Exploring other cultures has been a part of my life since I was in college. Venturing out of my comfort zone and embracing another country is not something new. Being in an area where few people speak English is a new experience, however. I’m spending the summer teaching English in Zhuji, China. It is by Chinese standards, a smaller city in the Zhejiang province with about one million inhabitants. Unlike when I was living in Australia, I do not blend in at all. People come up to me on the street and sometimes stare with fascination at my green eyes. Children shyly reach their hands out to touch my blond hair. At times, I feel like an attraction at an amusement park.
Until last night. Last night, I danced like a local in the square.
Every night, in a parking lot outside the building where I teach, locals dance. Sometimes, before walking to my apartment, I sit on the steps and look at them longingly. I am one of the only Americans in Zhuji, China, and there are only four other Americans from my program that are teaching in the city. Although I am often invited into people’s homes for dinner, I am still not one of the locals, and when I watch them dance, I am filled with emotion. Emotions that come from being far from home and without the language skills to form strong bonds with the people here. As I watch the beautiful women, I realize they dance as if no one is watching, uninhibited and free.
After teaching my class tonight, I sat on the steps and watched the young and old dance outside in the hot, sticky night. A few stars peeked out as I listened to the music. A half crescent of the moon peaked above a building in the distance. I swayed slightly back and forth in my sitting position to the rhythm of the music and tried to guess the meaning of the song. My Mandarin vocabulary is limited, but I did catch a phrase or two about love. Several people pointed over at me and smiled. For all I know, they could have been saying, “Look at the crazy American sitting on the steps.” Within minutes, the DJ walked over to me and extended his hand. I speak very little Chinese; he spoke very little English. However, I quickly realized he was motioning me to the parking lot where everyone was dancing.
I shyly walked on to the “dance floor” just as a fast-paced song was ending. The next song was a Chinese song that people began waltzing to. I stood there, alone, feeling slightly awkward until a handsome Chinese man, walked over to me. I have never been accused of being coordinated, but suddenly my two left feet and I were gliding across the floor as if I was in Fred Astaire’s arms (albeit a Chinese version) and I myself was Ginger Rogers. At least that’s how I will always picture it in my head. I lost myself in the music, I didn’t care what anyone thought or how I looked dancing, I was simply wrapped up in the haunting music playing, of which I could not tell you a single word of, but somehow it was magical.
The women smiled and nodded at me as I glided across the dance floor. I nodded and returned the smile as I was guided and twirled across the square. I gazed around at the buildings with the writing in characters and no longer felt like a strange American far from home, in a land where I did not speak the language. When the song ended, my dance partner smiled and then pointed to a small group of women. They motioned me forward, indicating I was to join them. I danced with the small group of women for the next hour. The feelings of homesickness were replaced with a warmth I have no word for, and yet, I will always carry it with me.
It was the first, but not the last time, I realized that language does not always have to be a barrier in communicating.
We just need to be open to the moments when we are welcomed in and embrace the unknown.
Author: Mary Jac O’Daniel