A Smile That Made Me a Better Person

“Just smile, Dong,”

Said an old gentleman looking into my serious face. He was my English instructor of the ESL class soon after I landed in Canada. He said: “Why so serious? Life is brighter when you smile.” I nodded. He went on: “The easiest way to tell a Chinese from other people is to observe his face. If there is not a slightest hint of smiling, the person is a Chinese. ” He was jokingly serious and I got it: no smiling could be rude. His candor had rung the alarm.

So I went home that night and looked myself in the mirror. I forced a smile and it looked very fake. I laughed at myself and immediately; I saw my genuine smile in the mirror. So I realize that smiling is like everything else we do, you got to have a good reason for it. The question is how to always find a trigger for a genuine smile?

Let me rewind the time a bit. When I was in China, I would not smile to a stranger, and I suppose this is true in many countries. The only time you smile to a stranger on the street is when you want to ask for a favor, or when you are prostituting. Street prostitution is strictly illegal in China so I did not want my smile to be mistaken and got me wrongly arrested. Smiling was no good on the street. In fact, there were benefits not to smile, and I assume this is also true in many other countries. If you keep a serious look, bad people on the street would not pick you on. Yes, there are many bad people on the street who are always on a lookout for their prey. Your smiling face is inviting to them because it suggests gullibility. Keeping a firm looking is a protective shield against street solicitation, scams, or even robbery. Trust me, when I was not smiling, I felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, even though I was only 5’7″ shy. No one was going to mess with me. It was the attitude that mattered, not the size. This was the case on the street. In some other social settings, smiling was a moral concern for me. For example, a salesperson working in a promotion event, his smile could get him what he wanted. However, as I grew up being told never trust a stranger, I cynically considered he was manipulating his clients by faking his smile. I valued people who were genuine. I was one of them. My facial expression was always consistent with my true feeling inside. I would not and could not fake it against my moral standard. When I was instructed to say cheese before the camera, I ended up looking very cheesy in the picture.

My seriousness came with me to Canada. On hearing the old man’s advice, I wanted to get rid of the Terminator look. I didn’t want to be considered rude in my adopted country. I wanted to show to the public my smiling affability. This was extremely important for my self-worth. Even I was highly motivated, changing a habit takes time and effort. First up, I learnt from other people. I noticed that many people in my neighborhood seemed genuinely happy with the encounter of a stranger. Sometimes, they nodded, smiled and walked by; other times they stopped to exchange a few words about the blue sky, and when the sky was gloomy, they chatted about their dogs. In any case, they looked positive and upbeat in their smile. I contemplated the gloomy sky and wondered: “what the hell makes them smile so easily? And why the hell I am feeling so depressed?”

There got to be a good reason for this. Maybe they paid more attention to fun and interesting details in life rather than ruminating about the difficulties. I had to look for fun and interesting details. In the wait room at a clinic, I saw a mom holding a baby. The baby was sucking her thumb. She was so cute that I could not help smiling at her, and then I extended the smile at her mom. The mom returned with a very friendly smile. “I did it!” I said to myself. “I smiled at strangers for the first time in my life.” I was celebrating loudly inside my mind like a lunatic. The old man was right. A little smile could play magic. The boring wait room suddenly seemed colorful. I suddenly got the fuzzy feeling. In fact, this little smile was much more than that. For many years I had put up a wall to protect me from strangers. This cold wall had now been cracked open and my warm heart was revealed. The little smile had changed my understanding of human relations in public. It brought a liberating experience, compatible to the knocking down of the Berlin Wall. I had inkling that my whole attitude towards life would be changed forever starting from this smile at the clinic. I was heading towards a life with passion and compassion.

By holding this thought, I smiled to another stranger in public the following day. It was on a bus that was almost empty. A guy sitting nearby was wearing a pair of small red shoes that clearly mismatched his navy blue suit. I used my imagination to make up a story for him. He was having a fight with his girlfriend at her place. His girlfriend picked up his shoes and threw at him. He ducked the attack and the shoes went out of the window, nowhere to be found. His girlfriend continued to kick him out. In a scramble, he grabbed her shoes out into street before she slammed the door. The story amused me and gave me the reason to smile at him. He pleasantly smiled back. So I did it again. I was overjoyed, and I got the bonus of entertainment too.

It wasn’t before long when I realized that good reasons for a smile were not always easy to find on any given stranger. Some people were just so hopelessly uninteresting in their looks that even my best imaginative eyes could not find a slightest trace of funniness. Besides, there was a time component. In some encounters, there was simply not enough time to find the good reason. The toughest one was on a street when the person was walking towards me in the opposite direction. The person was approaching fast, you had to scan the person very fast for a funny detail and make a story out of it very fast. In a rush, the story was either incomplete or not funny at all, so I squeezed out a dry smile. These smiles felt like scratching my skin without feeling itchy. I got frustrated. The constant brainstorming for details and stories was a hell lot of mental labor. It was more difficult than solving a mathematics solution. The receiver of the smile certainly enjoyed it, but I got very anxious doing this. Was it fair? These people did not pay me to do this, I said to myself.

“Hey, how zit going?” A young fellow spoke to me while I was debating whether or not I would smile at him as he was approaching with his dog. “Nothing much.” I shrugged my shoulder. He looked kind of familiar in my neighborhood, so I felt relaxed and I said “how about you,” followed by a smile. He answered: “Uh…can’t complain. My mom is away and I am helping her dogs.” Then we walked on in our own way. The encounter felt like two ants tapping antenna when they meet. “Right!” I was suddenly enlightened. I had been overdoing it. Smiling should not be so painstaking. When you relax, you have a lower threshold of smiling. A casual conversation like this just got me smiling. I do not need a comedian for a smile.

Now I have understood the key to easy smiling, so I put it into practice. Every morning after I got up, I walked in the backyard, smelled the flowers, listened to the bird’s chirping, and thought about the positive little things in life. I thought about the new English words I learnt; I thought about the money I saved from the grocery flyer; I thought about my present moment and appreciated I was breathing alive. All these thoughts set up the happy tone for the day. My heart was lighter, the threshold of smiling was lower. After a month or two, the threshold became very low. When a cool breeze lifted my hair, I smiled because it tickled.

So I declared the training had completed. I had become an easy smiler. Here was my typical day of running an errand in my neighborhood: I smiled at the grocery store cashier, at the security guy at the mall entrance, at the Canada post carrier who was collecting the mail box on the sidewalk, at an old lady walking towards me in the opposite direction, at her dog, and finally, at a squirrel sitting on a nearby tree branch. The smile really empowered me. It gave me more energy; it gave me a positive attitude; and it made every single human contact enjoyable and meaningful. I had waved goodbye to my own past. I appeared to be an affable person. I made people happy. I was an asset to the social circle of my neighborhood.

They are right in saying that a small step could make a huge difference. My little nice smile trigger a virtuous cycle, just like the flapping wings of a butterfly that lead to a tornado. I gave a smile to lighten a stranger. He or she reciprocated and made me lighter. Because I felt lighter, I gave an even better smile in my next encounter, so the next person reciprocated more by being friendlier. The contagious smile soon spreaded throughout the whole neighborhood, and from one neighborhood to another and beyond, until the entire continent became a land of smile, a global smiling village. That was the scale of geography. At the personal level, the virtuous cycle of smiling spiraled up my spirit and my passion towards life until I reached the blue sky. I was sitting on a white cloud…

“Can you spare a change?” A voice brought me back to the street corner as I walked. A guy was reaching out his hand. I habitually smiled at him and walked on. He was persistent. “Sir, I am really hungry,” he spoke to my back. I turned around, gave him a grin, and said: “I am sorry. I don’t carry my wallet.” Suddenly, he was infuriated. He shouted at me with his fists punching in the air. I was stunned. He then dashed towards me with his menacing face. Frightened, I quickly sprinted away, leaving his cursing language behind.

I arrived at a park. The guy was out of sight. I decided to take a walk on the quiet trail and caught my breath from the running. I realized that my smile at that guy was inappropriate. I had to be courteous in offering a smile, but how? How could I know a smile could be offensive? As I was thinking, I saw a well-dressed gentleman walking towards me in my opposition direction. The cursing voice of the homeless man was sounding on my left ear and discouraged me to smile at him; but on my right ear there was the old man’s voice saying: “Smile, or you are a rude Chinese.” The gentleman saw me but I quickly looked away. At the final second, the old man triumphed and I pulled my gaze back on the gentleman and gave him a smile, a smile that contained the conflicted feeling and hesitation. He smiled back enthusiastically. He even made a stop and asked gently: “How are you, sir?” I had to match up his cheerfulness, otherwise I was a rude Chinese. I raised my pitch and answered: “Couldn’t be better!” I believed my eyebrows were lifted too to match my voice. So I walked on and convinced myself that I should still keep my smile.

After a while, I heard footsteps from behind. I turned around and I saw the well-dressed guy. He had been following me. The trail was framed by thick bushes and trees. It was all quiet, even the birds had stopped chirping. This was a perfect spot for crime! I got really nervous. Was he a serial killer? A psychopath? Was I going to die? All the images I got from watching CSI appeared in my mind and really scared me. He broke out the silence and asked gently: “Where are you taking me? Do you want to sit on the bench behind the brush?” His manner surprised me even more than the shouting homeless guy. Then, I realized his motive and breathed a sign of relief. I answered: “I am not leading you anywhere. You must be mistaken.” Now he was surprised, but he was truly gentlemanly and stylish. He apologized, took off his hat, bowed to me, turned around, and disappeared into the bushes. Every move he made was rhythmic.

I blamed myself for both incidents. I had been high up in the clouds thinking that I was a good immigrant to the society. Now I was disillusioned. All my effort of making a friendly smile turned out to be causing harm in people. I was heart-broken. My self-worth was hurt, and I was filled with sorrow.  I looked depressed the next day when I was sitting in the English class. The old man brought a song called “Smile,” originally sung by Nat King Cole. The lyrics says: Smile though your heart is aching; Smile even though it’s breaking; When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by; If you smile through your fear and sorrow… I did not sing along with the class. The old man looked into my serious face and waved his body in front of me and sang again: “smile though your heart is aching.” Everyone in the class laughed. I signed. At the end of it, the sign was turned into a smile, a bitter smile.