Where did all the smiles go?


On the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train, it’s very quiet and people often look serious. The people on public transit reminds me of the atmosphere in Vancouver, Canada. It’s considered rude to speak loud and often the transit signs tell you to put your cell phone on vibrate.

In the nine months I’ve spent in Cambodia and Indonesia, I’ve gotten so used to seeing people with the most genuine smiles wherever I went, whether they were just say hello in passing or if I was visiting a friend.

When I lived at my Khmer (Cambodian) friend’s house, I would feel very rude if I didn’t look people in the eye and smile as I passed them. In Vancouver, Canada where I’m from, people generally look straight ahead and mind their own business. If you try and talk to someone you don’t know on the street, they’ll often think you want something from them or give you a weird look.

In Lombok, Bali and Yogyjakarta in Indonesia, as soon as you sit down at a very local market or hangout and someone notices you’re a foreign visitor, she or he will immediately ask where you’re from and have a conversation with you. It’s friendly and fun. Even if the police tries to find an excuse to fine a foreign visitor, my friend said, “If you don’t smile and talk with them, they are more likely to give you a fine. If you are friendly back, they will often let you go.”

The friendly kids in Lombok island in Indonesia who ran and biked towards us to talk and laugh with us.

The minute I’ve landed in Taipei, I feel the efficiency and speed of the city. There’s a sense of rush with the passengers and people generally don’t smile at each other, say “please” and “thank you.” The staff are quick to process people’s passports and unlike Cambodia and Indonesia, I feel like if I ask simple questions, I’m wasting their time. I do, however, appreciate the efficiency and speed of the service.

Welcome to Taipei.

It’s a different culture and it’s interesting for me to experience these contrasting behaviours in short periods of time. I’m not saying that not greeting each other is necessarily bad, it’s just different, but not my preferred way of interacting with people. Though my friend said the way people drive in parts of the city, they’d rather risk hitting a pedestrian than risk being late for their next destination. But this is the city and like many countries around the world, big cities have a different culture on their own compared to more rural parts or smaller cities.

My friend Sopheak’s wonderful family who welcomed be in their home in Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap. They, like many Cambodians I know, love laughing and joking around.

I’m seeing my best friend in Kaohsiung and she said her Taiwanese friends have been so sweet to offer to lend her their pillows, their bigger rooms and other items when they found out I was visiting. They’ve asked her, “Do you need an extra pillow? Do you want to switch rooms because I have a double bed?” I’m looking forward to experiencing the atmosphere in Kaohsiung soon and how it may differ from Taipei.

So far in all the places I’ve been, I would prefer to be long term in a place where people smile at each other when they pass and say hello.



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