Behind the Smile


My friend Becca and I have a long history.


We grew up in the same church. She went to Chris’ alma mater. She lived with us the summer after Chris’ brain surgery as a DC intern, back when Chris and I were kidless and had an extra bedroom and bathroom in a building a few blocks from a metro stop alongside a solid number of respectable restaurant choices. (Back when none of that felt all that luxurious.) 


After we both were married with kids, we’d plan occasional weekend visits and meetups in Ohio, if we both happened to travel home on the same holiday. When Becca moved overseas, our friendship didn’t bat an eyelash at the distance.


Becca was the friend who hopped on a plane to meet us in China when we adopted our youngest daughter, Viv, saying “if you’re on my side of the world, there’s no way I’m not going to see you.” Her presence there with us was a gift.  


One night in our hotel in Guangzhou, Becca and I flipped through pictures on our phones, each of us trying to communicate to the other what our lives really looked like.  


She showed me banana trees and market food — just imagining the soup’s broth made my mouth water. There was the overloaded moto-bike with a kid holding onto the back of the driver. Friends from their neighborhood, their church. I started to put names to faces of members of their community. I scrolled through photos of dark-haired young people leaning in together, some looking at the camera, some making the “silly scissors” (what we Americans call a peace sign) with their fingers and sporting bright smiles. In other pictures, men and women pose, standing and looking straight at the camera, faces impassive.


In turn, I showed her my pictures from our time in Beijing. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace. My own pictures of scooters topped with impossible piles of wood or boxes or empty jugs. Of dumplings. Noodles. The group we traveled with at a restaurant called “The Bird Cage” eating soup so spicy our faces went numb.


And then we got to pictures of the adoption day.


I paused to explain: a group of us adoptive parents waited in the lobby of the organization’s headquarters. One by one, a nanny and social worker would bring in the children. Viv was one of the last children to arrive and I told Becca how my heart pounded to the beat of scared-thrilled-overwhelmed, scared-thrilled-overwhelmed. How not one second felt real, just a mix of painful and numb, like when your legs are asleep but you are standing and trying not to fall. 


I showed Becca pictures of Viv’s leary smile. Pictures of me laughing. Crying. Doing both at the same time. Pictures of our big kids. Of Chris. I flip until I get to the one that tears my heart in half.


“We were asked if we had questions for the foster mom,” I said. I told Becca that I remember my mind going black, as if the sheer amount of information I wanted was so big, so vast, it tipped the scale of my brain and everything fell off into an abyss, leaving nothing except an absence of anything.  


“I said something like ‘Um, yes… how do we? I’m not sure when to ask… How will we hear from her?’” From what we were previously told, there would be no way to contact our children’s foster families.


The Chinese social worker turned slightly away from me, stepped back, and said, “She’s right here” as she extended her hand to the woman I thought was a nanny, the one who brought Viv into the lobby, had pressed a nudging hand to my daughter’s back, while nodding in encouragement, saying “Mama” when Viv didn’t want to budge an inch closer to me.


Unable to think of specific questions, besides “tell me everything” I simply started to cry and, through tears, I said Thank You. Regardless of the cultural rules, I hugged her. “Thank You,” I whispered. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  


I told Becca how, since we were the last family to meet our child, we were being rushed to join the rest of the group in a back room to complete paperwork. But someone (Chris?) suggested we take a picture first.


And this is where I tilt my phone to show Becca the group picture where my oldest kids stand in front. Looking at the picture, I’m in a red sweater on the right side. I have big puffy eyes. Chris is in the middle holding Viv whose head is turned to her right, our left, because she’s looking at her foster mom who stands next to Chris on the far left.


The foster mom looks straight into the camera, stoic.


I’m flashing a ridiculous smile.   


Becca and I pause.


“Isn’t it interesting how everyone smiles for pictures in America?” Becca says.


I don’t remember if I said it out loud or just tilted my head as if to ask, “What do you mean?”


“It’s just something I’ve noticed — living in a different culture. It’s very western to smile,” she said. The pictures maybe aren’t as pretty, but without the prerequisite smile, they somehow feel more authentic, she explained. 


Immediately, I thought of pictures of my mom’s family from Europe. How many small 2×3 photos held with little photobook corners or loose faded pictures in a drawer have I seen where relatives are sitting around a table full of food, or standing next to someone’s house or car and simply looking into the camera? Maybe they are on a bench, looking just shy of annoyed that someone wanted to interrupt the conversation to take this picture.


This past summer, Becca’s family did a “home assignment,” where they were in the states for four months, traveling to see friends and family along the east coast and in the mid-west. They came to stay with us for a very short (but sweet) 36-hour visit.


The day after they left us, the news reported Kate Spade, an iconic fashion designer, was found dead. A suicide. The next day, the same sad news was announced about the famed chef, Anthony Bourdain.


Although I knew little of their personal lives, both public figures meant something to me personally.


Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential, changed my culinary life. His was the first “food” book I ever read. It was scandalous and profane and I loved every minute of it. I found his personal story fascinating and my intrigue extended from him into the complexity and possibilities of flavors and techniques, recipes and skill.    


And Kate? Well, I’ve always loved a stylish leather handbag. It was her name on the first nice one I’d bought as an adult, the impractical red one.   


In my mind, she was polished, shellacked almost, perfect. He, edgy and confident. The news of both of their deaths cracked into me.


A few weeks after Becca’s summer visit, I packed my bags for a big summer trip with my girlfriends. A week later, I came home, unpacked and repacked for yet another trip, this time with Chris. I traveled more miles this summer than possibly the last ten years combined.


I took pictures of palm trees and a Carribean ocean, followed shortly by more pictures of Swiss coffee and plates of bratwurst with the Alps in the background.


I’m smiling in every picture.


Since Becca said it back in China, I haven’t stopped thinking about the cultural conditioning of smiling. What is it that makes us smile, even when our hearts hurt? When life is heavy? Why do we want to convey happiness when it isn’t the whole of the truth? Is it for the comfort of those who will see us? Or is it for the comfort of ourselves? Is it because we feel guilty for, generally speaking, having it so good? 


Is it because a smile is just as easy, as placating, as a casual “I’m sorry” when you didn’t do anything wrong? Like when you bump into someone in a crowded elevator and say ‘Sorry’ where an ‘Excuse me’ would have worked just as well. 


Are we just so accustomed to want a smile, see a smile, give a smile — because when it’s not there, we wonder (or get wondered at) what’s wrong? Why the long face, doll? 


Or it is because at the moment, a smile was real? A smile was right?


The smiles on my face from adoption day, or this past summer, they weren’t false. They weren’t fake.


But a smile in a picture isn’t three dimensional. It doesn’t tell the whole story.


We can’t (and honestly, we shouldn’t — because wouldn’t that just be too much to bear?) know what’s behind the smile of every person we see online or in life. We don’t need to know, to carry, the weight or the pain of the Kates and the Anthonys.  


But when we see our family, our friends — the in real life ones, the people we can touch and notice the flecks of different colors of their eyes, when we sit close enough to watch their mouths turn down, even for just a moment, those are the people for which we’re responsible to find out, or at least ask, what’s really going on. Those are the ones to reach your hand out to and squeeze (if that’s your thing), or hug, or lean in and wait for the story. To offer yourself to share their burden. Here is where we put our effort. 


And when we can’t do it in person, if our friend or family lives hours or states or oceans away, it’s through voicemail or text, when we can hear tone and read between lines, when what we’ve seen in pictures fails to run parallel to what we’ve perceived, that’s when to say hey, what’s really up?   


Let’s not forget a smile is just a smile.


Its presence does not equal joy. Or peace. Or love. Or happiness. No matter how much we know (or are told) those are qualities we should possess in spades. 


A smile is not a band-aid nor medication. 


So often, it’s simply a mask.


And we, too often, forget that people hurt, regardless of what they look like on the outside. 





We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

An excerpt from We Wear the Mask by PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR


Photo by Cheryl Winn-Boujnida on Unsplash

Sonya Spillmann

One Comment

  1. So. Beautiful. My heart beat faster just thinking back to that hand-off of Vic from the foster mom to your family, and the complexity of emotions happening in each of you.
    So good what you said about not always needing to know what’s behind people’s smiles online or in real life, but looking to notice the fuller stories of those who ARE in our hearts and inner circles.
    I continue to love your writing.

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