Smile Like You Mean It

in homistan

I stood in the International Student Registeration Line a long time ago. Barely two days in the States, I was expected to know which classes to take and how to take them. A california sky-kissed beauty welcomed me with a radiant smile, “How can I help you?”. My first reaction, I remember vividly, was the thrill that she TOTALLY wanted to marry me. She was smiling so warmly. My second reaction, after some thought [and the lack of any marriage proposals], was how insincere Americans are; throwing their precious smiles at strangers. It took a long time for the second reaction to wear off. It took even longer for me to learn to smile at strangers.

No Smiles Allowed

No Smiles Allowed

There are no public smiles in Lahore. Strangers greet each other with a poker-face. Those above you on the social power-relational scale [clerks, traffic cops] greet you with a hostile sneer. Those below you [clerks, traffic cops] get greeted with a contemptuous sneer. There are no smiles when you complete a transaction at the store. There are no smiles when you open the door for someone. There are no smiles when you find yourself looking at the same thing or sharing the same public space. There are no smiles when you ask directions to Mall Road. We don’t even smile at our weddings [aside: I used to love "reading" the newly-wed pictoral in Akhbar-e Jahan. Some real stories in those snaps. For example, look at Mr. Majid' wife (column one, row four)]. Why not? Are we humorless prigs? Isn’t smiling a universal emotion? When I asked some desi friends [two were f.o.b's], they said that American smiles were hollow and empty. “They just show you their teeth. There is no warmth”.

On the contrary, they claimed that, desi smiles were genuine and heartfelt because of their rarity. A smile is something precious in Indo-Persiante culture. The smile of a beloved, in classical Urdu and Persian poetry, is all that one needs and pines for. Khandidan, tabassum, muskarahat are playful words for a beloved’s smile that can be easily found in the works of Rumi or Hafiz or Mir or Ghalib. Why isn’t it more accepted then? Perhaps, it is the poetics that have made the smile into such a loaded category. We cannot smile without thinking of Mir or Ghalib. Cultural barriers of propriety and shame are so entrenched that a smile is almost always transgressive.

Why, then, do the Americans smile so much? Did Shakespeare and Whitman asked them to? Or is this a genetic issue? A cultural one? Is it learned? I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist. But, I am sure the answer can be found in the literature of those fields. Little I know, from reading Thomas Frank and Steven Fox, is that smiling was not always so prevalent. It was the WWI army that introduced teeth-cleaning to US men. Public projects re-inforced the message and the advertising agencies selling toothpaste told everyone to smile brightly. See. We can blame the ad agency for almost ANYTHING.

All this because a dear friend visited Pakistan for the first time recently and was struck by “how very few people smile at newcomers in a welcoming gesture of cheerful unilateral acceptance? not a one. guess i never really knew just how american i am.” [quoted without permission and with apologies]. Everyone I know who came from homistan to vilayat had this run-in with the smile. Everyone I know who went from here to the old country, asked me why everyone is so grim all the time? It is an odd sign of our collective other-ness. Unsurprisingly, I am constantly reminded by my friends and relatives of how American I am [the no-accent thing is my inside joke]. I do smile at strangers. I even mean it sometimes.

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