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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

The Wind In My Scalp

It would be worth it, they said. You won’t regret it, they said.

It wasn’t. And I did.

This all started at the end of the monastery stay in Thailand. We had changed into our regular clothing after three days in our white meditation attire, and we were having our last panel with the abbot. It had been established since the start of the retreat that I was his favorite; since we met the monk, a short man with large glasses and a habit of giggling randomly, he had taken a liking to me because I have, in his words, an “Asian-size body.” Due to this, he’d offered on two separate occasions to shave my head, and several people had encouraged me to take him up on the suggestion.

It was with this in mind that I asked jokingly, “Would you be the one shaving my head if I agreed?” He responded, “Of course! The razor’s right outside!” I told my peers and instructors I meant it in humor, but the damage had been done. Everybody was flooding me with comments about how cool it would be to say that an abbot in Thailand shaved my head. After a barrage of pressure from everyone present, I realized that if I accepted, my hair would grow back by the time I return home. If I declined, I’d never again have this opportunity.

I said yes before immediately regretting my decision. It took another wave of courage for me to follow the abbot and Longpi Nueng, a monk serving as translator, to a concrete space behind the gathering hall. Longpi Nueng pulled up a chair, and the abbot took out the razor. With the razor came the reality of my commitment; I turned around and proclaimed that I couldn’t go through with it. Everyone immediately tried to convince me to continue the process, but of the reasons, only one was the deciding factor: Som told me that the abbot wouldn’t even shave the head of a monk, let alone a lay Buddhist. As a non-Buddhist, this was something I would never have another opportunity to do. And so I sat down, taking off my shirt so that no water would get on me.

Longpi Nueng held a bowl of water beneath my face, slathering my hair in shampoo. From there, the abbot led his razor across the top of my head, clumps of hair falling beneath me, as I used my shirt to wipe the soapy water out of my eye. I absorbed the experience fully, knowing that I was doing something amazingly unique. Besides the soothing scratch of the blade, I hardly felt a thing… except panic when the overzealous abbot held the razor up to my eyebrows. Thank goodness we all stopped him in time.

After I washed my head and put my shirt back on, the abbot and I took a photo together. However, I saw my reflection in a window, my baldness displayed before my eyes. I had to quickly grab my belongings and get in the van to the market, allowing me to delay my reaction. At the Nong Khai market, I used my lunch stipend to buy a cheap fedora so that my scalp wouldn’t get sunburnt, and I explored a bit (as we all did), but I soon found myself sitting at a table and contemplating my situation.

Since my hair sprouted curls four years ago, it had been the pride of my appearance. I am someone who cares deeply what people think of me, for better and for worse, and as such, I’ve spent far too much time washing, fixing, and worrying about my hair. It was always the easiest thing to change about myself, the ‘oomph and pizzazz’ of my exterior, the part of me that could make or break my “look” of the day. Being without it, I didn’t just feel afraid that a nearsighted ostrich would try to hatch me, or that people would stick their fingers up my nose and go bowling. I felt like I wasn’t me, like someone else had emerged from Wat Hin Mak Peng. New Ted not only didn’t look like Old Ted, but was the result of a choice Old Ted would never make. Without my curly crown, I had lost my reign over my appearance—and others’ perception of me.

Five days later, I’ve become used to seeing my new self in the mirror. I’m grateful for the ease of shampooing during cold bucket showers, not to mention that at the beach on Don Donh, I haven’t been getting sand (or polluted Mekong water) in my hair. However, most of all, I’m grateful that I can now be seen and judged with a startlingly different “look” than my usual one, and that while I still see a good appearance as an essential trait, I can draw a line between focusing on it and stressing over it. Although the monks failed to make me a Bu-Jew, they taught me their sacred principle of releasing attachment: I’m no longer glued to my hair (emotionally, not just because it’s in another country). I intend to keep my mass of luscious locks when it grows back (and it’s doing so quite quickly), but I predict that I will no longer obsess over it.

Most travelers to Thailand see the ancient temples, hike among the mountains, or relax on an island beach. I had my head shaved by the abbot of Wat Hin Mak Peng, growing immensely from the experience.