I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, clippers in hand. The first pass of the blade started on the neck just above the Adam’s apple. It moved upwards over the curve of the chin advancing toward my lower lip, the coarse grey hairs of the goatee falling into the basin. Subsequent passes removed the affectation until only stubble remained. Next, the mustache. The skin above my lip was pale and sensitive. Once I took the razor to my entire face, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to shave the hairs just beneath my nose. I had forgotten how to angle the razor just so. It was the first time in over two decades my upper lip was without hair. I’d had a mustache since the mid-eighties and a goatee since that style of beard reemerged into fashion in the mid-90s.
Riap roi is a Thai expression meaning something like Appropriate and Complete. The Peace Corps sends its upcoming volunteers information on our host country and how best to prepare ourselves for integration into that new culture. My Peace Corps Welcome Package contained a slide show created by current volunteers serving in Thailand on how best to dress toward riap roi. While I was getting ready to depart for Peace Corps service in Ukraine a half a year ago I was preparing for dour. Eye contact on the street was to be avoided; mistrust seemed to be the nation’s anthem. The clothes were to be dark and heavy, the language guttural, the people unsmiling. The Peace Corps pulled out of Ukraine a month before I was to leave and my new assignment will now take me to Southeast Asia and Thailand, affectionately known as the Land of Smiles. The slide show on how to be Appropriate and Complete includes recommendations beyond clothing and footwear choices, it offers suggestions on our overall appearance and demeanor. Smiles, it stresses, are always riap roi.
Clean-shaven is a requirement for male Peace Corps trainees going to Thailand. We are encouraged to not wear our hair as punk rockers, sporting Mohawks, and to not arrive in Bangkok with our heads shaved. Buddhist monks have shaved heads and the Peace Corps doesn’t want us confused with these holy men in orange robes filling their alms bowls with the 4 Noble Truths. Even though I wouldn’t be leaving for another five and a half months I felt there was no better time than the present to shave everything off. It would give me time to get used to the regime of shaving and to my new nakedness. And it would allow me time to grow out a head of hair.
I started shaving my head sometime in the 1990s. It was a trend and a look I liked and when a random black woman told me I looked good because I had the head for it, good bone structure and all, I knew I would continue with the practice. I easily accepted the opinion of a stranger who I stereotypically believed had more fashion sense than my white friends. So the mustache, the goatee and the shaved head became a part of me and my identity for a third of my life.
For the past year I have been in the process of shaving away other things in my life, things that have defined me and have shaped my identity. My professional identity was the first to go, I retired from my career and haven’t looked back. I cut myself loose from my home, my cloister, my cocoon, so I could enter the Peace Corps with no lingering financial obligations. I whittled away my accumulated possessions. I gave away, threw away, donated, sold and boxed up those objects that filled my life with color, texture and memory. I gave away my dog and left myself with nothing to hug at night. And now it has become time to make one more change. It is time to alter my appearance, my image, how I look, how I present myself to the world. The mustache is gone, the goatee is gone and I’m letting my hair grow out, how long I’m not yet sure. But after almost 20 years of stubble, any length will feel too long.
As I begin to learn a little about the religion of Thailand, I begin to see that those things I’m grieving over aren’t really the things that defined me or gave me an identity. Now comes the hard part.