Filling the Silence: How I Learned Chinese from a Stranger on the Train to Penzance

We’ve been sat in silence for around an hour. Not actual silence, obviously – we’re on a train – but that specific breed of not talking that loiters aggressively on public transport, enabled by digital cocooning, fear of rejection, and an overzealous adherence to that childhood motto, ‘don’t talk to strangers’.

However, my own cocoon has seen better days. I’ve forgotten my headphones, grown bored of my e-reader and consumed more coffee than food, and frankly I’m struggling. It’s time to break the rules and TALK TO A STRANGER.

The opening gambit is less awkward than feared – “Do you know where you need to change for Penzance?” – and within minutes, the stranger next to me has morphed into Cathy from Beijing. Turns out she’s touring our fair isle for a few weeks before jetting home with a fresh-off-the-press master’s degree in Economics and Other Clever Stuff, and she’s excited to get to Penzance (aka literally the last train station before England becomes the sea).


We talk about this and that, and as we do so, I realise that there’s potential here. This could become a truly Lifeshelf-worthy train journey. But I can’t ask, can I? It’d be impolite…

I ask anyway, because I’m supposed to be ‘living to learn and learning to live’, and because I have little to no shame:

“So, what would be the best way to start learning Chinese?”

Only a tad surprised by this new angle, Cathy suggests that as I’m a musician, perhaps listening to some Chinese music would be a good place to start. Additionally, she thinks that musicians have an advantage over others trying to learn, because we’re already familiar with recognising and mimicking changes in pitch; Mandarin Chinese is a ‘tonal language’, and words that are phonetically identical have different meanings depending on their pitch contour.

At this point I already feel that I’m in too deep, and should stick to chipping away at Spanish on Duolingo, but Cathy patiently explains by pointing to my bottle of water, speaking the word for water (shuǐ) and motioning with her hand to show how the pitch goes down, then up (the third of the four tone patterns).

I repeat after her, and all of a sudden I’m learning Chinese from a stranger on the train to Penzance. We progress to a full sentence – “Would you like water?” – which I record for posterity and the inflation of my ego:

NB: I think this literally means ‘You drink water?’ Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong! 

To her absolute merit, and my joy, Cathy is not the least bit phased by the hour of relentless linguistic questioning that follows: What does shuǐ mean in the other tones? How do I indicate a question? Am I saying this right? I try to repay the favour by sharing some anecdotal and inaccurate information about Cornwall: It’s green because it’s hot and rains a lot. Some days it’s really misty, because we’re near the sea.

This pitiful offering seems agreeable to Cathy, and when I disembark several stops before her, I’m feeling exuberant. Yes, I’ve learned a little of the Chinese language, which I’ll endeavour to retain and develop. And I’ve witnessed a traveler’s wide-eyed wonder at the Cornish scenery, renewing my own appreciation of it. But clearly, the most Lifeshelf-worthy part of today has been the realisation that in all probability, every stranger we encounter has the potential to teach us something amazing. Even if talking starts as a way to fill the silence.

Thanks for reading! Please subscribe for more articles like this, as well as life hacks, mindfulness, music and more. And thank you Cathy, if you’re out there. Safe journey.

Images from Pexels/Pixabay. Words by Alexander MJ S.


4 thoughts on “Filling the Silence: How I Learned Chinese from a Stranger on the Train to Penzance”

  1. Oh’s amazing how many opportunities to meet new people that go unrealized by shyness or awkward. But it’s great that you took the time out to try and understand Cathy’s reality while trying to align it with yours. It’s great thr amazing people we meet by accident and I,too, wish Cathy a fantastic adventure!


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