Friday, October 28, 2011

The Land Of Smiles For Every Situation

Someone sent me a couple of pictures of the BKK flooding that were printed in American newspapers. In one picture, a bunch of Thais are sitting around in some pretty deep flood water and smiling broadly while they're doing it.

I see a lot of pictures like this on local TV too, and in Thai newspapers. People walking around with belongings or supplies on their heads, past their waists in flood water, and smiling for the camera (or in candid shots, even). I say "flood water," it's not just water. Mere water is clean.

So it occurs to me that not everybody knows that the smile in Thailand does not always mean that the smiler is happy. This took me a while to get used to, back when I was new here. On one occasion I was walking into a coffee shop at about eight p.m. I didn't see the heavy, completely unmarked glass door, I walked right into it. Smacked my nose and cheek pretty hard, it hurt. As I completed the process of walking in I noticed that all of the people, and there were quite a few, were smiling at me. I didn't understand the reaction, and I got a little angry because I thought they were enjoying my little accident. Now I understand that when something like that happens to someone Thais smile to show solidarity, it's a "been there, done that, don't be embarrassed" smile.

Here's another example of what in America would be totally inappropriate smiling. When I was up north, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I did a lot of bicycle riding around our small city. Occasionally someone driving a car would almost kill me, Thai drivers, for example, like to spring suddenly out of side streets and driveways without looking. (I'm amazed that there are not more accidents, but the driving on the street Thais expect it.) Still in America mode, I'd give them my "what were you thinking?" look. They smiled, it made me crazy. Now I understand that the smile meant "excuse me, what was I thinking?"

So those people that are smiling in the flood photographs, they're not really happy, not all of them anyway. Many of those smiles mean, "don't worry about me, I hope that I don't ruin your day with my misery, please by happy."


Cletis said...

Fred, this is a great post. So much bullshit is caused by our inability to communicate feelings and thoughts across cultural lines. I will repost this one day next week. I truly admire your head.

fred c said...

Oh, Cletis! Now you made me blush!