A universal language

As i write this article I’m sitting in my hotel room on the outskirts of Shanghai a good 20 minutes from the hustle of the bustle of the busy streets and lights of downtown. Ive been here for only two days and yet it feels like a week. A combination of rushing to get a visa sorted, twinned with relentless travel means its been a complete whirlwind from start to finish.

The purpose of my trip to Shanghai was to deliver training to the coaching team at the UFC’s brand new $15m performance institute, which is essentially the biggest, most high tech combat sports training facility in the world. The Institute and my time there will be the focus of another article in itself, on this occasion I wanted to share my experience of the city, and importantly the people.

Having spent the last 2 days surrounded by technology and the busy streets and traffic of the city, i desperately wanted to clear my head and find a different perspective on Shanghai so i headed on foot to a nearby park.

In contrast to the city streets it immediately felt good to be in an open space. The park itself was huge, a big lake the centre piece leading off to small streams running around the outside. It was evident from that point and from any time i have spent in Asia that the city parks are very well used at all times of the day and night, something that was also evident was that the older generation seem to be very active and there were whole groups exercising together which is something you would very rarely see in the UK.

As I began my walk around I had one thing in my mind, it had been on my mind long before i left the UK, I desperately wanted to do Tai Chi, with Chinese people, in a park, in China.

After 30 minutes or so i was getting a little deflated after all this was China surely everyone practises Tai Chi? As i crossed a bridge I finally saw a couple, a man and a lady practising on an extended platform next to the river. It looked as though the lady was instructing the man in the practice.

I found some steps nearby and sat down to watch, the form they were practising looked very similar to the Yang Cheng Fu form that we practice albeit some slight differences which was unsurprising given that even within the same styles of Tai Chi there appear to be differences in the forms from school to school let alone across the other side of the world.

After around 15 minutes the lady gestured me over, so I asked If she minded if I joined them, trying in earnest to tell her I practised the Yang family Tai Chi in a way your drunken uncle would be proud of in a game of late night christmas charades.

For the next ten minutes or so we performed the first 2 sections of the form together, I pretending not to be a big clumsy westerner ever mindful of the watchful gaze of my kind host. It was a joyous experience, to share a moment with people in a different part of the world, whose language i couldn’t speak, yet we shared a common interest, it was one of life’s truly special and beautiful moments. Mindful not to over stay my welcome and not further disrupt their practice i expressed my gratitude to them, took the obligatory selfie and continued on my way.

As I walked back along the main road I realised I’d spent the whole trip on one side of the road so took up the courage to cross over and I’m glad I did. Within a few minutes I’d found a martial arts centre which turned out to be a Taekwondo school. I went inside and one of the instructors kindly gestured me to sit so I could watch the class. At the end of what looked like a grading for a young student one of the instructors came over and introduced himself and asked a little of where I was from, I explained i was also involved in martial arts and was visiting Shanghai for short time. I was told that although training had finished for the evening next time i was in town i was very welcome to come back and ‘play’ with them. Having been yet again humbled by the kindness of somebody with a shared interest in the martial arts, i said my goodbyes and left.

As the night was progressing and following a couple of hours on foot around the city i desperately wanted to find somewhere to get a drink and some food before i got a taxi down to the main part of town, i wanted to try somewhere local so i headed next door to what looked like a small Chinese restaurant.

The restaurant was very quiet so i ordered myself a drink and found a quiet place to sit. By the time my drink was half empty which wasn’t too long, it was quickly replaced with another by a man who i soon came to realise was the owner who had been sitting down at a nearby table with his family.

As food was delivered to their table the owner promptly plated some up and brought it over for me, when it was half finished he would come back himself, take away my dish top it up and bring it back, this repeated itself again and again until i couldn’t eat anymore.

At this point my desire to see the rest of the city, largely to show others that I had been, was replaced by the urge to just sit in the moment, relax and enjoy the hospitality and company of my hosts.

When it came to settle the bill I was shocked when it equated to less than £2 for 3 large drinks and a lot of food. I tried in earnest to give them more but it wasn’t to be accepted. It would have been easy due to my obvious lack of understanding to have taken a fair amount of money off me and i would i have to admit have been none the wiser. Humbled I did all I could to show my gratitude to them in the only way I knew, the smile and handshake on this occasion felt inadequate and i only wished i could have thanked him in his own language.

I made my way back to my hotel, happy and content having shared multiple experiences with the people of Shanghai that would stay with me and leave me newly inspired.

Where I set out to write this article about the universal language of martial arts, inspired by my experiences at the beginning of the evening, I realised something far greater.

As we further continue in to an age of encouraged separation and discrimination driven largely by a biased media, ignorance and political propaganda I am reminded of two things, by a couple in a park and a man in a bar whose names I don’t know, and whose language I couldn’t speak, that kindness, generosity, humility, and gratitude is a universal language, and that actions will always speak louder than words…

Something for us all to consider.

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