Inspiration: Better to be the one who smiled

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About This Series

As a textbook over-thinker, my mind is a hub for inspiring, creative, wacky thoughts as well as a bastion for inducing deep depression. I rely on cheesy hope as a way of inspiring myself to create rather than to unravel. I recognize the limited application of the things that inspire me, as well as my own limited perspective. 

“Better to be the one who smiled than the one who didn’t smile back” 

I wore braces for five years of my life, from sixth grade through tenth, so the physical appearance of my smile is highly and painfully manufactured.

It was my parents idea to get me braces (and they went through no few scruples to afford them in 1999). I think they knew something about societal standards of beauty and acceptance that I didn’t quite know the details of in fifth grade. Something about a central incisor at a 45 degree angle did not quite fit the bill.

Consequently, my number one primal fear in life is to fall down on my face and break my teeth. All of them, at once.

I learned through examining photographs that my actual smile makes for a conventionally ‘un-photogenic’ appearance. I thus practiced and practiced a fake smile for picture-taking until I achieved ‘the look’. I now alternate between fake-smiling and real-smiling for photographs, depending on whether I want to prove I am not comparatively unfortunate-looking or to be captured as I am.

At 16, my smile was often met by pervy male stares and left me feeling cheated. Hey asshole, what made you think you can leer at me just because I’m smiling? I started throwing shade, but found it to be exhausting. Now I just flash a quick half-smile and look away.

Living in the functional chaos of Manhattan, I’ve had a chance to think about daily human interaction from a different perspective. I once asked a friend from California, “If you were stuck on the 405 in traffic, would you look into every persons car and smile at them?” Riding on the subway or walking on the street is the primary form of transit here, and smiling at every person you see is like staring into other people’s fish bowls on the freeway. No one does it, unless someones picking their nose and you want to catch them.

For a while, I debated if I should stop smiling at strangers while living here and adopt the New York poker face. After months of flashing creepy 100-watt smiles, I decided to alternate between a poker face and a toned down smile.

I remember getting on a return flight to Manhattan and asking a girl if I could switch her aisle seat for my window seat. She replied with a brief, assertive, and unapologetic no. It’s funny how much that response stood out to me, so much that I was turning it over in my mind for half an hour of my flight. It occurred to me: She did not need to be apologetic about anything, and she did not need or owe it to me to be conventionally ‘nice’ or ‘friendly’. And technically speaking, if we’re speaking about hostility as the opposite of friendly, she was friendly. Just not in the way we often demand people to be. This random encounter brought a change in perspective, and I no longer see not-smiling-back as a form of aggression or purposeful meanness.

One time, on a street corner, I was blowing my nose really intensely, when my eyes locked with those of a truck driver. We engaged in an epic staring contest as I continued to blow my nose really obnoxiously. Eventually I started laughing and he did, too.

Sometimes, I stare at strangers who are staring at me, and they just stare back at me, and I keep staring at them wondering if they are going to crack a smile, and they don’t, and we keep staring at each other.

I always try to smile at babies and children. I was a really shy kid and I remember how exciting a friendly, playful, non-creepy gesture could be (though I’m not quite sure if I have the non-creepy part down). I like to think that smiling at a child is adding positive sensory input to their brains and adds a little more love to their life. I also play hide-and-seek by ducking down behind a stranger or hiding behind a wall. Their parents don’t seem to mind the free clown.

I try to smile at every Black person I see. It’s my extremely trivial way of saying, “This is your town, and I recognize/hate institutional racism.” It’s a very wordy smile, and I’m not sure if the point gets across. It’s also my way of saying, “I’m really happy to see you. I’m from white-flight suburban Orange County where only 2% of the population is Black.” I try not to discriminate who I smile at, but this is definitely a very specific and discriminatory smile.

Actually, I totally discriminate in who I smile at. I sometimes smile at perceivably different people for different reasons, and each smile is a reflection of my own perceptions and insecurities. I smile at blue-collar workers so they don’t think that I think I’m better than them. I smile at Brown people because they are brown and we are from formerly colonized cultures and have problems. I smile at ‘visibly’ or presumably Muslim people so they don’t think I am above myself or my identity. I smile at what ‘looks’ like Gay people so they don’t think I’m a homophobe that thinks they are the worst. I grew up near Little Vietnam so Asians (I just ‘they’re all the same-d’ Asians) are the only people I smile at for no sort of contrived reason that I’ve been able to detect. I think I might actually be less discriminatory if I stopped smiling at people.

I smile because I’m doing me, and I don’t need anyone to smile back. Sometimes, I don’t smile, and then I feel guilty. I then tell myself that the universe does not revolve around me, which conceptually makes a lot of sense, but practically is very difficult for me to understand.

I enjoy smiling. You know that person on the street that keeps looking at you and you keep noticing them out of the corner of your eye and you finally look at them because you’re like what the hell? Well, I’m that person, and when you finally look at me, you’ll realize that I really, really just wanted to smile at you.

I take it back. I am definitely a creeper.

One response to “Inspiration: Better to be the one who smiled”

  1. David Salvo

    I love it, I smile at people too. Maybe because I am a nice guy, maybe because I want to make the world a little happier, mostly because it makes me happier.

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