Dancing in China
Heads up, this content is 15 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

First of all, thank you for all the kind notes of support you’ve been sending me over the last month. I’m so grateful for your comfort, inspiration, and encouragement.

sarah-tree-byamygahran.jpgI just got back to San Francisco after that three-week emotional roller-coaster. In a nutshell: I got to NH just in time (thanks to you). I held my grandmother as she died. I picked out her casket. I spoke at her funeral. I held the hands of two young cousins as they walked through everything they feared about death. I wrote. I worked. I spent two weeks living with my grandfather, helping him sort through details, clothing, trinkets, sympathy cards, visions for the future, and messy smatterings of sadness. I missed two Queer Open Mics. I left my car parked illegally. I forgot to pay my rent. I attended my cousin’s wedding. I fixed issues on four family computers. I found people. I held space for grief. I invented a new card game. I flew to Colorado and hiked beside the Continental Divide.  I threw a snowball in August.

And the lesson I’m taking home from all this is actually about dancing in China six years ago. It may seem completely unrelated, but it’s not.  Here’s what happened:

The “Dancing in China” Story

In 2002, I spent four months living in China. More than half of that trip was unplanned — I attended a 5-week study abroad program, and then just didn’t get on my plane home. Instead I set up shop in Qingdao, connected with other ex-pats, taught English under the table, and rented an apartment illegally. I spent many nights at a local bar called the Jazz Bar, which was the central hub for foreigners (and Chinese people who wanted to meet foreigners).

The bar was large and had great floor space. A local band named Angel Hair Tobacco played covers of American rock songs three times a week. It was a neighborhood pub set up for drinking, chatting, and playing darts. No one there danced.

My friends and I spent most nights playing cards, where the winner of each game always dared the loser to do something small and silly. After one particular card game, where I came out as the loser, the winner dared me to get up and dance to the next song at the front of bar.  This was a hugely bold dare and my pals laughed at the idea, figuring I would refuse to break the no-dancing taboo.

I looked around the bar. I was in China, for chrissake. There was no one in the room that I’d known for more than two weeks, and the mere fact that I was American gave me a free pass to break any cultural norms I didn’t like. With no reason not to look like a fool, I stood up and danced like Gumby having seizures on a rodeo bull. (Make no mistake: I was not graceful.) At the end of the song, the whole bar applauded.

I won the next card game, and told the loser he needed to dance to the next song. He protested. I went with him. By the end of “Hit the Road, Jack,” I had managed to pull about ten people out of their chairs and onto the dance floor. They continued dancing through the next song, and the crowd grew for the song after that. The next night, I made it my mission to get people dancing again.  And then again the night after that.  By the end of the week, the open space in the middle of the Jazz Bar was considered a dance floor.

The foreigners, both men and women, danced like they were at a club and had a great time. The Chinese men danced in groups, or one-on-one with the foreign women whenever they had the chance. The Chinese women, however, didn’t dance at all. They stayed in their chairs, babysitting their boyfriends’ drinks and watching the rest of us bounce and twist like we were the stars of a Hollywood film. This bothered me, and I spent hours tugging on their arms trying to pull them on to the dance floor. Occasionally I’d get a few up there, and they’d dance, giggling hard, with their arms and legs pulled tight in to their own bodies, moving just a little bit to the beat of the music. But they never stayed up for more than one song at a time.

sillysarah-byamygahran.jpgI became known as the one who danced wildly, recklessly, sensually, and strangely. I didn’t care; it felt good to move. And being so far outside of my own culture, it was easy to let go of the need to look cool and the fear of what other people thought of me. I focused on moving my own body, and on getting other people to move theirs.

Here’s the strange part. By Chinese standards, I was unattractive. At 5’10” and 170lbs, I was both too tall and too fat for their tastes, and they told me this regularly. (I wore a Medium in American clothing, but an XXXL in Chinese clothing. Go figure.) I was also going through a physically awkward phase (read: I still had hair). Every time I wandered the city with other foreigners, I was the last of the women in the group to be hit on by strangers. I just didn’t fit their aesthetic. And frankly, I was fine with that. It made things easier.

But when I danced at the Jazz Bar, Chinese people I’d never spoken with before came up to me to tell me I was the most beautiful woman they’d ever seen. Not that I was a great dancer. Not that they envied my courage. They wanted me to know I was beautiful. Over and over again, between every song: You are so beautiful. You are the loveliest woman. You are so elegant. You are so pretty. My friends and I just want to tell you you are beautiful. I got this from both the men and the women, but the women were louder. The men wanted to marry me. The women wanted to be me. And though they wouldn’t admit it, this was only because I danced like I had spiders under my skin.

Why it Matters Now

I’ve told this story a number of times as an anecdote about Chinese culture — commenting on their rigid social customs and explaining how out-of-place I felt as a woman.

Sitting with my family through my grandmother’s death this month, though, somehow made that story click into a different context. It’s not about experiencing China. It’s about giving myself radical permission to move freely, and discovering the beautifully surreal effects that can have on myself and the people around me. It’s about making a conscious decision to disregard an audience of opinions, and it’s about pushing harder for a richer experience simply because I believed I had nothing to lose.

My grandfather has a choice right now. He just lost his life partner of 60 years, and with his health where it is, he could easily slip into a depression and die before next summer. On the other hand, he could also use this massive life change as a springboard to dive back into his passions, reenergize his friendships, and and find new reasons to love being alive.

I just spent two weeks watching his eyes dance, listening to him dream about traveling, helping him buy a new computer, and sitting with him as he thought out new creative ways to spend time with his grandkids.  He has time to enjoy, money to spend, skills to share, and no one to impress, take care of, or answer to. The only thing that matters is that he enjoy himself. If he doesn’t, there’s no reason for him to stay alive.

Imagine constructing a life with that as your only framework.

It’s a lot like dancing in China.

I’m near tears now, remembering what an impact that experience had on me — letting myself unravel so expressively in public, and being so adored for my foreign absurdity.  I hope my grandfather gets to experience that feeling — in whatever form feels right for him.

And hopefully — if I have any say in the matter — I’ll get to laugh, adventure, love, work, write, and tumble through my next eighty years like I’m back again, dancing in China.

(photos by Amy Gahran)

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17 Responses to “Dancing in China”

  1. Chris Says:


    Very sorry for your loss, I’m with you, my grandpa just passed away this spring and I admire how fully you feel everything. And that you can write about it so clearly is astounding.

    Be well,

  2. Kathe Simons Says:

    Sarah —

    You are such a gifted writer, and even moreso, a generous giver of love and understanding. The time you spent with your grandpa over these several weeks are the greatest gift you could have given him. And your powerful and poignant insights here are the greatest gifts you could have ever given to all of us.

    Dance on!

  3. daisybones Says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s the most energizing, uplifting, chi rocking thing I’ve read in a very long time.

    You’re a treasure:)

  4. tiffany Says:

    oh dang it… i’m fighting back the misties here. thank you for this. i think i’m going to bookmark it and refer to it often.

  5. Amy Gahran Says:

    You’re right — moving freely is incredibly important to staying alive and to connecting with others. And sometimes it seems like the hardest thing to do.

    Thanks for encouraging me to keep dancing. Or at least hiking. Or climbing. Just moving in really cool new ways.

    The mountains say hi :-)

    – Amy

  6. Curvaceous Dee Says:

    I think I’m going to go and dance now. Thank you for sharing this wonderful insight :)

    xx Dee

  7. Christopher Reynaga Says:

    That was such a beautiful story.

  8. whittles Says:

    Sarah, you make me so proud to know you, I swear.
    Seriously, i have such admiration for you and your approach to life.

    thank you for this.

  9. Emma McCreary Says:

    Sarah, you are fucking awesome. I know you know this, because we’ve discussed it, but just in case you ever forget, call me up and I’ll remind you. Man, this story rocks.

  10. lululabonne Says:

    I loved your story an inspiring lesson and one that I keep having to learn, funny how easy one forgets such things, my carapace seems to grow quicker with age and I’m forever finding ways to throw it off.

  11. Shannon Rosa Says:

    Your grandfather is lucky to have you to show him the way and boundless opportunities. My mom has been traveling constantly since my dad passed away last year, and it’s been very soothing for her.

    Dancing. Yay.

  12. Aunt Chris Says:


    What a beautiful expression of your grief. Transforming an experience is the best way to live your life……..the dancing gets you there.

    Much love
    Aunt Chris

  13. schmutzie Says:

    You are being featured on Five Star Friday:

  14. Deb Says:

    I thought about you this morning, wondering where you were and how you were doing.
    Seems you’re doing just fine.

    Welcome home.

  15. motherbumper Says:

    What an amazing story and amazing post.

    I’m sorry about your Grandmother. Your Grandfather is very lucky to have you helping him.

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