How to communicate when you can barely speak a word

By Lauren McCaw
Oct. 6, 2014

I thought I couldn't communicate with my host Mama and Baba. 

They didn't speak English. I didn't (yet) speak Mandarin. My host sister Lina played translator for most of dinner, but it was a one-way street. Mama and Baba were told everything I was saying but I still was getting very few messages from Mama and Baba.

Lina asked if I wanted to go for a walk with Mama and Baba after dinner. An enthusiastic yes transpired and I then realized we were going to be walking in silence. Mama and I waited at the bottom for Baba after Lina left. She wouldn't be joining us for the walk.

Straight ahead I gathered from their gesticulations. This is how it's going to go...

We walked through a neighborhood backing up to their apartment complex. The road was dirty, dusty. The air was polluted from the women cooking meat from the sheds that lined the street. The children were scrubbing clean their laundry, presumably the clothes they had dirtied earlier in the day playing in the dusty road. Baba walked in front, leading the way; Mama walked next to me.

Perpendicular to this road was everything that is commercialized China, the night market. We walked along the shops lining the street; girls with arms full of shopping bags rushed past us. This road, too, was polluted from the exhaust from the congested rush hour traffic and the countless street stalls cooking up noodles, dumplings and barbecue. Mama pointed out several items, saying the Mandarin words for me to repeat. I wished I was a little girl with a sponge for a brain.

We wandered into campus and crossed the bridge over the lake full of lotuses. Even though it was miserably muggy out, the lake at dusk was beautiful. A grass knoll lay on the other side of the bridge. Mama slid off her size 6 embellished sandals and playfully walked in the grass. She motioned for me to do the same. We walked in the grass together and Baba continued on the sidewalk, next to me. Shortly after, I put back on my flats but continued to admire Mama's free spirit.

She stopped to smell the flowers along the way. Literally.

After our walk, I joined Mama on the rooftop where she was watering her garden. She dropped what she was doing and began to practice tai chi. After watching for several minutes, she suggested I join. I followed behind her, gaining confidence with each move. She and Baba praised me. When I moved incorrectly, they'd reposition me so the energy was flowing properly. My front hand was facing upwards and in a straight line with the rest of my body. My posture was perfect. They continued to lead, correct and encourage me. Their petite frames moved gracefully; they were perfectly poised with every move.

Hot and exhausted, Mama went to shower while I sat with Baba on the rooftop. He pulled out two "swords" used in Chinese martial arts and demonstrated their uses. He, again, was graceful in each step. The sword was perfectly controlled. He then flexed his biceps and chuckled. He motioned me downstairs, saying I was dismissed to read and go to sleep.

Although we could barely speak, I think we communicated quite well.

Lauren McCaw