Why I should grow a beard when teaching English in China
Before I Came to China
When I took my TESOL certification course in the summer of 2010 one of the things they told our class is that we would need to attach a photo to our resume. They also said that if we had beards, goatees or mustaches we might think about shaving. They strongly suggested shaving in fact because, in the words of our instructor, “in many countries people with facial hair are looked down upon and it might make it more difficult for you to get a job.”
Okay, I thought, fair enough. At the time I had a small well-trimmed goatee. I have had a goatee off and on for many years. I’ve always liked the way it looks but occasionally I become bored and decide to change things up by shaving. So for me, it was no problem to shave before taking my photo to add to my resume.
The Growth of the Beard: grow a beard when teaching English in China
I continued to remain clean shaven till about halfway through my first year teaching in China. Then I reverted to my old patterns of growing and keeping a goatee for two or three months at a time. The surprising thing is that no one seemed to care.
Well that isn’t exactly right. People did care. They were interested but no one complained. No one said that it was a problem for me to have a beard. No one got mad about it. People asked questions out of curiosity but nothing more.
November or December of last year I stopped shaving. This was mostly out of laziness. I just didn’t feel like shaving. For a couple of months I continued to trim it but I kept a full beard. At some point I stopped trimming and just let the beard grow. Currently my beard is about an inch or two long and I’m still letting it grow. What began as laziness morphed into my own curiosity with the fact that I’ve never in the past had a full beard. This curiosity eventually evolved into a mild rebelliousness and even a useful tool.
One of the things that I have loathed since I started teaching is English Corner. In my school there are three sessions of English Corner scheduled each day. One of these is meant to be a free-for-all situation where anyone can say anything they want.
They other two are meant to be split between students who lower intermediate and below during the first hour and people who are upper intermediate and above during the second hour. Sometimes there is a chosen topic that we have to follow for English corner, or at least pretend to follow. Sometimes there is no topic other than what the teachers and student together decide. English corners for me have changed in no small part because of growing a beard.
10 Reasons a Foreign English Teacher Should Grow a Beard in China
1. Students react to the beard. They ask about the beard. They ask you what to call it. They ask you about other forms of facial hair. Most importantly they are asking questions. If you’ve ever held an English Corner you know that if no one is taking your English corner is dead and will be very long and painful. But if there is something interesting to talk about the students will talk on their own without you having to prompt them.
2. Different people will have different opinions and all of them will express them. Some students have told me they think that I should shave. Others have told me that they think that I should keep the beard. Some think that it looks strange. Others think that it looks cool. The end result here is that they are talking. See point number one…
3. Even when you have a lively conversation going in an English corner there are sometimes lulls in the conversation. These lulls came result in the death of the rest of the English corner if something is not done. There are a handful of things that can help to prevent this but among them is the use of the beard. Sometimes it happens on it’s own with no action from me.
As a conversation lulls an otherwise quiet student (who might not understand the current topic anyway) will sometimes ask a question about the beard. At other times if I stroke the beard it will illicit comments or questions about it. I noticed this happen the first few times accidentally but now will do it on purpose.
4. Most Chinese people are an only child. And most of my students come from families that have a better than average income. Like in America, these individuals who grew up as an only child give off the distinct impression that they’ve not heard the word “no” very much in their lives. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction when a little twenty-five-year-old princess who isn’t used to the word “no” tells me that she thinks I should shave my beard; to respond to her that this is my decision and that I don’t believe that I will any time soon.
5. Some of them are jealous. Most Chinese men seem to be unable to grow an adequate amount of facial hair. I’ve seen many students here with feeble attempts at mustaches. I’ve seen others with patches of hair on their face. The vast majority, however, shave every day whether they are able to grow facial hair or not. With many of them, there seems to be a look in their eyes that says, I’d like to do that too… if only I could.
6. The subject of the beard often naturally leads into other subjects. The conversation in English corner might drift from the beard to differences in culture. Today the subject of the beard shifted to the subject of cleanliness as one student asked me if it was difficult to eat. For some reason students often think that having a beard makes you a messy eater and the beard will get in the way if you are trying to eat with chopsticks, if you are eating rice or if you are eating soup.
The subject then naturally shifted again to the subject of food. On occasion people will even talk about Christmas. Students who used to tell me that I should shave now tell me that I should keep the beard through next Christmas so that I can play Santa Claus. Again all of the students were talking at some point about something.
7. It actually feels good. At first, it was a little itchy but after a while, the itching stops. I find that I enjoy stroking the beard and that I sometimes do it unconsciously.
8. I’ve grown to like the way that it looks. Having never had a beard this long before I’ve never seen myself look like this. I like changing the way that I look and because of this, I will eventually shave. At the moment I’m enjoying the beard because I look different from how I used to. At some point, I’m going to want to look different again and that is probably when I will shave.
9. It is something that I can control. There is so much in Wuhan and in China as a whole that is completely out of my hands. Ordering food in a restaurant is often challenging because my skills in Chinese are limited. This means that often I can not even control something as simple as what I have for lunch. I can’t control simple interactions that back home I wouldn’t have even thought about.
My face though is my property. It belongs to me as much as anything in this world ever will. This face and what is on it are probably the one thing that I can dictate exclusively. Growing a beard and keeping that beard gives me something that I can almost completely control. Or at least it gives me that sense of being in control of something.
10. There is something about China in general and Wuhan specifically that makes me feel lazy. I don’t know if it is the dust in the air, the construction everywhere or the sloppiness of the way people here dress. But there is simply some quality to the social atmosphere here that makes me feel like letting go enough to not do little things like shave but instead grow a full, long, shaggy beard.
Should Teachers Have Beards?
Is it ok to have a beard if you teach?
Since I originally posted this article, I have actually shaved. A few weeks ago I had a class on job interviews. I was asked to dress nicely for this class. The morning of this class I put on a white button down shirt and a nice pair of dark slacks. When I looked in the mirror I was astonished.
I looked like a strange combination between an Amish person, a homeless derelict and a kool-aid pushing cult leader. I tried to trim the beard at first but ended up making things look worse. The only logical recourse I decided was to simply shave.
I currently have a neatly trimmed goatee. Though I will probably have a goatee for a while I will not likely ever grow a full beard again. Unless of course I do decide to move off into the woods and become a hermit or a cult leader. But those are very unlikely scenarios.
Thinking about appearances naturally leads to the question; “should teachers have beards?” Personally I think this largely depends on the context of the situation and the individuals involved. For someone like myself who teaches in China the answer may well be different than for someone who teaches in public school in America.
I believe that the real question isn’t whether teachers should be allowed to grow beards but rather should they pay attention to how they look and maintain professional appearances…? To this question I would say yes. I actually let my beard grow too long.
It was unkempt and unprofessional looking and I am half surprised that no one said anything to me about it. I believe that teachers with beards are fine but they should keep their beards well trimmed and they should strive to maintain a professional image.
Related: Elyssa’s Experience of Teaching English in Dongguan, Guangdong