“You are not like an American,” said Arvy from Lithuania, “All Americans have fake smile. They smile all the time for no reason! You do not smile like that.”
He pulled the corners of his lips back into a smile that looked like a grimace – how he thinks Americans look when, as he says, “smile does not reach the eyes.”
One particular british girl didn’t believe Moldovans smiled. Of course, I live with a Moldovan family, and know that they show great warmth towards me and one another, so it’s not true. Yet, in public, they are reserved and even terse to strangers. Actually, barring one very early morning walking from the club with a girl friend, people generally did not say hello, and eye contact can be considered rude (awkward). People on the bus barely look at one another, though our bodies push together like sardines in a can. I had a rather strange experience where a buxom woman pressed her breasts, contained in a low-cut dress, against my bare arm as the bus lurched forward and tossed us about. Christ, you normally have to buy a girl a drink before you get that intimate with her…
My first week here, I took to being ignored quite well. I was left alone to explore a new city, to get my feet under me and to adjust without the pressure of constant social interactions – lacking a common language, that can be an incredibly exhausting thing.
Yet, the dreary thing with spending so much time with oneself is that you often forget how you appear to others.When I get the odd look, I remind myself that I look out of place!
My Polish friend, Arek, once told me that tattoos because they were often associated with – and I paraphrase – criminals and hooligans. I wonder what the Moldovians think when they see me – a girl of ambiguous ethnicity, tattoos on the shoulders and arms, and black combat boots that sharply contrast the favored flats and heels worn by the local women. I have seen one other Asian girl in the city, and she was from Britain. If we were a peculiar sight, I didn’t notice. No one looked at us.
If you never speak to a Moldovan, but simply people watch from a cafe, or the lounge of your hotel room, it is entirely possible that you will never see them smile. I thought quite the same thing, until I was lost and needed directions.
“Hello!” I said to the nearest passing man, “Пожалуйста, скажите мне, где автовокзал? ” Please, tell me where is the bus station?
He looked surprised. “Вы говорите по-английски?” You speak English?
“да! да!” Yes! Yes!
It turns out that he spoke English just fine, and he appreciated my attempts at Russian, commenting that many foreigners come and never try to speak the language. As for himself, he spoke Romanian, Russian and English, had lived in the village when he was young, but came to Chisinau later after studying economics at the university… in our walk, he had told me a lot about his life, politics, revolutions, and tried to give me a cultural lesson to explain the heart and soul of Chisinau.
He walked me to the nearest bus station, made sure that I got on the right bus, and even said a word or two to the trolleybus attendant, who then made sure I got off at the right street. So do they smile? Of course they do. This man was the very model of hospitality and kinds.
“When you always smile at people, the smile means nothing,” Arvy had said, “How can you trust it?”
I suppose that is right. We Americans are taught to smile – bling! Show them pearly whites! – at anything. We say hi to strangers on the street as we pass, we smile in conversation almost immediately, and if you don’t look friendly when you order over a fast food counter, you might get spit as an additional condiment.
I don’t know who has it right – does every person deserve a smile and friendliness, even if we aren’t particularly happy and aren’t friends at all? Or should we reserve our warmest expressions for when we actually feel it? Or is there a happy middle ground?
For me, I prefer the Eastern view – it increases the value of your kindness. It adds to the weight of your expressions and, in the end, is more honest. It’s best to leave the plastic smiles for the used car salesmen.