by Mike & Nicole
This morning someone asked me if I was ok. I was fine, I just wasn’t smiling. Stoic, you know, to show I wasn’t taking their culture for granted, not treating it like an amusement park. (read more)
I hailed a cab to the train station and we immediately hit gridlock and it looked like I’d miss the train. Instead of stressing about it, I resigned myself to waiting in the station foyer for the next departure – I regretted having taken such a long walk up the side streets in the morning. But surprise! we got to the station in plenty of time. The best approach to the ordeal would have been harboring neither expectation nor regret, but just sitting in the cab watching.
On the train a young man sat across from me and stared out the window – his feet were very dirty, his hair hadn’t been cleaned in a long time, and he was unhealthily thin. He had a damaged blue backpack that was very simple, and through a tear a checkered blanket poked out. He was one of the city’s very poor. He looked at me and we smiled at each other. I realized that if I had chosen to be stoic, you know, to show I wasn’t taking their culture for granted, I would have robbed us both of a nice fleeting moment.
A man selling boiled peanuts walked by and I indicated I wanted a bag. He quoted me 20 Baht (60 cents) and a fellow seller threw him a look. I paid it, but I knew the price should have been 5 Baht. In years past I would have been upset getting cheated like that – “it’s the principle of the thing!” – but not so much anymore. First of all, I kinda consider it equalizing the monetary imbalance between our world and their world, like a tax on those who have won the birth place lottery. Second, I need to separate my money from my pride anyway. Finally, that guy is not intending to cause me any personal harm. He’s only trying to make his situation better in a way that’s relatively painless to me. I should be glad it’s so easy to help. (Of course it might be a different story if it ever happens in Norway.)
I was still thinking about the quality of smiling at the very poor young man across from me, and I decided I should start searching for things to smile about more often, which is very unnatural for me. So the train passed a bird sitting on the nose of a cow, and I pushed out a smile. There was a row of abandoned railway cars that had been turned into consecutive rooms of a person’s home (kitchen in one car, living area in another, bedroom in another), and I smiled.
When I got to Petchburi I looked for people to smile at. There was an old lady who stared at me as I picked my way down the street, and when I got to her I threw a big smile and her face exploded into a smile itself, the wrinkled map of her face being dramatically redrawn. It’s so different than mutual stoicism! So I tried it with everyone I passed, and it was a really nice way to walk through town.
I used to think that smiling at strangers was the last thing a person did before getting sucker-punched outside a bar, but now I’m reconsidering.
When reading the comments on various websites (like The Seattle Times, for example) I wish everyone who was about to post would take a second to ask themselves the following question: “What am I trying to make other people feel?” Many of them try to make other people feel bad intentionally, whether through direct insult, sarcasm or a subtle slight. If they asked themselves that question, hopefully they might pull back the comment and cleanse it of venom.
Point is that the flip side of that whole “What am I trying to make people feel?” thing would be the command, “Find something to smile about.”
God this sounds vacuous.