This article examines the role of smiling as a performative gesture at the northeast border between Russia and China. It argues that the border is a place where ‘myth’ in the sense proposed by Roland Barthes is manifest in the comportment of people when they see themselves as representing the civilization of one side or the other. In this situation, smiling and not smiling are elements of particular communicative registers that enact political myths in life. Highly gendered, these agentive-performative gestures exist amid other functional and affective registers, which can override them. The article also discusses the ‘helpers’ who mediate in cross-border trade, whose image is also sometimes subject to mythic imagination.