A Way with Words

Penny Robertshaw reflects on the rich use of metaphor in working with participants in China.

By Penny Robertshaw. Penny is a Haven core programs Assistant and has worked extensively in programs in China.

I was met with a warm welcome as I returned to China recently to assist a program for The Haven. A participant I hadn’t seen in a couple of years said ‘I feel warm like you walked into my heart’. So poetic! I thought the same and was happy to be back.

In the past I’ve been delighted in the descriptive language used in check-ins and my intention here is to share some of that delight with you. Keep in mind that what I hear and see is a Chinese woman or man expressing herself or himself and so even though I don’t know Mandarin I have their body language to inform me. Next the translator relates in English what was said. 

‘I feel like a hungry ghost’ was uttered by a sad, pale young woman. She went on to describe struggling to find meaning in her life. How descriptive. Also, ‘a candle lights others and consumes itself’ from someone exhausted from demands in many areas of life.

Others related feelings of a different nature with ‘I’m a shiny handsome man’ and ‘happy like a lotus one blossom at a time’. 

Many of the following check-ins led to impassioned group discussions as our participants struggled with the idea of self-definition. ‘like fire and ice’, ‘like the moon in the clouds my feelings hide’, and ‘I am like a fish diving below the water: my feelings change’. I heard someone say ‘family is life’ after describing to me how people’s choices reflect on their parents as well as the importance of respect and obedience. I heard that family, even in modern China, is seen as a unit rather that individual people.

Self-definition is at the root of the programs we participate in and it’s a great honor for me to be on this journey with groups in China. I’ve learned about a family system dissimilar to the one I meet regularly. As I’ve led small group process in Come Alive or Phase programs I have been struck firstly by the difference in the ‘story’ and then quickly by how being in our humanity plays out similarly despite vastly different cultures.

I especially noticed the metaphorical language that, I learned, draws Chinese people together. I read online this quote which helped me relate somewhat. ‘Below the level of grammar there’s something deeper at work; the underlying metaphors of the language anchors its vocabulary.’ I have often noticed that our translators can have lengthy discussions about selecting words which best embrace our message. It’s complicated.

A woman and man were holding a paper between them and participating in a boundary exercise. The paper represented a power struggle; one they were both coached to win. Her sharing: ‘He didn’t notice I was holding it with my heart’. What I am trying to portray is my deep appreciation for the, at once, simplicity and complexity of these sharings.


Haven has been sending teams to lead programs in China for Haiwen Cultural Development for well over 10 years and many leaders and assistants have contributed to this partnership. I believe the challenge our participants face is one of integration. How does their own sense of self now fit into their families and relationships, the work they do, their community and culture? I imagine their challenge remains to accept modern ideas and influences without losing traditions completely. China is the Middle Kingdom where people generally have a pride in their long and intense culture. It is also in the midst of immense change.

My own experiences in China have been profound. Over eight years and 18 Mandarin programs I have honed my skills to become much more intuitive as a facilitator of individual focus time. I rarely have much of a participant’s story and rely on being extremely present. The kind of presence I heard Ben and Jock talk about so many years ago in Phase III. I’ve learned to snatch emotions as birds do fish from the water. (Metaphors are catchy!) I’ve contemplated my own family structure. I’ve pondered on boundaries and integration and change.

My work in China has opened a door to exploring many parts of this magnificent and diverse country. I’ve traveled alone all over China by train and on busses, eaten all manner of foods and seen sights of antiquity I only ever dreamed of.

The tea culture of China is sophisticated and complex. I’ve developed a discerning palette for green teas having enjoyed that tradition in many ways over the years. I know I’m not alone in this.

Lastly, “Wishing us long life, though sharing moonlight from afar.” I will always treasure the people I met in China. Thank you Haven for the opportunity to go way beyond anything I ever wished for myself.


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