Our family spent the last three months in Southeast Asia and North Africa. Many of those times we found ourselves to be the only Caucasians in the area. We grew accustomed to the stares, head turns, and people stopping to watch us. As much as we tried to blend in, we didn’t. We figured out a way to break the barrier and help the situation to not be so awkward. Our solution – we smiled at everyone we made eye contact with.
What we discovered is that as we made eye contact and smiled, nine times out of ten we got a smile back and sometimes even a laugh or a giggle.
Smiling seems to be the best way we have found to break down the barriers and open the doors to meeting new people. Sometimes smiling at someone catches them off guard and they don’t quite know what to do, so they either quickly look away or instinctively smile back. Smiles do not require translation; everyone recognizes a smile.
I admit it was sometimes difficult to give a genuine smile. After all, it feels awkward to be stared at, but smiling put us at ease, too.
Smiles have opened many conversations and experiences throughout the trip, but one story that stands out is from our 22-hour bus ride between Bali and Java.
We had gotten off the bus and were waiting on the dock for our ferry to arrive to take us over to Java. There were probably over 400 people waiting to get on the ferry, and everywhere we looked people were staring at the four white people waiting with them. We counteracted the awkwardness by consciously smiling at every person possible. After about 20 minutes of smiling until our cheeks hurt, a gentleman walked up to us, followed by a few other young kids. He introduced himself as Mr. Hardy and asked us about our trip to Java. He told us that he was an English teacher at a school in Java and that he had about 250 of his students with him on holiday.
Mr. Hardy asked if it would be possible for us to spend a few minutes speaking English with his kids so they could practice their conversational English. We readily agreed, began talking with the students, and then posed for many, many pictures. Once on the ferry, the pictures and the conversations continued.
When we couldn’t understand each other, what did we do? We smiled and laughed.
The story doesn’t stop there. Mr. Hardy asked us to call him when we got to central Java to spend more time together. He lives in a city about ten minutes away from one of the major temples in the area, Borobudur. He met us there, along with a couple of his students, Emma and Adhiyta. They gave us a private tour around the grounds. It was fascinating, and we learned so much more than if we had toured the temple on our own.
After the tour, Mr. Hardy invited us to share a meal with him and his family. We were able to learn more about them and their lives. Over the next days, Riley and Allison spent more time with Emma, Adhiyta and another student, Bayu, experiencing life in Java from a kid’s perspective.
Many people are amazed at the experiences we have had on this trip. Often, the doors to those opportunities were opened with a simple, genuine smile.
Try smiling at people more and see what happens. Make eye contact and give a smile. Let me know what happens.