"What is your impression of the United States?" the reporter asked, and Ms. Pan Yipin, translator and factotum, turned to Mr. Xu Zhiyuan, company manager and spokesman, and said something in Chinese, which he answered with something else in Chinese.

"You have a very beautiful country, and the people are very friendly," said Pan. Acrobats are not the most talkative people in the world, and it may be that what they have to say loses something in the translation.

The scene was the North China Restaurant on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, where a small advance contingent of the 67-member Shanghai Acrobatic Theater troupe was having a specially prepared lunch. Acrobats must maintain a high energy level, and the heaping plates of Peking duck, squirrel, fish, Hunan steak and braised chicken were vanishing at high speed.

Clearly, the cook spoke the acrobats' language -- in fact, the restaurant had been chosen because it had a Shanghai chef.

The acrobats' contract with Columbia Arists' Management specifies that they must be given Chinese food, though nobody at the lunch seemed quite sure how many meals per day have to be Chinese. They have had several American breakfasts, which they prefer not to discuss. They are trying to be nice.

The Shanghai arcrobats are almost halfway through their 13-week tour of the United States, and their reactions are still unpredictable. "We took them on a quick sightseeing tour of Washington," says press representative Ted Kilmer."Their schedule doesn't allow much time for sightseeing -- they exercise at least three hours a day besides performing.

"We took them to the Washington Monument, and they were very polite but not really interested. Then they saw the White House, and that was something they knew, and they began to get excited. But what really turned them on was the sight of the Watergate -- they knew all about that and recognized it immediately."

A few minutes' conversation with Kilmer elicits the details that at home the Shanghai troup has a total of 300 members, that they hold auditions for new members only once in seven years, that children start training in a school associated with the troupe when they are about 8 years old, that the company was established in 1951 with only 50 members and that in spite of its relative newness it continues a tradition that goes back at least 2,000 years but had been in serious decline until the present generation. l

The Chinese concept of acrobatics includes a strong dose of theater -- particularly mime techniques. It can be very funny but also curiously beautiful, as Ms. Cai Juzhen demonstrates with her foot-juggling -- intricate maneuvers with a large ceramic jug, performed flat on her back and looking something like an upside-down ballet. "That is beautiful: how long did it take you to learn it," a reporter tries as an opening gambit. "Thank you. It took six years." End of conversation.

When they opened their week's run at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, the Shanghai acrobats used body language, in which they are much more eloquent.