Learning to Smile

Years ago, when haze enveloped many cities in China, we wore N95 masks when we stayed outside. One problem I soon noticed was that we couldn’t see each other’s expressions on their faces when we wore the masks; if I smiled, others didn’t know it, and vice versa.

A friend told me that in such a situation, the only way for a person to let others know that he or she is smiling is to make the eyes smile as well. She gave me an example: above the beak-like mask that almost completely covered her face, her eyes seemed to turn into two crescent moons.

That was the first time I consciously learned to smile. At this point, I hope to tell you that I used this ability to make my eyes turn into two crescent moons in my later COVID-19 years, but I couldn’t. During those three years, although I occasionally remembered this technique and the smile my friend showed me, I rarely used it. Because, in general, Chinese people are not in the habit of smiling at others, and even when faced with people who are related to them, their smiles are not as pronounced as those of Americans in the same situation. Smiling at a stranger might even be seen as odd or even creepy. A recent study found that East Asians smile 50% less often than Americans. So it’s no great loss to me that my smile is hidden under a mask.

I don’t know how Americans deal with it. Because when I first came to America, there were very few people wearing masks on the streets. Since my first day in America, the muscles in my face that are responsible for smiling have been moving because I have been in an environment that is good for smiling. But just moving the muscles is not the same as learning to smile. Smiling is a social behavior that requires the whole person to become more civilized, unlike the purely technical act of burying one’s head in one’s elbow and sneezing. Also, the technique I once learned to turn my eyes into crescent moons doesn’t work because there are no masks to cover my face anymore.

I’m pretty good at smiling to myself, but it’s not a social behavior, and it’s very rare among Chinese people. A smile naturally spreads across my face when I’m walking or riding my bike, when my mind is thinking of something interesting. Sometimes I meet strangers while smiling to myself, and what often happens is that they first see me with a blank face and seem to think I’m smiling at them, so they immediately respond with a smile in return. And when I see this, I immediately turn my self-smile into a smile also, even though there is little noticeable change in the muscle movement.

When I was in China, this never happened, because maybe they knew I wasn’t really smiling at them, or maybe they thought I was smiling at them while they were feeling creepy inside. But when I was in the US, it happened a lot, and here’s what surprised me: the rate at which Americans return smiles seems to be measured in milliseconds. It seems to be a conditioned reflex that the Chinese don’t have at all.

So is what I experienced just a “cultural difference”? The origin of the “cultural difference” paradigm can be traced back to the German romanticism and historicism of the late 18th century, which was represented by Herder and attacked by Kant, Hegel and other philosophers from the very beginning of its existence. Today, “cultural difference” has become the standard academic paradigm for dealing with the way the same subject matter is presented in different cultures, implying that different cultures are neither good nor bad. Behind this is a non-judgmental and non-offensive culture, but it can easily stifle critical thinking and lead to a false sense of superficial harmony.

Moreover, in this case, if “cultural differences” could be applied to Japan, this paradigm does not apply to China. While it is true that the Japanese strive for collective harmony to the exclusion of individual expression — and the study has shown that emotional repression continues to have negative consequences for them — the Chinese are dominated by alienation, alertness, or indifference. This phenomenon seems to be less a culture than a psycho-social condition. Who can be satisfied with a society of highly atomized individuals? The Chinese, who smile much less often, are clearly a symptom of this.

I think I am still learning how to smile, especially the psychosocial and cultural aspects behind this muscular movement, as well as my emotional well-being that follow each smile. I know now that I will still sneeze into my elbow and continue to smile to myself when I return to China, but whether I will continue the habit of smiling at others, I don’t know. What I do know is that it must have (or had) increased my happiness.


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