Thursday, June 29, 2006

Losing one’s “smileginity”

Smileginity – lacking the experience of smile tagging (coined by my sister before embarking on her first experience with Trishna and I).

Lots of people lost their smileginity when I was in London =)

First, came a friend from Toronto, who currently lives in London. After a meal where she commented about the lack of openness and warmth in London, particularly in comparison to the tdot, it seemed like a great time to spread the kindness. Armed with smiles stones, we were off. As we neared a bank, I handed her a stone and nudged her to give it to the guard. The guard saw me do this and asked her if it was because I thought he was good looking…. Sure. Whatever will make him smile right.

As we made our way from Holburn to Waterloo bridge and back to Victoria station, we would go up to strangers: “Can I share a smile with you?” Man is London one hard city to crack! People looked at us with bewilderment at times, whiles other would at least say no thank you. We got a “fock off” too, but for the majority of our rejections, they at least smiled while saying no, so mission accomplished! The tourists were awesome! They always broke out into a huge smile.

Despite the rejections, my friend was out there handing them out left and right. She did a better job than I did! Soon, we were sharing stories of people we’d encounter who epitomized what smile tagging was about. They didn’t need smile cards or smiles stones, these people were them!

An European man (Armenian I think) runs a small coffee shop near her flat. He knows all the neighbours and is continually inviting people in to have some tea. Don’t try paying him though if he invites you in: I invited you, he says, don’t you dare think of paying. He listens to each person’s stories with care. It was too late to meet him, but I could just imagine the love and warmth radiating from this small shop.

Then there was the man in the tube. He couldn’t use his legs so he used braces/canes with his two arms. When I saw him I was walking into the empty platform with stones in my hand. As I looked over, he smiled so I went over to show/give him some. An even bigger smile (if that was possible) broke out on his face as he saw the faces.

“Here, these are for you.”
“What are they for?”
“They’re to make people smile. Just to spread some joy.”
He looks me straight in the eyes and say, “Give them to people who actually need them. In my condition, you can do one of two things, laugh or cry. I choose to smile.”
Speechless, I smiled and walked on.

Smile virgin number 2: my cousin.

Perfect person to lose her smileginity. As a ticketing agent for American Airlines, she sees loads of people each day leaving for destinations across the globe. Now she has her own jar of smile stones to give to children and frustrated customers to lighten up their day.

Smile virgin number 3: my sister

She knows about the concept, has signed up for the smile newsletter and has even tagged a friend or two, but strangers are a whole new ball game. Grabbing some roses, candy and business cards with inspirational quotes, my sister, Trishna and I were off. London, as I had already discovered, is def not as friendly or open as California. Apparently, I was lucky, people were becoming warmer as the weather became warmer. If there was a place where people needed some cheer, it would be London.

The evening started off with Trishna and I approaching random people giving out candy and roses, while my sister watched. We both had different technique, I was a give and go person, while Trishna stopped and talked to people. Soon we were both mixing it up a bit, when we realized Sej was just watching. Refusing to tag anymore, we waited for Sej to share some love. With a rose and card in hand, she’s off.

“Maam, can I give you a rose?.”
“No thanks.”
“Excuse me, can I give you a rose?”
“Hi, can I give you a rose?”
“It’s alright.”

Rejection times three… things were not going well. Change up what you’re saying. So she did.

“Hi, this rose is for you.”
“For me?”
“Yea, my friends and I are out spreading some kindness. We heard about this website from a friend, where people do nice things for others, got inspired and are out here. No gimmick. Just wanted to make you smile.”
“Thank you,” with a huge smile on her face.


There was the woman who looked at me funny when asked her if I could give her rose. “No, no,” and then she points to her son, “that’s my son.” I realized she didn’t speak much English, I again try to give her a rose, when she shakes her head, I move on. A few moments later, I see her again.
“Maam, can I give you this rose. It goes perfectly with what you’re wearing” The yellow complimented her red sweater.
“How much?”
“It’s free”
“Three?” holding out three fingers.
I make a zero with my own. “Free.”
She looks at her son, who gives a small nod. With a smile, she takes the rose. As we walk away, I see the two of them reading the smile card.

I guess they continued to watch us before passing us. As we neared the intersection, we see a woman coming towards us with a yellow rose in her hand already. As we look ahead, we see the woman and son walking on, no rose in hand. They had already continued the chain of kindness.
One of the guards at the House of Parliament took a rose and candy. While putting them aside because he was on duty, he promised to pick them up and give them to someone walking by, whom he thought needed some cheer.

We tried to do the same with some police officers (ask them to pass them out). Since they were on duty, they couldn’t accept. But a conversation did ensure, covering what we were doing, why we were doing it and an invitation to dinner for my sister (I tell you, smile tagging could be a great way to “meet” people ;).

After tagging some cars, hitting up the tube station (GREAT place to tag), passing on cards to taxi drivers and helping an Italian family navigate the tube, we ran out of supplies. With smiles on our faces, we headed home.

“So what did you think?”
“Not bad. That was interesting,” replied Sej.

Smile virgins 4 - 6
The next day, me and Sej were out for lunch with some of friends. As we left the tube station and walked to Nando’s, which apparently has great chicken for you non-vegs, I spied a Tesco express (the same store we had bought flowers and candy from the previous day). Remembering the smile cards in my pack and seeing the 4 able-bodied people around, what better time and place could there be to go tagging?

After eating, Karim and I go to grab some flowers and candy. A very interesting conversation ensued (paraphrased below).

“So what exactly are we doing?” I had simply told them that we’re going to do an experiment.
“Spreading kindness. We’re going to give random people flowers/candy, along with a smile card.”
“Why here? Why are you spending your time and money on people in London, who are relatively well off. Why not do something for the poor people in India or elsewhere, where people need assistance and would actually appreciate what you are doing? People here won’t care.”

Whoa. Heavy loaded question. Why? What’s the point. Even in the short while that I’ve been doing this, I can’t really say that anyone has really asked me that. Something felt right so I do it, but I never had to verbalize it. So I began my attempt and thanks to Gibran, I had someone else to help support my argument.

In the Prophet, there is this great passage on giving. (posted at the end of this post). It is Gibran talks about givers thinking of those who are most worthy of their gifts. The prophet goes on to say (paraphrase from what I could recall at that moment) who are we to decide who is worthy or unworthy. If each of us has been given the gift of life already by the Almighty, who are we to say that someone is not worthy of what we have to give. We are not giving something as precious as life itself.
I could tell the argument wasn’t persuasive. Time to try again. I was fortunate to be the person in this discussion.

You talk of giving to the poor, well I’m going to India. I’m going to work with the poor, yet I still feel like this is worth my time. Think about this way. All these people, who are well-off, who might not appreciate this, are going along their usual routine, wrapped up in their own lives. Maybe today, maybe when we do this, one person will “wake up,” be jolted out of their world for even a second and think wow, this is cool, I should continue this chain and do something kind for someone. It doesn’t matter if that someone is a stranger or a friend. The point is that they have taken action. They have performed an act of kindness. Kindness like anything else must be developed. Today we might give someone the push they need. Only through giving, can one develop one’s capacity to give. Today they’ll give once. Maybe tomorrow or the day after, they’ll have the desire to give again. Slowly the ball will pick up momentum. Today, you and I are willing to do something for the poor. Maybe tomorrow, this person too will feel the desire to do something for those people too. In these acts, we are not only developing our own capacity to be kind, but potentially helping someone else develop their own.

As I said it, I realized I was getting to one of the reasons that I did all this. Only through giving, can one develop one’s capacity to give.

Aiight. Let’s give this a shot. I hand him the candy and a bunch of smile cards and take the roses and we’re off. We meet up with the others, disperse the candy and make our way back to the tube. Sej and Karim go off on their own and really quickly, you could see Karim was having a blast. Two of the others enjoyed it two, while the fourth found the process a bit intimidating, which I wholly admit it is, especially the first time.

Soon we see the Evening Standard stand. It was the tag that a friend had mentioned before. We pull out some pounds and smile cards and hand them to the lady at the stand. As she tries to hand us a paper, we explain. Bewildered, she agrees and accepts some candy also and we’re off again.

The tube like I said is a great place to tag. By the time I got inside, Karim and Sej had already tagged all the workers and Karim was looking a rapidly dwindling supply of candy. The train ride was the best. Everyone in our vicinity had candy and cards. People were talking to us about what we were doing and one girl told her boyfriend that he had to take the cards to Australia with him and pass them on! As we stepped on the train, you could feel the positive vibrations coming from that car.

The day was a success. By the time I handed Karim the rest of my cards, he and Sej had already decided to go tagging again.

Tagging reflections
One interesting conversation occurred on the street as a woman inquired about what we were doing upon receiving a rose. As we explained, she summed up our observations of London.

“Good luck. People in London are very skeptical. They won’t take stuff from strangers.”
“All the more reason to do this in London.”

She was bang on. From the three days of tagging, the responses were consistent. People here have become trained to be suspicious of strangers. People asked us what the catch was. We often had to say “free” before giving something out in order for someone to take it. People expected some catch and were surprised when there was none. It was the perfect place to tag. In California, it was so easy. Smile at someone and they’d smile back. Here, people looked at me funny. I bet the weather does make a difference. Plus California is its own little world, where people tend to be more open and friendly. London needed the cheer. One day, I was walking through London with my kaki while handing out smile stones. Upon seeing that I got rejected 4 of 5 times, she said that Londoners won’t accept things from strangers. It didn’t matter though, for the most part they at least smiled when they saw the stones. London was an experience. Maybe I got hooked on tagging while in California because it was so easy. In London, I really experienced and realized what Rev Heng Sure said:

Being brittle and hard is easy,
It takes courage to be kind.

It really does.


Anonymous said...

great smile stories! i was most touched by your persistence in working London... how you remained undeterred in the face of rejection. can't wait for more of the india stories

Hima Bohima fe fi Fohima? said...

what an incredible story heena! i would love to try something like that out...especially after hearing so much from Nipun and Guri at the YJA convention, have any tips?