Anything but clean cut

24th January 2014 at 00:00

Before I came to this country, I understood that the tropics can do strange things to a Brit. Being here pushes your cultural identity to its limits, and you either adopt a starched-collar approach or start ballroom dancing naked to Wagner on the veranda while taking potshots at snakes with a 12-bore.

At first it seemed my school fell into the former camp - after all, we are obliged to wear ties in 30 degsC heat. But a recent charity event changed my perception.

I am not a man blessed with follicular fecundity, but when a group of teens asks you to grow a moustache to raise money for "kids with cancer", it's hard to refuse.

This campaign culminated in an event known as "The Big Shave" where students bid to shave off a teacher's tash. And as I sat on the auditorium stage, it occurred to me that in a decade of teaching I had experienced few moments of greater awkwardness. Only the time I projected an email including the phrase "shamefaced ginger blackguard" to a class containing the very same auburn teen came close.

It was an optional lunchtime event and the majority of the school was still eating, but we kicked off nonetheless. An older teacher was first up, and there was a deafening silence as he failed to raise a single hand for the $1 (60p) starting price. A Year 7 girl was finally magnanimous enough to shell out.

I am afraid to say my own bidding was not much more successful. I hoped it would be a male winner, since this might at least have shifted the encounter from the agonising to the almost amusing. No such luck. Ratana from my Year 9 class was my only supporter at a dazzling $2.

There was a glass of warm water and a razor in front of me. Ratana announced that she had never shaved anything in her life. It was only then that I realised how intimate being shaved by someone actually is. The poor girl was also terrified of hurting me, which seemed a distinct possibility as her hand began to shake. After several tentative dabs I took pity on her and surreptitiously finished the job.

During this interlude the tide of students returning from lunch had turned and the bidding began to be accompanied by a kind of tribalistic caterwauling. A vanguard of infamous teachers was attracting excitement and the bidding was out of control. Miniature tycoons coolly bid upwards of $100 for their favourite teachers. One even reached $250. As the blood- hungry victors fell on their foes, things rapidly descended into a full- blown shaving foam fight. This was as near to anarchy as I had ever seen in a school; it was testament to the largely obedient nature of Asian students that the seams continued to hold.

I'm pretty sure that back home this would have led to a newspaper scandal and an emergency inspection. At some point, though, standing amid foam- covered teens, it struck me that my awkwardness was entirely unshared by the students. It is these kinds of traditions that carve out a school's cultural identity from the bland landscape of target-setting and assessment-laden curricula, and they should be celebrated when they come along.

Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He teaches in an international school in Asia.

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