It’s OK to Smile

From an interview with Lera Prokourova and Lena Goncharova in Sept. 2000 in Vladivostok, Russia

When I think about our time in San Diego it was a pleasure for me.  All the people and I tried to learn how to work together.  It was a big lesson for me.  It was important how the people can work together.  It was good when people can work together.  It’s different in your country and our country. Lera Prokourova

Two years after participating in the San Diego Pacific Rim Park project, Lera and Lena both remembered how pleasant it was to share smiles.  During the early days of the project they had been very disturbed by the way that San Diegans smiled frequently.  They didn’t understand when, or how, their views of casual smiles changed from negativity to a relaxed enjoyment, but they did change and it was one of the gifts of the project for them.  Unfortunately it made returning home a little sad.  At home in Vladivostok they found that when their smiles were not returned they sometimes felt alone in their own city.

After several days in Vladivostok I understood.  I was also feeling very lonely and detached.  As I walked through the city the averted eyes and avoidance of any pleasant contact, a smile, a nod, began to gnaw at my normal upbeat attitude.  It became physically uncomfortable imagining myself constantly shunned.

Lera tried to explain to me that in Russia people are very independent.  They feel that they must take care of themselves and nobody else and that no one else will take care of them.  She attributes this to a feeling that there is not enough for everyone so they must grab what is there.

Both women talked about their attempts to bring friends together.  Lera spoke of trying to foster a sense of team at her office, telling them that together they can do good things and enjoy each other more.  But neither Lera or Lena had any success.  Their disappointment was worsened by having experienced something beautiful and then having people tell them that what happened is not possible, or has no value.

Lera tried to explain the Russian attitude that created the difficult interactions of the early days of the Pacific Rim Park project.

When our political country was the Soviet Union we didn’t like foreigners.  We could survive without foreigners.  We were strong.  We can do this, build our country without foreigners.  That was when people believe all things came from the country (the government of the Soviet Union).   The country owns everything.  No one owns anything.  The buildings, stores, cafes… all belong to the country.  We became like bad housekeepers….

We don’t think let’s make land better… I must make this piece of land be better. I think Chinese people are great people because they can do so much in their philosophy.  In China they must work.  They don’t live if they don’t work because they have so many people in small space.          Lera Prokourova

Lena listened intently.  Her feelings were evident in her face and voice.  She was hesitant to engage in any discussion about the project.  A cloud came over her face as she told me that she was afraid to remember.  “Maybe the memories will bring more pain than good”, she told me. Then she asked if I always smiled, even when I was not happy.

Lera Prokourova, Lena Goncharova, and Kathy Louv June 1998 Torrey Pines beach, San Diego

I told her that sometimes I could not smile, but I try because I don’t want other people to feel badly because of me.  When I said this a certain tension left her body and her expression changed from something like anxiety to something more relaxed.  My thoughts on the subject seemed to clear up some concerns that she had. My admission that I did not always behave the way she came to expect Americans to be behave seemed to give her the freedom to move easily between those two different ways of expressing herself.  Giving and receiving smiles had become a pleasant experience, but she could not understand why it didn’t feel so good to smile freely at home.

I have often looked back at that moment and thought about what happened for her as she seemed to give herself permission to integrate her two different ways of being.  I can only conjecture what caused her to so suddenly relax. In San Diego she had discovered a new way of being but had no idea that she could integrate that expression into her life in Russia, thinking that they were disconnected parts of herself, that she had to be one or the other.

From that moment in the conversation she spoke about herself, and the project in San Diego, more freely and candidly, and showed me many wonderful smiles.