Politics of Smiling

On my trip home last year, a man in his early thirties with whom I shared an airplane aisle exclaimed upon discovering that I was from Thailand, “Aren’t Thais supposed to be smiley?” I wasn’t offended; I’ve been informed repeatedly throughout my two decades of existence that I have a Resting Bitch Face (RBF). In elementary school, my classmates would constantly ask why I was sulking (I wasn’t). In summer camp, during an activity where anonymous compliments were sent around class, I received one that read, “I know you’re a nice person deep down." In high school, my friends called me Scar (as in Mufasa’s brother), and I’ve told countless people that I didn’t care how many muscles it took to smile. What took me by surprise was that a foreigner actually reckoned—albeit jokingly—that being Thai equated to being smiley. Guidebooks like Lonely Planet have a habit of calling Thailand the “Land of Smiles." While the term isn’t necessarily wrong (smiling is a prevailing component of Thai culture—you can ask your friend who backpacked South East Asia), I find its usage problematic. The phrase is frequently utilized by tourism ads, travel blogs, and marketing campaigns that cater primarily to the West. Pico Iyer writes in his essay,“The City of Angels at 3:00 A.M.” that Bangkok is a city “of professional charmers that has long known that it can best get what it wants by giving visitors everything that they want.” Cities like Bangkok—capitals of countries whose economy depend largely on the tourism industry—often create veneers suited for the palette of western guests underneath which its inhabitants are conditioned to live. Repeated use of the misleadingly flattering nickname as a marketing device creates a code that the country and its residents are pressured to uphold, namely that we should and must welcome and cherish tourists. It fosters the unrealistic expectation of perpetually happy, accommodating citizens who will, to borrow Iyer's words, "give visitors everything that they want."

I am reminded of imperialist nostalgia, which Abraham Verghese defines as, “romanticizing the past while choosing not to remember the particular injustices of that period.” In other words, it is the hypocritical pining for traditions that thrived pre-colonialization without acknowledging the imperialist forces that erased those very ways of living. While Thailand has never been formally colonized (it remains the only South East Asian nation to have averted imperial invasions) the idea of yearning for the simple, traditional (and perhaps even ‘primitive’) life still applies, thanks to the workings of Orientalism, cultural and linguistic colonialism, as well as notions of the "The Third World." 

I’m sure the man on the plane meant no harm. In fact, I probably responded with a laugh. But earlier this year, while I was contemplating the misogyny of RBF (the idea that RBF is sexist has now been backed by science in a study conducted last October), his comment returned from the periphery of my memory. The common perception of women with RBF as bitchy and uptight puts unwarranted pressure on women to be friendly and smiley; I realized that this didn’t differ much from the typical traveler’s expectation of Thailand to be brimming with smiles.

While it may seem an unlikely comparison, the popularity of RBF and the use (and abuse) of “The Land of Smiles” both beg the question: for whom are these smiles? Ultimately, it boils down to power. RBF is a phenomenon that urges society to demand (literal) smiles from less privileged genders (think: misogyny). Tourism is a mechanism that urges societies to demand (literal and figurative) smiles from less powerful nations (think: neocolonialism). The fact that I didn’t immediately think twice about the comment goes to show the exasperating balance into which the world appears to have settled—one that allows certain groups to demand happiness from others.  

Illustration by Pimploy Phongsirivech and Taylor Roberts