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'It's very simple- you just have to talk to people, Cha. Talk to people and amazing things will happen.'
I mumbled assent and hung up. Older sisters have a habit of voicing everything you already know but hate to admit.
It seems there are several everyday experiences that prove universal - the customary mumble of 'goodbye' as you shuffle out the elevator, compulsory small talk with taxi drivers, and that inevitable awkward silence when you never quite know what to talk about with a cleaner. Frustrated by these prolonged silences and willing myself to say anything- anything! - to cover the sound of my own nervous breathing, I blurted out in broken Chinese to our cleaner's back the first conversation starter that any British person under pressure would blurt: 'The weather is good today.' So far, so good. You did well, brain. 'I thought I might stroll around a park- do you know any parks? Do you have a favourite park in Beijing?' Her kind face fluttered into a surprised joy. She bounded over to the window, pointing out a small patch of green in the distance. 'What do you want to do there?' She asked, 'Do you like to dance?'
Ten minutes of frantic hand gestures and improvised Chinese later I found myself agreeing to meet her and her friends at a gate- which gate, who knows, but a gate- to join them for their dance class in the very same patch of green. She scribbled down her name in an almost unidentifiable scrawl. I traced the characters into Pleco and hoped for the best. Pleco had my back, it faithfully translated my few dots and lines into a neat digital version with the slightly condescending efficiency of the Microsoft Office paperclip - is THIS the character you were failing so drastically to write? - and revealed her name. I repeated it to myself slowly, as if learning to speak for the first time. 谢洪琴，Xie Hongqin. I had a name and phone number. That was good enough.
I wasn't too sure what exactly I had agreed to, but I didn't care. I might not even have to follow it through. They might be too busy. They might cancel it. It might rain. The world might end. But I had the sneaking suspicion that I would indeed have to put my best foot forward, literally, and accept that at some point I would have to take an icy plunge into the unknown. And luckily, I had a fabulous ballroom dance partner at home who had patiently led me through any basic Quickstep, Waltz or Rumba I might face.
It was dark by the time we were due to meet. A boisterous Beijing wind was rifling through the fallen leaves. I wandered around and around the campus, lingering by the gates, peering into the withered features of passers-by, reluctant to admit to myself that not only was I possibly a teency bit racist when it occurred to me I couldn't tell people apart, but I might also have to actually make a phonecall in another language. Just as I was wrestling with my internal 'Am I racist?' monologue, the curse of any Englishman abroad, my phone buzzed impatiently. The inevitable had happened. Oh god. This was all because of too many viewings of Eat, Pray, Love from the comfort of my bed, demanding 'I could do that!', muffled by the spoon of Ben & Jerry's shoved in my mouth. Of course I could dive into the unknown and learn a billion languages! It had looked so easy when Julia Roberts did it. But that was England, and now I was very much alone in Beijing. And I was going to have to answer that phone.
My Chinese 姐姐 (jiejie), older sisters, had soon found me. Led by the suddenly youthful Xie Hongqin, who had swapped her shapeless uniform and compulsory hairnet for casual clothes, fear melted way as they delightedly shouted my Chinese name and bounded over, taking an arm each, bantering and bickering in their quick-witted tongues. They explained that first they had to stop off to buy a pair of shoes. Dodging down dark side-lanes, we quickly opened out onto a street lined with stalls. Stray dogs trotted past while the infamous Beijing bicycle-motorbike hybrids impatiently tooted their way through the dust and bustle bathed in the warm light of the stalls. Wrapped in their quilted coats, sellers nasally shouted their wares. We arrived at the hideaway shop, just big enough for the owner and his customer. We exchanged greetings jovially, and he slipped inside to tend to Xie Hongqin while his partner squatted on a tiny wooden stall in the doorway, not lifting her head as she eagerly slurped up her dinner. I poked my head through the doorway. All three walls were lined with shoes, stacked meticulously on their rails, reaching up to the ceiling. The smell of spice, plastic and dust pervaded the air. Beneath the rails on the floor a rusty industrial sewing machine was gathering dust, from an overflowing box the owner pulled out a complete rubber sole with an accompanying heel for Xie Hongqin to examine. 'Does he make all these shoes himself?' I asked her friend. 'Oh yes. If you want anything here just let us know, we'll make sure you get a good deal.' She winked.
'Just follow me!' Half an hour later I was rocking back and forth in a perilously quick three, trying desperately to relax into my dance partner's arms, a fifty-nine-year-old Professor of Environmental Ecology called Lee, before he whirled me around the improvised tarmac dancefloor once again. Couples were already waltzing past us at varying speeds, churning the park into a swirling mass. The music swelled, I took a deep breath. 'GO!' Willing my feet to fall into time, he swept me into step with the other couples. I had never attempted the Viennese Waltz before, but while my brain bust itself concentrating on the routine of other dances, this repetitive, rotating dance demanded only that I stay on my feet and relax into that dizzying whirl.
'I feel like I'm in that film!'
'I know that film!'
'The King & I'
We danced until we crumpled in exhausted laughter and delight.
老师 (laoshi), teacher, who insisted I call him Lee. Despite my surroundings, the hazy dusk air of Beijing, my apparent lack of language skills and my intense loneliness, my anxiety and melancholy was melting away. I had dared, and it had worked.
Perhaps my (actual) sister was right. Perhaps when you put a cautious foot forward, not fearing the risk of falling flat on your face, you never know what might happen.