Lesson 5: “Smiles Don’t Mean Happiness”

The title of this post is quoted by Attorney Yu, an older woman in our office whose strong presence and wisdom is bottled into a petite frame. During our latest Friday meeting, Director asked everyone give their opinion on an article praising attorneys in India for their happy demeanor despite busy work schedules. In response, Attorney Yu stated that smiles don’t mean happiness. She went on to say that Zhicheng’s duty is to work hard for migrant workers, children, and those without voices. She explained that public interest attorneys do not need to smile because the stories they hear aren’t always happy. She ended by stating that if Zhicheng continued to work hard it will lead to a better future for all and thus lead to happiness. Her speech was very inspiring and although I could not understand everything, I could understand the feeling.

Side Note: I know that public interest work is very domestically centered (unless you are doing comparative research), but it would be great to have a forum where public interest agencies around the world could gather to discuss issues facing the poor and vulnerable. It could be a forum for them to discuss social issues, self-care techniques, etc. Just a thought.

I chose Attorney Yu’s quote for this post because it is a statement that well reflects the challenges of this week and the skills I am building in China. On Thursday after work, a few of us went to karaoke to celebrate the work of one of our staff members, Sophie. After a year at Zhicheng, Sophie is leaving for graduate school in the UK. [Sophie was also interviewed in the OZY article found, here.] To be honest, karaoke is one of my favorite things about China. Here, you are given a private room for just you and your friends, where you can eat, drink, and sing until your throat hurts. Some rooms also provide tambourines and maracas for fast-tempo fun.

 Since our KTV group combined a mix of attorneys, Chinese students, and foreigners the first few songs were a bit awkward, but after a while we all lightened up. I know a few songs in Chinese but the song list also had hits from America and the UK. As the night began to wind down, Sophie sang this song lead by a children’s group about the possibilities of growing up and changing the world. However, as she sang the happy song, a sadness filled the room. I could tell she was holding back tears behind her smile. When she hugged us at the end of the night, I knew she did not regret her decision but it was hard for her to say good-bye.

 I think the beautiful thing about KTV in China is that it is a place for the Chinese to let their hair down. Walking the halls of the KTV you will hear people yelling and although it seems strange, the screaming is a way for them to destress. Chinese culture is very much about navigating both the said and unsaid. On many occasions, what is said is the opposite of how a person will feel. For example, while riding the subway there was an elderly lady standing in front of me. I quickly stood so she could take my seat, but she quickly rejected and even pushed me down so I would not get up for her. I told her multiple times that my stop was next and she could sit, but she adamantly refused. So, I sat. Finally, I got up for my stop and the woman quickly sat in my seat. It wasn’t that she did not want to sit down, she just didn’t want to seem like I had to get up for her. Many Chinese people have told me that I am too polite. Actually, the translation of “you’re welcome” in Chinese is actually “don’t be polite”. However, once again this is just a part of the culture.

               Living in China, even now, has taught me a lot about paying attention to people’s meaning beyond what they say. Since I cannot understand everything that is said to me, context clues, facial expressions, and other movements help complete the dialogue. Having a certain level of EQ is very important for attorneys to develop relationships with their clients and understand the full situation presented to them by their clients. I have been told that attorneys must find a balance between trusting their clients but also maintaining skepticism.  We are told to have a good day or smile but, if we understand that smiles don’t mean happiness maybe we will pay attention to the person more.

High of the Week: I sang an entire song in Chinese!!!

Delta of the Week: Let’s pay attention to the said as well as the unsaid