I’m a loud person, and so among other differences between life in New York and our rural homestay, what stuck out to me the most was the culture of conversation. I struggled for the first few days to fill voids in conversation at mealtimes, trying to recreate the endless chatter of conversation I’m used to back home. My host father would respond if I asked him a question, but I knew we weren’t having a real dialogue. I gave up around the fourth day, and tried to eat a meal without saying anything. I noticed my host parents and their little kids seemed to relax around me once I did this. I tried it again the next meal, and the next, and the next. Each time it felt more natural, because although I was still sitting without talking as I had done awkwardly my first night, we were sharing in the quiet, a tacit agreement to enjoy each other’s presence without the need for clunky filler.
The more time I spent without talking, the more I started to notice the steady quiet of the village. Quiet isn’t silence; it’s not a lack of sound, but merely the layer of noise that presents itself when you strip back conversation and pay attention. Often in the village, it’s the patter of rain on slated rooftops, the rushing of water as it makes rivulets that busily form streams that pool in ditches and at the bottom of the steep roads. It’s the sound of not-to-distant kids playing with dirty water and leaves in the street, or the faint roar of an old motorcycle crawling through the village. It’s the sound of cheesy Chinese pop played from a hidden speaker, filtering through narrow streets and thin walls. The sound of a dog barking at someone else, a cow snorting and pawing the ground outside your window, the off-beat bouncing of a basketball mixed with tinny pings of hitting the rim, or the myriad calls of birds lined up on power lines interspersed with the thwack of a rock fired at them from a makeshift slingshot on a whim, quiet is an immersive experience.
In our last few days in the homestay, we went on an overnight trek. The last hour of the hike both ways we spent without talking, just enjoying nature and the countryside. I quickly found that the same layer of sounds was present just below the chatter of conversation: the clinking of cowbells in fields far above, the sliding wet crunch of muddy boots on loose rock, and the faintest whistle of wind through knee-high grass. However, I found that this quiet focused my attention not outward, on the towering peaks and rivers of fog that weaved lazily through crisscrossing valleys, but inward, on my own thoughts, the thin air passing through my body, and the light pressure of a pulse on my temples. On the second day, as we picked our way down the final slope to the village square, I reflected that quiet can be found anywhere you’re willing to look for it, because quiet only asks that you stop talking and listen.