By Wang Yong
BEIJING, Jan. 10 (Xinhuanet) -- If you ask me what I like most about Americans, I would say it’s their ready smile — to strangers as well as to friends.
I learned the phrase “ugly Americans” only this week, referring to loud, arrogant, ethnocentric Americans who have little regard for other cultures.
But overall, Americans impress me as a people ready to smile and help — be it in shops, schools, libraries or on the streets.
For a long time after I returned to China in 2003, having spent two years in California, I had difficulty adjusting to a life in which smiles among strangers were rare — indeed, a luxury.
I tried to smile at strangers in Beijing and Shanghai on the streets, in shops and in restaurants, only to be met with suspicious eyes as if I were a strange character.
Until this year, I blamed the lack of reciprocal smiles on all those strangers. To think that I smiled to them and yet they stared, winced or turned away!
But this year is very different: I’ve begun to see smiling faces around me in many places, though not everyone smiles, of course.
Last week I went to an administrative office in Qingpu District for a required auto safety check. Mechanics responsible for checking our cars gave most drivers the cold shoulder — they are powerful guys who have the final say on whether your car is safe or not, and whether you can drive.
I especially dreaded one big guy. He looked like a butcher.
Before it was my turn, he drove several cars away to a safety-check garage without saying a single word or looking at the car owners. One fellow ventured to ask him, in a low and nervous voice, where he should wait. The big guy gave no answer — apparently he was annoyed.
I waited an hour for my turn. The big guy emerged from the garage and headed toward me. I was nervous. But I did something no other had done: I held my car key in both hands and gave it to him with a respectful greeting: “Thank you for your hard work.”
Guess what? He spoke to me gently: “Please sit down in a chair over there and have a rest.”
During this short but warm exchange, I found he was blind in one eye. My heart went out to him. I knew he worked hard and had a thankless job.
How stupid I was to have fancied he was like a rude butcher if not a bully altogether. But luckily I banished the imaginary butcher and bully when I met the big fellow.
Fear begets fear. If, like most other car owners, I had shown no sincere respect to those mechanics, I would have been given a cold shoulder in return.
In retrospect, my smiles to strangers in the past were not warm enough. I smiled on purpose — I had a strong wish to be greeted with a reciprocal smile. People could read that on my face, yet I didn’t realize it. I was wrongly blaming lack of reciprocal smiles on strangers.
I had not realized my mistake until this spring, when a senior Taoist on Wudang Mountain told me to follow the way of water, to lie low and elevate others.
“Let other people see your concern for them in your eyes,” he taught me, full of smiles. “Don’t let your ego fill your eyes.”
Later, I met several Buddhist monks and nuns who gave me similar advice. All of a sudden, I began to see the world through a different lens.
I went to our canteen at 7am yesterday and found most cooks and assistants happily saying “good morning” to me in a way they did not greet others.
At first they hadn’t smiled. It was I who took the initiative, greeting them with genuine smiles of pleasure four months ago when they took over our new canteen.
A colleague asked me yesterday if I thought the canteen’s food quality had slipped lately. I said nope — with a ready smile.
If we keep a thankful heart, we won’t nitpick about others.
I especially thank one of my American editors who taught me this proverb yesterday: Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.
The name of this weekly column comes from the famous Taoist saying that the ultimate good is the way of water.