How I Lost My Smile

I hope I won’t meander too much here. This isn’t a straightforward little Aesop’s Fable with a sweet little bottom line. It’s involved, layered, and there is no clear conclusion. Just something I’ve been thinking about for years and that I continue to think about as I experience more and more and find myself further down that downward spiral that is life as a woman.

Let’s just start with this: Canadians are miserable fuckers. I’m saying this as a Canadian and one who tries to spend as little time there as is humanly possible. As evidence, despite my great boredom on ‘holiday’ here in the US from China, and despite the fact that I have a piece of business I need to take care of up North, I’ve decided not to cross the border. I just hate the place. A small part of it is that Canadians are miserable fuckers. Various data/polls even show it. I remember a comparison poll I once read about done by the airline industry on the differences between Canadians and Americans, and they found that the number one thing American airline passengers hated was fellow passengers who brought too much carry-on luggage. Canadians? The number one hated thing was strangers sitting next to them trying to talk to them. Yeah, miserable fuckers.

But it’s all relative. Canadians are, for example, much, much friendlier and more helpful than the Chinese who are some of the rudest, most selfish, emotionless and humourless assholes on earth. But we’ll get to that.

And I will say this, having disparaged my fellow countryfolk, friendliness varies depending on where you are in the country. I’ve travelled a fair amount in Canada, and I’ve lived in four of the 13 provinces/territories. Having grown up in one of the nastier parts of the country, it was a breath of fresh air to move to the West Coast. I’d say that about American geography, too. I’ve lived on both American coasts and also travelled through 25-30 of the 50 states. While Americans are much friendlier than Canadians, in general, the West is waaaay friendlier than the East. And I’m talking basic friendliness, not politics or ability to think, etc.

Living on the West Coast, and in particular, on the various islands is a different world. People look each other in the eye. Strangers say hello to one another on the streets. You strike up conversations with people at bus stops. You help your neighbours. And people smile. Could be the weather. I really do think better weather makes for more easygoinginess, in general. It’s not that simple, of course, but I think it plays in. So when I moved out there in my later 20’s, I felt myself relax, connect more easily. And I smiled a hell of a lot more.

If you don’t think about smiling in particular contexts and the meanings it can have, you can make the blanket statement that smiling is good for your health. I have felt that, and still do to this day. Exchanging an ‘unloaded’ smile (I’ll get to that in a moment) with a stranger can change your frame of mind and put a different spin on whatever is going on in your mind.

But then there are the ‘loaded’ situations. This is where men come in and ruin things for women like they ruin every fucking, innocent, positive thing on the planet with their filthy minds and need to humiliate and dominate.

It is dangerous to smile at or around men. It is also dangerous not to smile at or around men. Nothing is safe, but a blank look – the kind you see on rape victims or women destroyed by working in porn – is best. Smiling at or around a man can, TO HIM, mean, that you want him, want sex, want to be approached, are submissive and friendly and compliant, and are the perfect victim/prey. Not smiling, and even scowling, may invite sexual harassment, belittling requests for a smile (“Smile for me, honey. It’s not that bad.” Um, yes it is. Now that you’re talking to me.), or the seeing of you as a threatening bitch in need of punishment. Women are required to smile in order to make men feel like men and to help them get what they want from you. Fucking fuckers.

But having said all that, it is not Western men who made me lose my smile, although I will say that now that I have been permanently affected and my eyes are fully open, I don’t waste smile energy on them anymore.

No, I lost my smile due to long-term immersion in Chinese culture. And it took only a month for the first changes in my behaviour to occur.

I still remember my very first month in Taiwan. I’d gone directly from the West Coast of Canada – happy, smiley territory. I was bright-eyed and pleased to be working in a foreign land once again. Until I got there. Despite having a machine gun held up to my face by an aggressive young man on the second day I was there, I still remained my smiling self. But I realized something. Not only did the Taiwanese not return my smiles, ever, the only thing I ever saw were blank, robot-like faces, or just plain old disgust. It was bizarre, and very disheartening. Chinese culture discourages emotion. Emotion = bad, weak, out of control. Even fucking smiling.

Even the children don’t smile. Even most babies!!! Back in those days, in between my regular teaching, publishing, editing and writing jobs, I took on some private language-teaching sessions with the children of rich families. I had one weirdo kid – an 11-year-old boy from a very rich family – who had a freakish interest in out-moded English vocabulary and whose mother would enrol him in adult-level film classes (um…). And oh yeah, the kid refused to smile or even laugh because he thought it made him ‘look ugly’. I got him to engage in some tailored, fantasy/comedy-based murder-mystery story-writing centered on the strange-looking photos of the authors of one of his English books. His stories were hilarious and I laughed my ass off. The kid would start to laugh and then deliberately choked on it to prevent himself from getting all ugly. But I pushed and pushed and finally one day he started laughing and couldn’t stop. Every time I came by his home after that, to his mother’s confusion, the kid would spend the first five minutes laughing hysterically before exictedly whipping out the next instalment of his who-dunnit.

Jezus fucking christ. My biggest accomplishment in Taiwan. Forget the textbook I published, I got a fucking little kid to learn to smile and laugh. Pathetic.

I spent a couple of years in Taiwan, found myself changed fundamentally in a negative way, but not entirely smile-less. I returned to Canada for about 6 years. And then I went back to a culture I said I’d never return to, and I’ve been in Mainland China  almost solidly for the past 6 years. The Mainland is even worse than Taiwan, which might be expected given the history and the sheer terror that communism wreaked on the country for so long. And having been there so long, I’ve had a lot of time to study and reflect on the culture and how I have adjusted to it and been mostly destoyed by it.

China killed my smile. It’s not that I am incapable of smiling. I do it a fair amount when warranted. It is much less automatic or natural though in these situations. But in public, outdoors, it never happens. Never in China. And while it has a significant effect on how I feel inside and my outlook, in general, it helps me dissociate, which is necessary when you are a white woman in China. It also saves me a lot of energy. I was quite surprised actually, when I began to analyze the effects of the implemented changes to my public demeanour in China. I used to try to be ‘present’ when I went out, and it was exhausting and demoralizing, especially because there was never any reciprocation from the Chinese. Once I started behaving like them, things became, I don’t know… streamlined? Energy-efficient? Self-centred? I’m not sure what the right word is. I mean, I absolutely hate the way it has changed me, but at the same time, I don’t feel exhausted every time I finish an outdoor ordeal. Going outdoors is always an ordeal. The funny thing is this: I know from feedback from some of my students, that they think I look angry or they are a bit afraid to approach me. But the thing is that I look exactly like them, expression-wise. Blank face. ‘Chinese face’ is what some of them call it. But as a Westerner, and especially as a woman, I am expected to be the kind and entertaining dancing monkey. Double standards. But it saves me energy and I don’t have to be concerned with how I appear when I don’t waste time on distorting my face into something I’m just not feeling. I want to feel nothing, so I put nothing on my face. It becomes easier and easier.

The double standards happen in the West, too – only for women though. We must be the happy slaves at all times. Men can wear whatever the fuck they want on their faces including murderous rampage or disgusting, rapey perv. They’re fine no matter what. Not so for women. Now that I’m visiting the US, I have relaxed a little, but I am much more economic and mindful of my smiling. Tons of women have smiled at me, and I smile back. No problem, and it feels good. I like women. I like the solidarity and energy I feel when exchanging a smile with one. But I don’t smile at men anymore. I try not to even look at them. I’m mindful of where they are in relation to my person, but I don’t look at them. And I don’t scowl. I adopt blank, trauma-face. It is the safest. And so far, so good. I am hyper-aware without perhaps appearing to be so. I come across perhaps as on a mission, hopefully ‘not prey’.

I hate that men and male culture have destroyed something so simple as smiling and relating positively to people. I don’t feel natural, comfortable, easygoing, or healthy. Thanks, China. Thanks, men. Thanks, international Patriarchy.


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Posted on January 24, 2016, in Feminism, Patriarchy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on How I Lost My Smile.

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