When Myanmar eyes are smiling

Smile: A change of facial expression involving a brightening of the eyes and an upward curving of the corners of the mouth, expressive of amusement, pleasure,affection, irony, derision, etc.

This dictionary definition classifies a smile into two types: one expressive of amusement, pleasure and affection, and the other of irony and derision.Call it impudence or “ostrichism”, but this unwordly old ignoramus prefers to give de jure and de facto recognition only to the first type — a welling up of heartfelt pleasure. To label a facial distortion expressive of  irony and derision as a smile is gross misuse of the word. Simply sacrilegious, totally un-Myanmar. Totally un-Myanmar! That’s what it is. We Myanmars smile with our eyes — a brightening of the eyes — or not at all.

One theory has it that the eye is part of the brain reaching out of the skull to get in contact with the outside environment. A smiling eye, in other words, is a smile from the head. An affable smile, for instance. Affable smiles make communications smoother, easier, quicker. And it is this smile from the head that Westerners  refer to as “that mysterious smile of the Orient”. Mysterious to Westerners, perhaps. But to us Orientals, it is a tradition, part and parcel of our culture. A foreigner who comes to understand this “phenomenon” has really got through the barrier between the East and the West. Without an appreciation of this aspect of our culture, there can be no proper understanding of the Myanmar character.

To us, no smile is enigmatic. Not even Mona Lisa’s. As far as we are concerned, the lady isn’t smiling at all. She is simply executing a facial muscular movement expressive of irony and derision. I do not know what Leonardo de Vinci had in mind. Anyway he is no longer around to disagree with this self-appointed expounder of smiles. So there!

Smiles! I still chuckle to myself every time I recall  little episode. I was then no more than this much high, a naughty little boy in baggy khaki shorts. Our class teacher, an Italian nun, had instructed us to learn a passage “by heart”. I had that day, to be sure, turned to a classmate of mine and asked him what “by heart” means. “By half?”,said my good reliable friend. “Why, it means learn half the passage only, of course. Stupid! Don’t you know that much?” I said I didn’t know that much and thanked him profusely for his explicit explanation. I then learned the passage “by half”. When the time came for me to recite it, I did it beautifully — up to the middle of the assigned passage, that is. And then dead stop!

“Yes, you are doing it fine. You’re a good little boy. Go on”, prompted my class teacher.

All quiet on the Eastern Front.

But the Western Front wasn’t so quiet. “Stand on the bench!”, came the order loud and clear. Then she started giving me a long, long lecture on the importance of being earnest and “doing what you are told”, breaking into Italian at times. And true to her race, she was doing it at break-neck speed. Whatever power of comprehension of English I had then went haywire. Not to lose heart, however. “Good old reliable friend” came to the rescue. He whispered from behind me as to what the teacher was saying. So being “a good little boy”, I gave her that affable smile, that smile from the head, hoping to mitigate my case a bit.

“Get out of the class
!” fumed the teacher like a steam locomotive about to leave the railway station platform. “You, un-repenting bad little boy!”  Obviously she considered my smile to be a mere distortion of facial muscles. Irony and derision? Perhaps.

These Westerners! They never know a smile when they see one ! How can “the twain” ever meet?




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