Senior Speeches: James Zhao ’19

May 09, 2019


In time, my fake smile became more and more real. I practiced it nonchalantly every day. I felt my worries slowly fading away, and I gradually developed a more optimistic attitude.

Each year, seniors and postgraduates at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School deliver a speech to their peers on a topic of their choosing in the Newhall Auditorium. Often equal parts clever and moving, emotional and personal, each speech offers a glimpse into the lives, experiences, struggles, and triumphs of SSM seniors.

Throughout the 2018-19 school year, we will share these speeches with the SSM community and hope that you enjoy the humor, wisdom, and powerful reflections conveyed by our senior students.  

Today, I’d like to share something I learned here in the United States. First, I have to make it clear that my story is about smiling, not smelling. This is me smiling (demonstrate). This is me smelling (demonstrate). Please understand this story is about smiling.

I have noticed a difference between the American and Chinese cultures. Here, people like saying “Hi” with a smile, even to strangers. But if you are in China, you will notice that people on the street all have poker faces. It is like they are statues made of stone. They don’t say “Hi” to strangers - or if they do, it is with only a little smile. It’s not at all like Saeed and Rubye in the SSM Tutor Video.

The first time I noticed this was during my first year in the U.S. I was fifteen years old and enrolled in a summer program at a place called Wellesley Hill, which is an hour outside of Boston by car. After lunch at my hotel, I went out for a walk. While I was wandering around, I saw a lady walking towards me. At that moment, there were only two of us on the street. I saw her, and she definitely saw me.

Ok, if this was in China, both of us would immediately have taken out our cell phones and pretended to check WeChat until we passed each other. In China, that’s normal. So, as this lady walked towards me, I put my hand into my pocket. Then I realized, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have my cell phone with me!” It was awkward, so I tried to look away to make sure we didn’t make any eye contact. Then she suddenly said “Hi” to me with a big smile. And I was like “What? Why do you say ‘Hi’ to me? Do I even know you?”

To be polite, I still smiled back. Then, after she passed, I realized my smile was terrible. It was actually a “fake smile.” I even started to question myself: “Do I actually know how to smile?” As it turned out, that was a pretty good question.

My first year in the U.S., my facial expression was always stressed. It was not easy for me to accept the fact I’d gotten bunch of Fs because I didn’t understand anything the teacher said in class, and it was not easy for me to make any friends with such a language barrier. I was lonely and helpless. I needed my parents, but they were thousands of miles away in China. That’s why the fifteen-year-old me had a poker face all the time. Back at that time, “life is hard” was the most common phrase I muttered to myself.

But something changed when the lady in Wellesley Hill said “Hi” to me and gave me an angelic smile. When I got back to my hotel, I went straight to a mirror and started smiling in every possible way. With all my stress and worry, I couldn’t make a good smile no matter how closely I imitated the shape of her mouth. Staring at the mirror, the phrase “fake it till you make it!” flew into my head and rinsed off my bewilderment. And that’s what I decided to do.

In time, my fake smile became more and more real. I practiced it nonchalantly every day. I felt my worries slowly fading away, and I gradually developed a more optimistic attitude. So, after four years at Shattuck, here is one message I want to share with you all:

“Don’t smell! Just smile!”

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