More than anything this week in China, I've enjoyed talking to local people without any shared language apart from "thank you" (which usually made them laugh hysterically, but showed willing).
When travelling to Europe I've often felt embarrassed by my fading 'O' level French, failed Spanish or total lack of Greek. In China it was different; there was no hideous British expectation that everyone there would speak English - we were all strangers to each other's words. What fun - being English (and a vegetarian one at that) in China and looking for banter. It's really tested my training in the power of the non-verbal and tone of voice to its limits - yet through clear gesture, twinkling eyes, welcoming tone, I have made conversation, laughter and friends.
When visiting the Cantonese Opera as a Vamos team outing, we immediately all became separated, with audience members inviting us to come and sit with them. Without accepting this invitation, how else would I be so lucky to receive an impromptu Cantonese Opera singing lesson? Conversing without shared words has been so thrillingly exciting and new. In a street market restaurant one night we all went in and tried to order - I refuse to use Google Translate to explain that I'm veggie, instead I act out that I don't eat pig or cow or chicken. When actor Louise used an app that evening to translate she that was vegetarian too, they all gathered round and stared at her in total confusion. She later discovered that she'd told them repeatedly, "I am meat." I rest my case! After haggling with a woman who sold me a traditional Chinese hat that my son had asked me to bring him home, I handed over my money and gave her a delighted, enthusiastic crack about how many cred points this would gain me and that Joseph would be chuffed to bits and possibly hang it on his wall - she smiled and giggled and offered me something enthusiastic back in Cantonese and who knows what she said, possibly that she'd ripped me off and was delighted that she could feed her family for a week. What matters is that we all connected, we exchanged money for goods, eagerness for enthusiasm, Opera for laughter. That's priceless.
In the same way, I loved leading mask workshops this week - one with professional actors and one with students, supported by The British Council. I worked alongside Ding Ding, our (phenomenal) host and translator from Performance Infinity, and she and I were quick to build a rapport and rhythm when working together. But what soon became apparent was in teaching about how we use our bodies, our posture, our pace, the angles of our faces, this often made the participants laugh. Ding Ding would turn to me and say, I don't need to translate that, they got it. It's such a cracking feeling, finding a new language without any common words...yet one could argue that it's not new to me; it's full mask and theatre. But it felt new this week and it felt fun.
So I don't want to be shy or ashamed of not being able to speak another person’s language anymore, I want to be bold in making an effort to connect. It's a rare thing, isn't it, that when you give someone a genuine smile, that they don't reward you in the same way? Words, yet again, over-rated!