to ask if anyone had offered you an espresso yet. Now, as a freelance writer, my hair cuts are far less professional: if I haven't shaved it all off, I'm playing Edward Scissorhands with it, in part because I find the process cathartic.
The same lazy, inexpensive thinking has filtered down to hair elsewhere. (Except down there, filth monster. I keep things tidy and neat since I often expect visitors.)
A handy search through my Facebook photos shows that while I've flirted with having a beard before—most notably on a trip to Europe where I didn't shave for six weeks and returned looking like Castro—my decision to keep a full one started in 2009. I was just starting up Gamercamp, a games festival I co-founded, and working in games meant I didn't have to be as clean-shaven as in other fields.
A funny thing happened with my passive decision to let the hair on my face keep growing: I started getting asked about it. A lot. By everyone. The question was usually some variation on "Oh wow you can grow a full beard that's so impressive have you always been able to do that I can only grow this much on my face hey are you really Chinese?" and my answers were always the same. Yes, I know it is rare that I can grow a full beard. No, not everyone in my family can do the same. I'm Chinese, not Japanese (although with my nose, I can see why you made that assumption). Um, okay, you can touch it.
A good amount of the attention comes from other Asian men, in part because I am a novelty, as if I was born with blue hair or green eyes. I often wonder how culturally loaded their curiosity is: is the ability to grow a beard just seen as a frivolous quirk, or is it viewed as providing me an advantage that not growing a beard might have? Part of the worry stems from sometimes having been told that I look less Asian because of my beard, which never fails to deliver a slight queasy feeling to my stomach.
There's an echo in the struggle for black women in fashion to look less "ethnic," which sadly leads to skin lightening and nose slimming. Similarly, I know there's a real desire out there in some Asians to look more Western—look at "double eyelid" surgery as an example.
The other loaded aspect to having a beard is the idea of looking more masculine. In gay culture, men have decided to flee from the swishy, polished look of the late-90s and early naughts towards beards and tatts. I'm lucky, I guess, that my laziness happened to time in with the trend towards a more traditionally masculine look.
I can report that growing hair on my face hasn't actually made me more manly—my tree-chopping skills have not improved, unfortunately; my desire to shoot things has stayed at the same level; and my applications to become a samurai are still being turned down regularly. I try to take it in stride that a beard's existence alone makes me more desirable. I'm not saying a beard can't look great, but I am saying a beard alone isn't the reason why someone should become more desirable.
I allow that maybe I'm looking at this all wrong: I probably have my point of view precisely because I do have a beard and can grow a beard. Perhaps I'm pulling a Tyra, immodestly being generous by pretending to be something I'm not, like in that episode where the former supermodel put on a fat suit in a poorly-planned attempt to empathize with average-sized people. Maybe I'm speaking from some place of bearded privilege and my cries of "we are all equal" are some Marie Antoinette-esque cry that those without should eat cake.
I'm not naive and have a nagging feeling that if I shaved, I would be perceived differently, similarly to wearing a basketball jersey or a woolen toque in summer. We're all being placed in personality buckets all the time. I just hope that we give each other the freedom to move between buckets.
In the end, with a nod to Indie.Arie, all I know is this: I am not my beard. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Psyr1wSvBow&w=420&h=315]