My husband, Thom, has made a new game out of coaxing smiles from China locals. It’s silly, like him, and fun, like him. This is quite the challenge but “Thom the crazy Laowai” is up to the task with his goofy grin and tenacious NYC attitude….no amount of blank stares (and there are many) will dissuade him from attempting to coax a smile from a stoic passersby or even an Embassy guard. Walking the streets of Beijing this week under the gray polluted skies, I got to finally see Thom succeed in producing a big smile from a local and it made a lasting impression on me.
Peddling his bicycle in the cold weather, this mature gentleman’s eyes lit up and his face crinkled into a genuine, somewhat surprised, smile as he turned the corner in front of us, looking directly into my eyes after Thom had broken down the cultural barrier with a big grin. Eureka! I believe a fleeting moment of quiet understanding passed quickly between them that translated into we were happy to be in China sharing his culture and that is what produced the smile. I’ll never know what he was thinking but I won’t ever forget that moment on a street corner in Beijing.
Typically, no one here will look you directly in the eyes and never spontaneously smile--ever. Now, that is not to say that people are not expressive or happy-just not with strangers. Indeed, culturally, I have witnessed a society that prefers to be with others, socializing in groups, both friends and family. Fiona, my Chinese teacher, told me today that they are taught from an early age by family and teachers not to trust strangers, certainly not foreigners, and not to show emotion in public, whether it be joy or sadness. She also teaches Thom and finds him vastly amusing, though not terribly gifted at learning Chinese. At least he makes her laugh!
When Thom and I were out wandering around Beijing later that night hunting for an obscure temple to visit, we stopped on a busy corner to look at our map. In NYC, you would never want to do this because you would look like a “tourist” and thus could be targeted by street thieves but being a Laowai in China means you pretty much stand out all the time, especially where Thom and I like to go in all the local areas where they may rarely see Westerners. I was shocked when a lady stopped to ask if we needed help, speaking perfect English, which is very rare. She couldn’t have been nicer in verifying that we were headed in the right direction. She smiled when we thanked her and I think she was appreciative of our efforts to get off the beaten path and experience her culture instead of the usual tourist traps. Two smiles in one day—a new Chinese record!
I plan on being back in Beijing quite often for business and look forward to exploring the hutongs (local neighborhoods) with Thom, playing on the exercise equipment in the parks and discovering the hidden gems that I know are everywhere in this crowded, fascinating city of 15+ million people, ridiculously polluted air and a few smiles.