Learning To Smile | 笑

By Zhirui Guan, CC’19

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

ORIGINAL

大一刚开学的时候,我的室友们有点搞不懂我。她们能看出来我平时是个行走的表情包,但是照片里的我却从来不笑--就连和好友和亲人照相也不例外。

是因为我照相的时候不高兴吗?有什么原因会让我在相片里总是低着头,闭着嘴唇,眉头微皱,眼睛里像含着深仇大恨一般望向镜头呢?苦思着这个问题,我同时意识到在中国的时候,没人关心我照相时的表情。一般当有人喊“我们自拍吧”的时候女生们都自动进开启低头瞪眼加捂脸的模式。因为这样可以让脸看上去更小更尖,眼睛看上去更大,并且带着半忧郁半沉思半超然的神态。

到耶鲁来之后我发现人们照相的时候会集体大拥抱,做好玩的表情,并且肆无忌惮地张嘴大笑。女性并没有觉得她们需要以某种特定的,固定的模样面对镜头。

相册里那些认真摆拍、表情僵硬的毕业照和不带笑容的自拍是来自我过去的梦魇。它们是我严格遵循社会对我所在的性别的要求,吸取了周围环境对女性形象的各种暗示之后生出的产物。当我还是一个初三小姑娘的时候,有一天晚上我下载了一堆P图软件,因为我不知道我的脸还能用别的方式存在于照片上。毕竟在风靡各大电视台的真人秀节目里,多数情况下都是男明星把装扮成“美人鱼”或者“公主”的女明星从精心设计的游戏中“解救”出来。看多了,当时的我就满满觉得这种情节是再正常不过的了:女性必须依存于男性的注视下,而无法拥有独立存在的人格。

在耶鲁,一群包容和关爱我的朋友驱散了这个萦绕在我的自我认知中的梦魇。周围人用身体和表情自由地表达着情绪和思想,我也向往起这种自由来。

有时,有的国内朋友的照片浮现在社交媒体的时候,我会想起原来还有那么多人没体验过这种自由。我也常想起我那爱看电视的表弟,他才五年级。我希望他以后不会用中国娱乐媒体的价值观去评价女性的美。

其实最令我担心的是过去的梦魇会以不同的形式继续存在我的生活里。我真的对过去的阴影产生了免疫吗?还是我只是适应了另一个社交群体的规则?有一天我会真心欣赏我的身体和脸孔吗?现在我只知道,笑起来感觉很好。

TRANSLATION

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.