Smiling In Another Country As An American


Earlier this summer, when I first introduced myself to one of the masters students who works in the same room as I do, he said to me, “You do seem American. Americans are always so… happy.” At the time, I remember thinking, “I should probably write about this when I have time” (yes, yes, I’m lame, but that’s another story.) But for whatever reason, I couldn’t really write properly about what he said, so I deleted the draft and wrote about other things and thought I might circle back around to it later in the summer.

I’ve had about seven weeks to mull over this quote, and I still can’t exactly write out what it means to me. Perhaps it is better, then, to try and paint a picture of what I am thinking (not literally, though, you really don’t want to see that.)

Coming from a small suburb, I am used to greeting passerby on the street with a smile and a “Hello,” whether or not I personally know that person. This is something I attributed to the small-town atmosphere — everyone is separated by only a few degrees, and it’s just considered good manners to do so. But here, even in my tiny corner of Saarbrücken, only the slightest nod of a head is given to acknowledge another person, and very rarely will someone smile.

I was slightly put off at first, admittedly. Was it because they knew I was a foreigner? Did they hate Asians? Was there something on my face? Soon enough I learned not to be offended by this; it just was the way people acted around here. Happiness is less obvious, less superficial (superficial meaning literally on the surface in this case.)

As soon as I realized this, though, I became somewhat self-conscious about my smile. There is no middle ground for me — when I smile, it’s with both sets of teeth showing, upper gums out like a snarl, and it’s usually accompanied by a very audible laugh (I laugh because I smile, rather than vice versa.) Don’t be fooled, though; it’s also not a glamourous, red-carpet, sophisticated Beyonce smile — alas, there’s a little too much gum and not enough lip. And in comparison with the thin, half-crescent smiles I get in return, mine feels aggressive and brash, because it leaves little to the imagination. There is no subtlety to it, just a whole lot of teeth.

I have trouble deciding if this difference is an American thing or a me thing. When I was in China two summers ago, my grandmother would tell me to smile with my mouth closed, out of fear that I would come off dumb or uncultured. It’s the concept of the ignorant fool that spurs this mentality: those who know nothing are blissfully unaware of it, smiling on while those burdened with knowledge see the world as it really is. If this is common to Americans, then, is that how others perceive Americans — as dumb, optimistic fools, positive to the point of idiocy? Is it a testament to our culture, one that prizes external expression and showmanship above all? Truthfully, I still don’t really know.

For a day or so I tried to tone it down a bit here. I felt like maybe I was scaring people with my aggressively toothy grin. In the end, though, I couldn’t do it, to suppress a smile, to press my lips together against my teeth and choke down the accompanying laugh. Eventually I just stopped trying altogether, because, frankly, it was physically uncomfortable to keep at it. Since then, I’ll sometimes hear myself laughing loudly at something my supervisor says, or catch myself beaming at a stranger, and then — well, just keep smiling. It gives me away almost instantly, marks me as an American without a doubt, perhaps. But whatever the price, I reckon it’s worth it.

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