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Are non-smiling people unkind? - 15 February 2007 Back to stories index

Today is Thursday and I just came back from a one week long get together trip with new friends in the northern Thailand. Sitting in front of my table covered with letters, faxes, newspapers, bills, tax document, and unanswered messages I think about an aspect of human relationship - the smile factor. It came to my mind several times in the past years along with other things, but this time it is telling me to write something about it.

At the farewell dinner our friends from the west talked about how kind and friendly the people of a country (they were talking about south east asian countries) were because they smiled all the times (to them?). I suddenly remembered my mother who seldom smile. But it would be a very long story for such a late night dinner so I kept it in me.

My mother was born in a remote village in upper Myanmar without the help of a trained nurse. She joined her elder brother and parents to live in jungle camps where her father worked as a timber worker for Bombay Burma - a British timber company who started mass extraction of wood (teak, padauk, ironwood, etc.) from Myanmar's forest for mostly export.

At 8 she had 2 younger siblings, and she was already helping her mother with all the household matters. She took care of children, cleaning the place, clothes, kitchen; and whenever they had to move to other logging site she had to do the packings. Many times the younger brothers went missing in the forest and it was her responsibility to find them no matter when and where.

Thus she was virtually brought up in the forest and village setting and with elephants. At 11 she still did not have a chance for formal school study. After 11 her parents sent her to study in a school nearby the logging camp. So she went to the school to learn writing and reading with other students much younger than hers. At the same time her duty at home was not getting lighter. In fact she now needed to take care of more siblings - altogether 5 excluding the one who died at birth.

Her school days were short lived. At 14 the logging sites moved to a place which was far from the village in which the school was. Thinking about children' education her parents left two sons in the village to continue their study but my mother had to go with them because she was needed.

She packed and loaded things onto the elephants again. She said good bye to her school friends whom she would never meet again. While she was on the elephant back she asked her father, who was walking along side the elephants, where and when she could go to study again. Her father, who himself never went to a school but did self study, said she could study at the camp whenvever she had time.

So her life went on from camp to camp, spending much of her time taking care of younger children, the camp, and the tools of the logging trade as well as cooking and many other things. Her only friends were elephant trainers, other timber workers - all older than her, and the elephants ofcourse. In the morning she went out to gather vegetable and make breakfast. Then came taking care of younge children and the camp. Chicken and pigs were also part of her duty. After a while she did not think much about education than bathing the elephants in the river. Some times their camps came to a small village and she could try to find few friends of similar age.

During the second World War the timber company moved to India. Her family and their friends, relatives and coworkers had to move somewhere to avoid the fighting warriers. At that time communication was difficult. News were coming from different places by people who came back, and they were sometimes very confusing.

At one time, my mother told me, they received two different information. One people said Japanese troops were advancing from the east and they should go to the north or west. Other one informed them that Japanese were coming from the south but they should not go to the west since it was the retreating route of British and was constantly under Janpanese bombing, so instead they must go the east. To get correct information her father and one friend took horses to a small town in the east to see. In the middle of the scout they saw in a distance a village under fire. They did not know what actually happened or who was fighting who. No sign of Japanese were there to see. They assumed that that was an ethnic conflict (fighting between two different races probably because of past divide and rule system). They immediately came back and after an urgent two minute discussion a decision was made to cross the river to the west bank. They planned to go to the north along the western bank of the river. But as the only hand-paddled wooden boat had left taking some children and old people they heard rifle fires from the east and the sounds got louder. So the rest of the party had no way but to wade through the river to the other side. My mother had to carry the youngest brother of 2 years on her shoulder while carrying some of the family belongings. My mother told me on that day the river looked too wide, and the current felt too strong to walk. The water was chest deep. Somehow they all managed to help each other to the other side where they entered into the forest and stayed a night in the hills. Next day they started their 2 days walk to the south (they changed their mind) to a town where they split into groups and went each way.

During the second World War and aftermath of the war the family was constantly moving from place to place. Some children were in a place with relatives and friends. Other children with parents were in another place where the father could find a job to feed them. Since her childhood, through marriage and until we were old enough to understand the life my mother life has been a constant struggle. She was not formally educated not because she did not want to. She raised her brothers and sisters who later became officers and managers in government departments and companies. She continued to raise us through poverty. This time she could not efford to ignore education; she knew from her life that her children must have education to live the proper life. We lived in a low of the lowest standard of living, shared the same clothes and slippers, ate only broken rice with a tea spoon of cooking oil and a fish paste. She sold one by one the belongings received from her parents and relatives. But mother never failed to send all her children to school. She only hoped that before all means we had exhausted one of the children should complete education and enter the work place. She was competing against the time which looked unrealistic to many including our relatives.

Mother rarely smiles. That is true. All my childhood friends who know my mother for years understand and love mother. However whenever I took new friends home to meet mother they did not understand why my mother did not smile to them. People even thought that mother was unkind or unfriendly. I did not try to explain them because I knew it would be not easy to make them understand why. It would surely take time since their lives were different or unthinkably dissimilar.

One day I watched a stage show in our town with mother. The show included an episode in which two very famous commedians cracked jokes. I believed almost all in the town came to the show to listen and laugh. Many did not have a place to stand in front of the stage. These people, including us, had to stand across a car road. It was a very good show and people were having very good time. I laughed all the time. Mother also smiled. Suddenly a very young boy ran across the road and fell in the middle. The cars were coming and going all the time. The boy could not stand up right away. Everyone who saw the boy were like in comar - shock. They never expected to see a boy lying on the road at such a perfect joke show. I myself, 13 already at that time, did not know what to do on the spot. What I saw was my mother taking the little boy in her arms and ran back to the safety. I did not know when she ran to the boy. If she was late by, say, few seconds the boy could be hit by a speeding car.

Currently I am teaching in a school in Yangon and also giving training to interns in a company owned by a friend of mine. In the company I tell the younger members to think and learn what they still don't know, that is, to actually think - which is different from not thinking and making a judgement from what they see and listen. However in the school where I teach communication for business I am doing a little different thing, so to speak. One of my lesson is about presentation and networking for benefit. To be successful people need access, chance, opportunity. Apart from nature and situation of the place these things come from people; from yourself and or from others. If it is from other people they need to know you, love you or respect you. In short they need to be your friends. Otherwise they will not likely to give you anything. My lesson is how to present yourself to be accepted as a friend, how to network with people, etc. so as to make yourself exposed to more and more opportunities. Smiling and being nice are big parts of the talk.

However I have yet to tell them not to assume an un-smiling people as un-kind. I think I will tell this story to my students next time.


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