Monday, February 29, 2016

Finding Your Space

Last summer I started watching K-dramas (Korean dramas). I knew going into it that I would likely become an addict, but since I don't watch any American TV anyway, it was a risk I was willing to take.

Then one day I sat down to watch a drama called Cheer Up!/Sassy Go-Go. And I only made it 2:30 into the first episode before I was hit with an image that made my breath rush like I'd been dancing. The scene was a gathering of the lowest-scoring students in the school dancing away their test scores and other stresses in their beloved club room, despite the junk piled in there by the rest of the school.

I ached as memories poured through me. Because I'd been in that room.

It's 2008. Ryan and I are teaching English in middle-of-nowhere southern China. This high school is huge--almost 2000 kids in each of the three grades--and many of the students live in the dorms. I teach all of grade two (ages 15-17). Ryan teaches all of grade one.

We wander, sometimes, around the campus after teaching hours. The students are at dinner, in study halls, or likewise wandering in little groups.

And we find the music building. 

It's right next to the burn pile for the campus's garbage, and everything is coated in a layer of soot. We sneak down the grimy, dark hallway toward the sound of voices singing scales--some more on pitch than others. We peek through the open door and see 11 students, most of them from my classes. There are the twin girls who love my husband and hate me. And there's a kid who sleeps or goofs off through English classes and only knows enough to say "Hello, how are you teacher?"

They see us too, and wave us in. The teacher, a young, annoyed-looking woman wearing skin-tight jeans covered in random zippers and 5-inch stilettos, rolls her eyes and waves at us to sit down. 

But it's after the class that the magic happens.

After the teacher leaves, the students hang around, grinning at us and making conversation half with words, half with pantomime. I ask if I can play the piano. I play a piece I've had memorized for years, a showy Tarantella that usually impresses. Ryan sings something for them. And it works--music connects us with these kids, and they sweep us from the classroom, up the stairs, and into a room with a drum set. They play, and we laugh and joke. New students trickle in. We learn that they're in music classes not because they initially loved or chose the arts, but because they're failing a core subject--for most of them, English--and this is the school's way of trying to find them a path to further education. The same goes for those who do art. The same for the dancers.

"Tiao wu," they say. "Dance." 
"You dance?" we ask. "We love dance."

That's when they take us to their room. Their sanctuary.

The floor is open in the middle, a space cleared and mopped before a wall of mirrors that is flecked with age, cracked in places and with broken pieces missing on the edges. Desks are piled against the walls, castoffs with bent legs and missing wood and rusty frames.

A girl goes to the corner and plugs in an old, dusty boom box. American Hip Hop music pours from low-quality speakers. 

And they dance.

They pop and lock. They body roll. They mix in traditional Chinese dance and martial arts figures like the "Wind Fire Wheel." 

The tight, stressed look always visible on the edges of their expressions, in the rise of their shoulders, slips away. There are no teachers here. We are not teachers to them, in this room. We are musicians, dancers... friends. Otherwise they would never have invited us in.

We go back, other days, slipping in as the teacher leaves. These students, who can hardly speak English, who are "not smart enough" to get to college the normal way--these become our friends. These are the students who take us 45 minutes across the city to find a KFC. These are the students who we allow into our apartment--our sanctuary--to watch Jackie Chan movies while drinking hot sweetened coconut milk from the vendor at the school gate. 

As I watched Korean teens dance in a fictional TV show, I saw again "Pepper" and "Animal," two of the students we most connected with. I saw the girl whose name I never learned, pushing up one leg of her sweat pants and eyeing herself critically in the mirror as she tried a new move over and over until she was satisfied.

And I also saw me, and my friends, forming a little dance club at our high school. Carving out a space for ourselves.

Because that's a need not restricted by country or race: Finding space to breathe, to be yourself, and to connect. And sometimes that space is a small, suffocating room filled with broken furniture.