American Smile

In July, I moved to Gyumri, Armenia, and began teaching English and Spanish at a language school. My first class was one where I helped an English teacher with her class of six-year-olds. When I finished introducing myself the the students, one of them, a little girl, told me I had an American smile. Afterward, I devised the following definitions of American Smile.

American Smile: Good teeth. Apparently Americans have an obsession with having perfectly straight, white teeth. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on braces, some for baby teeth that will later fall out. We go to the dentist to get our teeth whitened, drink soda through straws so it won’t stain them. People who live everywhere else in the world do not worry about this. I didn’t spend any money on my teeth. I have naturally "good" teeth, but there’s a slight gap between the bottom two in the front of my mouth. I trained myself to smile so it doesn’t show. It would reveal that I am imperfect.

American Smile: Americans are known for smiling all the time. Maybe this perpetuates the myth that we’re all happy because everything is perfect in America. They say that you can find an American in a photo because they will be the only one smiling. When I was taking photos with my host family, they didn’t smile at all. As soon as I realized this, I stopped smiling, too. But then I worried they would think that I wasn’t enjoying myself. So I became the smiling American again.

American Smile: The music man had one. American con. Gilded dream. The “I’m selling you something” smile. We are selling something. Many people here wear shirts with American flags on them. Half the young people I met in Yerevan said they wanted to move to America. Gohar, my supervisor, wants to visit America. And I sit there and listen and nod and smile whenever they say something nice about America. That goddamn smile. I’m selling something, even me, even here. Even in my homeland. In America it is better. In America we have opportunities. My host mother asks me if everyone in America has their own car, and I try to explain that they don’t. But my family has three cars for three drivers. Even though two of them we got used. Even in telling the truth, I sell America as something it is not. Still, compared to people in Gyumri, people in America have everything. In America everyone has a car. In America we all have our own house with a white picket fence. All shiny and orderly, just like my teeth. And what I can’t show them is the evicted family, the spiraling debt, the people denied healthcare, the racism, bigotry, hatred, xenophobia.

American Smile: Crooked. Fast-talking Yankee. When I was in middle school I wanted a crooked smile because all the interesting book characters had them. The thieves and tricksters. I practiced smiling in the mirror again and again until the left side went further up my face than the right. Now that’s just how I smile. I only ever told one person I did that on purpose. Perhaps self-conscious is the word. We know we are selling something. I know I’m selling something. We’re all used car salesmen. Yes, everybody in America has a car. Would you like to come to America and buy one? I have a car you can buy, I smile. But my smile says not to trust me. We reveal ourselves. We appear too sure of ourselves to really be sure of anything.

American Smile: A little girl in an English class I was in today told me that I have an American smile. The irony is that I smile because I’m happy. I love it here. I am content here in a way I haven’t been in a long time. And that little girl, she makes me happy. She makes me smile. Despite all its flaws, Armenia makes me smile.