• Lijing Cobb

Different faces

Have you ever noticed that you see a different face of yours in a mirror that’s not your own?

We are on spring break visiting dear friends in sunny Florida. I get in the bathroom to freshen up, and when I look up in the mirror, I see my face, but with different features highlighted. Weird but normal, this happens all the time while I’m away from home.

When we are uprooted from our familiar homestead, something inside us is shifted and we become different in noticeable ways. Gone are the confidences that come only with knowing where we are and what’s to be expected. We are unsettled and on the tips of our toes, alert for new information and fresh experiences. Of course, our whole body needs to adjust to the new stimuli. Our face being the part of our body we see most in the mirrors, naturally we notice differences.

At least that’s my theory, so don’t quote me on that if you want to be scientifically bullet-proof.

The unsettling thing is that, for me at least, the differences I notice are invariably undesirable. Suddenly I seem more wrinkled, pale, dehydrated, lopsided, or just plain weird. I have to stop looking and try to remember what I look like in my own mirrors, so I replay the images in my head and visualize the me back home. But the question is unavoidable: have I always looked this way? Do I just manage to overlook the disconcerting features I see in a strange mirror back home? Does it take a different mirror for me to see my true face? Or is it that my true self as reflected by my home face goes into hiding when I’m away? What’s going on?

If everyone has a home face and a vacation face, how come I have not noticed it in my children or my husband? How come they get to keep their beautiful, pretty, cute, handsome faces away from home?

My in-laws just entered their 80’s. Their home is cozy. The kitchen is tiny. The dining room is compact. The extended family, however, is of a good size, some 20 people in total. Even though not everyone would be in the same place at the same time anymore, still, Thanksgiving could be pretty crowded. Despite all these potential handicaps, my mother-in-law insists on hosting Thanksgiving at her home. Perhaps she really doesn’t like the mirrors in her offsprings’ houses. No judgment. When we are really used to doing something in a certain way, relinquishing control can become very off-putting. When there’s too much time on our hands and too much attention can be paid to our face in new mirrors, what we see does not always please our eyes and mind.

So here I’d like to propose two ideas: one, of the therapeutic and beautifying values of home living. Two, of the harsh scrutiny and judgment we place on ourselves when we find ourselves in new environments.

As human beings we crave comfort and relaxation, and generally we find it most at home. We put our masks aside, let down our guards, put on our comfy clothes, and glide through our house effortlessly. We know where everything is, how everything is done, and we set our own expectations. We are where we belong, and our body, including our face, knows it. So that’s why when we look into the mirror we see the face we want to see: a young, vibrant, happy, contented face full of love, kindness, and promises (hopefully, ideally). We are ok… no, we are fabulous. Home offers us our best potentials.

Away from our home mirrors, we wake up the vigilante in us and turn on the alarm. We must be on high alert to preserve the integrity of our being. The more suspicious we are towards the world, the higher the degree of alert. All of a sudden many every day gestures become a conscious maneuver and add to the burdens of our central nervous system. If I usually snap at my child for misbehaving in a certain way, in public I can’t do exactly that. I must therefore first check my impulse to do the routine thing, then search my brain for an appropriate alternative that would be acceptable to the rest of the world and still get my point across. Once delivered, I’m still wondering either whether what I said or did was ok to the rest of the world, or if I effectively got my point across. Failing either or both, my nervous system feels the jolt of hostile juice rising. My nerves are upset. Ugly face.

My poor husband couldn’t leave his work to go on vacation with us, so I’m shouldering the responsibility of herding all the kids in a strange city all by myself. When we arrived at our destination nearing midnight on Monday, I knew I had to get us to the car rental and then drive all of us in a vehicle I’ve never driven before for 45 minutes in the dark while trying to stay awake. All sorts of alarms were going off in my head, and when my son questioned why we were sitting in the car for 5 minutes and not moving (I was looking for the power button for a minute, finding out how to adjust my seat for 3 minutes, adjust the mirrors, setting up navigation…), I snapped at him like a dry firecracker. Ugly face. In the middle of my drive someone pulled up alongside me, beeped the horn and flashed the light. My heart jumped, then I realized I must have not turned on the head lights. Sure enough, I'd been driving for the past 20 minutes without headlights on in the pitch darkness. Feeling foolish, although my car back home never requires turning the lights on, I reprimanded myself for not realizing it sooner and therefore putting us all in jeopardy through my ignorance. Uglier face. Without a car mount for my phone, the navigation stays out of my sight, and I'm relying completely on my listening skills to follow the directions, squinting to detect signages and such, adding on many more fine lines to my now harrowed face.

By the time I looked into the mirror when we finally got to our friend’s house and settled in for the night, I’d aged about 5 years since that morning.

Vacation and ugly face don’t exactly mash well, but sometimes that’s just the way it happens. Understanding why I could look so strangely out of sorts is big. It allows me to put my nerves to ease. Chill, LJ, this is all new to you. You are doing your best, your kids are adjusting to their vacation norms to the best of their ability, and everything will be just fine. Your home face is waiting for you at home, and for now, vacation face is just fine.

So when our friend had an errand to run and left us at home this morning, I decided to bring the kids out for a bike ride. First, there was a fight over who rides which bike. Then the height of bike seats caused a bit of an issue. Finally, my 7yo, who had just recently learned how to ride a bike without a trainer, was really struggling with taking off and staying balanced on the bike. Patient instructions did not seem to land with her, and after about 5 minutes she wanted to go home and be done with it. Ok, perhaps another day, a different strategy. Once I made up my mind to be relaxed about it and let her learning take its own course, I started teaching her more intuitively, my goal being just to guide her home safely. But as soon as I became relaxed, she became more receptive to the instructions, and pretty soon she was on the bike riding along happily. So we passed home and continued riding. When she fell off again and scraped her elbow, I told her that learning is just like that: it's a lot of practice, patience, and persistence, and sometimes we still fall off and get a little bit hurt.

And this advice is not just for my daughter. It is equally important to remind myself of that basic rule. All the mishaps on the vacation face is the learning curve that we sometimes take for granted. Away from home, we must be constantly learning and relearning the skills to navigate the new territory well, and it is ok to give ourselves a break when things don’t work out perfectly to our high expectations. If we can allow ourselves to relax and take the time to learn and apply our skills to the new situation, we’d then end up staying on top of the bike and having a good time.

If you think this is all just a long-winded way to encourage myself to enjoy vacation, you are right. We can make ourselves feel at home everywhere we go, right? If you think this is another way of saying that I would like to remember to appreciate home more, that is also very perceptive. The English saying goes, “when in Rome, do what the Romans do.” A similar Chinese saying tells us to “find peace, come what may.” Home is where the mind and body can find the most amount of harmony, right?

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