Learning To Smile | 笑

By Zhirui Guan, CC’19

Zhirui Guan shares her story of overcoming cultural norms and learning to express her emotions.










At the beginning of freshman year, I was a mystery to my suitemates. They could tell that I possessed a rich repertoire of facial expressions, but I never smiled in photos — not even in the ones with my closest friends and family.

Was I unhappy? Why did I have to purse my lips, lower my chin and stare into the camera so accusingly, with the ghost of a frown visible on my forehead? I groped internally for answers to my suitemates’ question, one that I had never been asked back home in China, where girls usually followed the same set of conditioned reflexes in front of a camera. Whenever someone yells “Selfie!” everyone would draw back their chin — to make their faces look smaller and pointier — stare hard with eyes widened to their fullest extent and try to don a semi-melancholic, semi-meditative, and semi-aloof look.

Only after I came to Yale did I realize that people group-hug, make funny faces and laugh with their mouths open in pictures, and that many young women smile into cameras without thinking that there is a particular way that they “ought to” look like.

My rigid expression in carefully orchestrated selfies and graduation photos is the ghost of my past. They come from a time when I constantly abided by the norms Chinese society expected of my gender and followed the cues my surroundings imposed on me. I was the ninth grade girl who downloaded a bunch of face-altering apps, unaware that there were other ways to present my face in a picture. Like other girls in China, I saw saw how male celebrities often “save” the girls in Chinese reality TV shows, in which the “princesses” and the “mermaids” must charm their saviors in order to be redeemed from a devised predicament. After watching these shows, I came to believe that the plot was the most natural thing in the world: the female identity is something not independent of itself, but instead only conceivable under the scrutiny of the male gaze.

Being around a loving and caring group of friends has made it possible for me to chase away ghosts that haunted my self-perception. People around me smile so much, express their feelings so freely with their faces and bodies that I can’t resist embodying the freedom they have long enjoyed.

It is only when pictures of friends’ back home pop up on social media that I am reminded of how many girls out there have yet to become acquainted with this natural freedom. I also worry for my cousin, who is an enthusiastic TV-monger at 11 years of age. I’d get legitimately stressed if he’d learn to look and judge female beauty in a narrow, unhealthy way that the Chinese media and popular press promote.

More than anything I now worry that these ghosts will haunt me in a different form. Have I become completely immune or am I just adapting to another set of social norms? Will I ever like my body and face? All I know is that right now, it feels good to smile.