I am someone who smiles a lot. At everyone.
It's in my nature.
I have learned over the years that there are places where I have to curtail this because it is not safe or not taken for what it is; simply a smile in greeting.
I learned the lesson the hard way in NYC, smiling at strangers and then getting stalkers and unwanted advances from which I would then have to retreat to a hotel lobby or crowded area.
Living in Boulder, Colorado is a little more open, but I'm still aware that I smile far more than the community around me.
I recently talked a bit about this on Facebook, discussing how my smiles can be interpreted and if it's possible for my smiles to be a kind of racism if I'm smiling more pointedly at women with head scarves or black people, in an attempt to be as welcoming as possible.
The discussion was more thoughtful and considerate than I could have hoped for.
Responses mainly circled around the idea that, yes, it's something to be aware of and it's possible some people would interpret it as a kind of racism, but in general my awareness to ask the question and my true nature being to smile at people all the time anyway, it probably wasn't something to harp on myself too much about.
This was reassuring as I really do want to smile as much as possible.
I had been told by several friends that the people of Laos smiled even more than the people of Thailand, the so called "Land of Smiles".
This seemed unlikely to me. Having spent a few months traveling in Thailand in the past I knew it to be a welcoming culture with smiles in abundance.
However, after spending a few days in Laos last month with my mother, I feel prepared to say it may well be the case.
In Thailand the most common greeting is called a "wai". It involves a slight bow of the head with hands in prayer pose, near the chin area. Laos is similar but it is called a "nop", and I feel like the hands are slightly lower.
While a nop is common, smiling at strangers in the market or on the street, was also very common in Laos.
After two days it dawned on me. Every person I smiled at, smiled back, broadly and genuinely. It felt so natural to me that at first I didn't even realize it, but over time it really sank in; I could smile to my hearts content and it would be reflected and received by those around me.
It was something I had never really experienced before. Except, perhaps, at Burningman.
Of course I'm sure living there longer would illuminate more nuance to casual interaction that I was able to pick up in my single week of travel, but at first glance, I was in love. In love with a people and a country, so beautiful and open.
Over time we find the few places in the world where we can truly be ourselves, at first it feels so natural and comfortable we don't even realize the difference.
Once we identify the change, it is difficult to ever leave and we miss it when we're gone.
Laos, I miss you.
And the friends we made will not soon be forgotten.