The Art of Smiling

Late to the party, as usual, I’ve been enjoying the work of Yang Liu – a Chinese-German artist whose interpretations of the differences between these two cultures is captured in her East vs West series.

Interpretations which make for some fun talking points for a Brit like me, who has now been living in Vietnam for a year or so.  Take a look at your leisure…

Inevitably, generalising cultural nuances is a flawed process.  That said, there are some uncanny observations reflected in Yang Liu’s designs in terms of life, and living, in a country such as Vietnam.

The child being ‘at the centre of the family’ concept is one which we felt profoundly during our first days walking around the parks of Saigon with Florence, herself a mini Pied Piper, with an immediate army of adoring local followers, comprising all ages and keen to snap a photo of her on their mobile phones.

It was a Sunday when we arrived (see slide 12 above) and there was a vibrant energy in the park – bustling scout groups, families, couples, folks gracefully practicing thai-chi, and dozens of scattered plastic chairs and tables accommodating the idle chatter and gesticulations of Saigon’s characteristic coffee drinking, cigarette smoking men.

Sixteen months on, and there are aspects of my life which have had no issues embracing more of the red side of Liu’s caricatured world.

Take breakfast, for example (in the full version of Liu’s work, breakfast is a meal, like all others, best served hot for the Chinese, and for the generalised ‘East’).  For me, a brimming bowl of steaming noodles – pho – has become my staple of late.

7am, and these days my craving is for chunks of raw minced beef, flat white noodles and fiery broth, and the joy of piling in the ready prepared assortment of leaves, bamboo shoots, lime, chili, and hoisin flavoured sauce, and then slurping away to my heart’s content.

The eating and sharing of food in Vietnam is as natural as breathing.  This concurs well with Liu’s restaurant analogy (slide 11) and also her take on such things as contacts (slide 6) and lifestyle (slide 3) and an appreciation that – and this rings true in Vietnam – life is to be lived in the present tense, and ideally in the company of friends and family.

I know from time spent in Bangkok that Thai culture mirrors this sentiment as well.  The love of food, especially.  The Thailand tourist board have also stolen the very fitting strapline of Thailand being the “Land of Smiles.”  Savvy marketing perhaps, although when you think about it, there is actually something very striking about the concept of an entire country being full of smiling people.  Just imagine that.

Liu uses the smile twice in her East vs West pictures – slides 8 and 15, respectively portraying the very Asian trait of not losing face, and the way the mood of a country need not be dictated by the mood of its weather.

Here in Saigon, there is seldom a day when I am met with anything but smiling faces.  From coffee-stall purchases, to the recycling woman who peddles her bike past our office three times a day, to the CARE security guard who works (I kid you not) 365 nights a year, never late, and always full of smiles.

My pho slurping etiquette is being mastered with gusto, and with each day I feel that little bit more affectionate about this incredible city, yet I still can’t quite reciprocate on the smiling front.  I do try.  In fact, I’d consider myself fairly “default happy” as a person.  There is also an infectiousness about smiling faces that more often than not finds you merrily smiling back.

The thing is, now and again (well, most days really) I still seem to require that moment – you know, the “aargh” one – to gripe and groan and regale angrily about something, or about someone.  Often, at home, this might be linked to the youngest, yet the most outspoken, in our family: Martha.

A wailing banshee at her worst, a raucous anarchist toddler at her best, Martha’s motivations in life are divided neatly between 1.) what can I climb next? and 2.) I must have that fork/cup of hot tea/mobile phone/sharp pencil which you are using.  Blocking her ability to carry out either 1.) or 2.) results in full throttle banshee anarchy.  None of which makes me smile that much.

But then these ‘moments’ also happen when Martha is not around.

In the Indian Consulate yesterday, I queued for thirty minutes, only to then have sprung upon me the news that I’d need $8 US dollars to transfer a visa on to my new passport (and I only had Vietnamese currency, which they wouldn’t accept).  I paused for a full tenth of a second, contemplating my response, before ranting and raving at the immigration clerk, in front of a line of mesmerised Vietnamese, who clearly thought I was deranged – but who, nonetheless, were smiling back at me (probably because I looked so ridiculous!)

Losing face is a big issue for people in Asia (I’m probably on my 100th face as it happens) and raising your voice in anger is reserved only for serious encounters.  Of course you see arguments in public – and worse types of physical confrontations – but these are rare.

And, of course, all people have their “aargh” moments here too, it’s just that I seldom get to see them because, in place of anger and tension and pretence, people are too busy smiling.

Time will tell as to whether my own cultural instincts and behaviour (over and above my noodle addiction) is gradually moulded and shaped during time living here.  Ranting and raving may not be that sinister a habit, but there is an appeal to being more adaptive to the Vietnamese way of engaging a smile first, rather than a frown.

The simple, easy, act of smiling: of connecting with one another, of respecting, of laughing, of loving one another.

It is one of the most powerful tools we have.

Photo credit @Samuel Jeffrey


2 thoughts on “The Art of Smiling

  1. Jenny Falcon July 6, 2012 / 12:37 am

    You will be glad to know, I am sure, that your recent blog made me …….. smile! 🙂

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