As writers, we are obsessed with words. Not many things delight me more than discovering a new word and being able to use it in the right place. (For a great tip about finding and saving words, visit Julie Musil's blog post 'Tips for Word Thieves.).
Some years ago I flew from New Zealand to the U.K. stopping over in Osaka for the night. On the next leg I sat next to a Japanese woman and we found we could communicate easily without a formal language.
We didn’t know each other’s name. We couldn’t speak or understand each other’s language. But we smiled at each other as we settled in and were almost as close as two people can physically be, for 12 long hours on the flight from Osaka to London.
After a little while we each pointed to our hearts and gave each other our names, then stumbled awkwardly over the pronunciation and didn’t attempt it again. She ordered English breakfast tea with milk and sugar while I sampled udon noodles and green tea. She put a gently restraining hand on mine and shook her head when I was about to pour soy sauce over my dessert.
We showed each other photographs of our families and exclaimed at how beautiful and undoubtedly clever were our respective children. We communicated with gestures, smiles and a few words of broken English. I felt ashamed that I didn’t know any Japanese words to break. We understood that we were each going to visit our adult children, she her daughter, I my daughter and son, who I hadn’t seen for almost five years.
She slept on my shoulder while I looked at the pictures in her magazine and tried to decipher the captions. At the end of our journey we gathered our luggage from the overhead racks, smiled, touched hands briefly and then were separated as we were herded into customs.
Now and then in the long queues we caught each other’s eye and smiled again, raising our eyebrows and rolling our eyes at the long wait. It was all new to me and I moved forward without impatience, enjoying the spectacle of so many different people gathered together. I wondered what lay in wait for some, and sympathised with the harried parents of small children who grizzled or shrieked or whined, exhausted from hours of inactivity.
The cheerful rosy-cheeked customs officer wished me a happy holiday, and I made my way through more passageways, my shoulder aching beneath too-heavy luggage until I came to the arrivals area where my son let out a whoop, leapt over the barrier and hauled me into an embrace.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw my friend again. The greetings between she and her daughter were much more decorous but the joy on their faces could not be mistaken. As we smiled at each other over the shoulders of our adult offspring, it didn’t matter that we had no words to communicate. We already had a shared language. We were mothers sharing the inexpressible joy of being reunited with our children.
What are your thoughts about communicating without a written or spoken language in common? I'd love to hear from you.