Observing current affairs in today’s China, one comes across the term, “Bridging the Gap”, quite often. While this is in no way new, it is commonly used in reference to the Sino-international community. It helps organisations to better illustrate connections and relations that are forming between China and the outside world.
With this swimming through my mind as I wondered about the city, I thought about how local Nanjingers connect with foreigners on the streets of the city, or more specifically, how foreigners connect with the masses. Fortunately, I live in one of the most foreigner-dense areas of Nanjing, and as a result, I am privy to many such day-to-day observations.
But wait a minute; I am a person who does not naturally smile.
I am not bright and shiny; I’m actually pretty mild most of the time. Getting a smile out of me requires some serious comedy, or, if I’m totally honest, flattery. The problem with this is that those around me assume I am either angry, sad and/or unapproachable. This just isn’t the case; inside I am totally happy, sometimes even joyous. So why the sour face, bagpuss? Recently, I have set about changing this, and the best way I know how, is to remind myself to, you know, “just do it”; just smile.
Having lived in China a long time, I, like most foreigners, have been guilty of “losing it” with the locals sometimes. If you are reading this and can honestly say that you have never had a negative thought or reaction to a local person on the streets of Nanjing, then hats off to you, you’re possibly the most zen person ever to have moved to China.
For most of us, though, day-to-day street battles is one of the most crucial reasons as to why such a large gap gets wedged between, perish the terms, “us” and “them”. The old adage that, “we are a guest in this country, therefore we should just drop our polite standards down a peg or two”, gets thrown right out the window the moment someone lights a cigarette in a lift, and then stops in front of you when you’re making haste towards an escalator. And rightly so, I hear you.
Problems arise when our staunch values and frustrated interactions form large cultural gaps between us and the locals. You may not like to read this, but one of the things of which we need sometimes remind ourselves is that we chose to come here.
Therefore, instead of giving up or living every day in a state of heightened stress, I offer one simple step that may just be an alleviation. As you have probably already guessed, my solution has been to try and stop hiding behind my infamous sour face, or continuing to ignore that going on around me, to dust off the corners of my mouth and stretch them wide, ear to ear.
It has not been easy, I can tell you. It feels really awkward and uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing; all of this time, I have been beating myself up, shaming my outward appearance and my miserable self, but the most surprising effect of this whole experiment so far has been my realisation that local people are just as sour and miserable as I am.
When I began to really look at their faces, they appear just as harsh, down trodden, sad and unapproachable as me. What a revelation. The reason I can see it so clearly now is because when I smile, they smile back; a big, shiny mirror that instantly brings us closer.
I don’t need to speak Mandarin for this. They don’t fall off their bike or smack into a pole with absolute shock; 10 times out of 10, they return the favour. And it completely changes how my day unfolds and closes any gaps in my bridge with the Chinese.
I am not saying this has solved all of my street woes, nor am I walking about the streets with a constant eerie grin on my face looking like a weirdo, and it is certainly a work in progress. Yet, smiling, for me, has brought about profound change and has helped me to further bridge the gap between myself and those I see around me everyday. It helps me to remember that I always have a choice. I chose to be here, and I can choose, in every moment, to change my reality.
I can burn bridges or I can build them; the choice is mine.
Smile at three strangers the next time you’re on the street, and see for yourself. If they don’t shine that mirror back at you, then maybe you’re just scaring them. Nevertheless, keep trying until it happens and life in Nanjing will begin to ease.