A Universal Language

In the short time I have been living abroad, I already have oodles of stories of fun other language and culture encounters. Quite honestly though, sometimes it’s much less than fun. It’s frustrating. There are occasions when a certain point needs to be made and it’s just not happening. For me, the hardest part has been trying to say things a certain way. I never realized how subtle politeness is until my sentences have been reduced to the most basic of forms. Actually, I’m lucky if I get out a complete sentence! It’s downright debilitating to not be able to communicate properly. In the ups and downs of oral communication I’ve come to rely on something else entirely: emotion and body language. It has been immensely interesting to discover how universal these are! Below are just three stories I have of witnessing this firsthand:

One of my first weekends here I had the opportunity to attend both a Chinese church service and one for international expats. The Chinese service was, of course, entirely in Mandarin. I couldn’t understand enough to make any kind of coherent sense out of what was being said. The international service was full of people from every shade of the human rainbow, and was conducted in English. I came from both very touched by what I had just experienced. How could that be? It is because in both places there was joy radiating from the singers, love in the touch of mothers, innocence in children, an earnestness in the speaker's voice, and a common purpose bringing diverse groups together.

On a darker note, one day two friends and I were eating in a McDonald’s (don’t judge!) and an older lady came up to us asking if we wanted to buy some magazines and newspapers she had. We tried to say as politely as possible we didn’t want any. So she just asked us for money instead. We-again attempting politeness-tried to say we didn’t have any to give. Instead of simply moving on her expression twisted from questioning to straight up hateful. I was extremely taken aback. She walked away shooting glances our way that chilled my insides and spitting what I can only assume were obscenities at our direction under her breath. For the most part, I had no idea what she was saying. So how could I be so unsettled by her? Her expression, demeanor, and actions toward us were so unpleasant that I did not need to know what her words meant. I just know I hope to never see her again.

Yet another day, I was waiting at a bus stop making my way back to the university. It was around 5:30pm or so and rush hour was in full swing. Near me at the stop was a group of 5-10 men and women. They were wearing similar clothes, carrying similar equipment, and were all dirty. Not as in unbathed, but more so as if coming off of a long day’s work. A bit like my dad sometimes, actually. (Hi Dad :) ) Clearly blue-collar workers. The way they were laughing and joking with each other seemed so familiar. I could imagine exactly how their conversation was going, and smiled as I thought about the families they were going home to. How could an American small town twenty-something relate to Chinese blue-collar men and women in a huge metropolis? By recognizing my roots in their weariness paired with smiles.

In the midst of a language where I can’t sound out the characters to decipher their meaning , and the tone of my voice means the difference between ‘mom’ and ‘horse,’ I’m extremely grateful for some common ground. It’s heartening to realize that despite infinite differences, there may be threads of a universal cohesiveness running through humanity that we can all recognize and take part in.