Things I Learned in . . . China: Play

play featured copyPeople are always asking me, “If you could give America one gift from China, what would it be?”

No they’re not.

But if I could give America one gift from China, this is what it would be. A total, complete, profound lack of self-consciousness.


In China, if you want to go stand in the middle of the park and sing Peking Opera (or Lady Gaga) into your karaoke machine, you do. Not for money, not for anything other than the sheer joy of singing. And if you want to swing dance at the Temple of Heaven every morning, there is a group of about a hundred people who would love to join you. And if you want to compose poetry on the spot and write it in water calligraphy on the sidewalk, someone will follow closely behind you to ponder what you wrote. And if you want to walk around the edges of the park while hopping on alternate legs every 5th step and clapping your hands over your head, please do. And if you feel the desire to don a full-out costume and perform ethnic minority dances on the covered walkway next to a world-famous landmark for all passersby to enjoy, you are more than welcome to. All of these activities will gain you an appreciative (sincerely) audience, or a group of co-performers, anywhere you go. And their joy will be real in watching you do what you love, just because you love it.

And if you love it, why wouldn’t you want to share it?

Then we go to America, where a professional-level pianist still has to pretend, when asked to perform, that they really don’t want to. “No no no, well, okay, if you insist . . .” Because to WANT to perform would be weird, and self-important, and arrogant. And heaven help the amateur who wants to perform anywhere at all. “What, you think you are good enough to have people watch you? How self-deluded can you be?” Where any adult who wants to join any amateur performance group of any kind, or who wants to learn any new performance-related skill, or who even dares to THINK about taking dance/music/acting lessons as an adult, is alarmingly strange. “Dance lessons are for KIDS! Once you hit 15, you go professional, or you quit. I mean, how EMBARRASSING would it be for an adult woman to perform as an amateur! Ick!”

Two words. Michael Scott.

I weep for what America is missing. The total soul-fulfilling joy of learning to do Bollywood Dance (and performing! unashamedly! in PUBLIC!!!) at 32 years old. The society-building, mental-and-physical-health-enhancing, happiness-making experience of every retired person in the vicinity meeting at the park every morning to sing, dance, play poker, do tai ji, play ping pong, play hackisac . . . The permission to do what makes you happy, without embarrassment, without the lurking suspicion that people are mocking you, without any fear at all.

As my sister observed during her visit, “It’s not even that you don’t care what people think about you. It’s that nobody is thinking about you.”

Meanwhile, in America, we have a show where we take the very best dancers in the country, the VERY BEST, and slowly kick them off for not being good enough. We take mind bogglingly, jaw-droppingly talented people, and we eliminate them. And just in case this message isn’t clear enough, we call this show, with the best of the best . . . “So, you think you can dance!?”

I weep.

The Chinese, for all their political oppression, are free in a way we will never, ever be.

In Mandarin, the word play doesn’t just apply to kids. When you go out, as an adult, with your friends, know what you are doing? You are playing. As you should be. “What did you do this weekend?” “I played with my friends.” How beautiful is that?

And that’s what I would give America. Play.


“Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it.  Doing what you’re afraid of, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks like that—THAT is what life is. You might be really good. You might find out something about yourself that’s special. And if you’re not good, who cares? You tried something . . . I think you should just give it a try. Step into life. ”           –Amy Poehler

If you’d like to hear more about China, I gave a radio interview a few years ago about play, my religious beliefs and the life of a red-headed expat in Beiing. You can listen to it here.


7 thoughts on “Things I Learned in . . . China: Play

  1. Lisa Hale

    Love this Olivia! So very true! When Bronwen was two years old, we lived in Beijing for a few months. She had blond, curly hair and she had a constant audience of 40-50 people when she would dance around–no sign of inhibition. When we arrived in the San Francisco airport to go home, she danced around as she always did–then she stopped and looked around, crushed–not one person was watching her. “Where are my people?” , she seemed to say. My heart ached for her.

  2. Jambo

    So so so so sooooo true. i mean just thinking about some of the things i did, say here in town, the looks and words i would get are a deterrent in themselves. I even as a total non-chinese speaking stranger, i felt in a way, welcome to a culture that was nowhere near my own. Even without learning the behavior or customs of my new home

  3. Lady Jensen

    That is sadly, so spot on! What an insight to our sad culture and what we consider normal. I had no idea that their public behavior is so free. It sounds invigorating!

  4. Jennifer

    When you go out in public, no one is looking at you and no one cares what you wear and what you look like. Everyone is so self-absorbed in their own little world, they don’t even pay attention to others around them. So why are we all so concerned about what others think, when others aren’t even thinking about you? Going to the Temple of Heaven, was awesome, I could stay there all day enjoying the people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *