The occidental weakness of smiling

This weekend, while walking along the Burke-Gilman trail from where I live to Woodinville, I came upon a group of octogenarian Japanese tourists. I don’t know why they were on the trail, nor how they’d come to be there. They looked like some sort of old-person delegation because one of them waved a rather large Japanese flag. Whatever the case, they milled about near the wooden bridge that connects the trail to the town of Bothell. Most of them were pretty frail but all of them seemed to be in good spirits. As I approached, it became obvious that they were making fun of men on recumbent bikes. One had just passed, reclined as though on a wheeled deck chair, cranking handles to propel himself instead of pedalling, with a jaunty flag twirling from a tall antenna. When you walk the trail, you get used to the sight of these bikes and the men who ride them, but the Japanese had presumably not seen such a thing before and fell over one another with laughter. One old man pantomimed the man on the bike and an old woman laughed so hard that her dentures popped out. This caused more laughter and chattering that didn’t sound anything like the archetypal Japanese I had learned at the movies—growled foundations of nouns followed by explosions of verbs, always with a san somewhere in them, always sounding like a confluence of bitter disappointment and strained indignation.

What had become of Japan? I thought. Where were its stoic people, dedicated to perfection and ritual? Set them loose in America, it seemed, and they fell apart.

Suddenly, another old man barked an order. By then I had stopped altogether, as had others. Still laughing and babbling, the group began to arrange itself for a photo. The man with the camera took up his position.

Sei—” he warned.

The old Japanese settled down and frowned at the camera.

No—” the man with the camera continued.

All twenty or so of them stiffened into Edwardian black-and-whiteness, and then he snapped the picture.

Instantly, the old people dissolved into laughter and bantering. As I walked on, I marvelled at this. In the West, people had been posing all smiles and hand gestures for decades, no matter how they felt. With the advent of the smartphone, that habit had spread to the East as well, where, as in the West, it had lowered IQs all around and now infected everyone under the age of fifty. It had always seemed idiotic to me to go down in history with a grin. Who knew what was to become of Japan, I thought as I took the bend at 102nd Avenue, or of all of us, but at least the families of these old people would remember their grandparents for how they truly were, disappointed and indignant at what they saw in America.

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