A few weeks ago, I had to have my picture taken by a professional in order to renew my passport. I had some thought, as the photo will follow me for 10 years from now, that I should not take it so lightly in choosing the place as I did when I had my long hair chopped half in a local hair shop, which made me look 13 year old. So I took the chance of being in Seoul one day and found the photo shop on the main street of Gangnam which often considered to be the show window of mainstream culture.
After I was given time to groom myself in front of the mirror, I sat and took his guide to turn my head around following his finger. Then he said, “now smile.” In my whole life I’ve been trained to react to this specific command from any stranger. I could feel the ends of my lips pushing up. Some flash. Seeming not quite satisfied, he told me to smile more. Now the edges of my mouth moved against their comfort zone. Some more flash. He approached me while watching the screen of the camera. He said no matter how many shots he takes it doesn’t help if I don’t change my face expression. I should have felt insulted to be honest. I didn’t come here to generate whole beautiful me, I’m here to get my passport photo taken that looks the best of me. Rather, I felt embarrassed for not fulfilling the basic task that we all practice secretly and perform in our everyday lives. To smile. To look friendly and warm. The evident shame dutifully motivated me to pull more muscles and think happy.
I got out to come back in 30 minutes to pick up the copies. I headed to a bookstore nearby. There I grabbed two books, Stoner by John Williams and We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, and thought which one I want to buy more. I had about 13 new books arrived a few weeks ago. It may not be the best idea to buy another book. Despite the reasoning, I picked up Stoner and paid at the cashier. I imagined the book would tell me somewhat full of things and full of nothings. The back of the book read:
William Stoner enters the University of Missouri at nineteen to study agriculture. Later, he becomes a teacher. He marries the wrong woman. His life is quiet, and after his death his colleagues remember him rarely.
Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value. Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life. A reading experience like no other, itself a paean to the power of literature, it is a novel to be savoured.
I went back to the photo shop to pick up my photos and came home. I didn’t open them until I got home. The smile looked great. Except for that one awkwardly raised eyebrow, I looked perfect in the square frame. I was a bit upset about the perfectness, though. Obviously they were retouched. They were retouched to make me look more beautiful. Clear and bright skin, smile without wrinkles, and I actually think my jaw looks thinner in the picture. But I say, my non-smiling regular Asian face should be okay for photograph. I didn’t come smiling and looking all fabulous to this world. I was feeling pain and scared. That’s my default face. I do enjoy the idea of carrying around the best photo of me for 10 years. But I’m afraid admiring that beautiful version of me will only create the delusion that that’s the real me. I like putting on makeup and look fabulous. But this deliberate change of my face by a stranger and the fake smile made for myself feels somehow offensive.
Photograph: Eris Setiawan
What does it mean to be kind to someone? I remember having learned to be kind but I don’t remember being taught what kindness is. Instead, my elementary school teacher told me to hold hand of someone who’s handicapped. She never told me why it’s a good thing or how it helps him feel better. 20 years later, I learned that kindness isn’t about holding hands and that it only discouraged me from showing the act of kindness.
“What do you think?” he asked. That usually means someone wants my opinion. I told him how I think of his work as carefully as I could. He said, instead of taking my advice, “let’s see how the professor thinks about my work.” Giving an advice is tricky. But I found that by asking what they think is worried about first, sharing ideas may be more pleasant.