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How living in China taught me to 'play'
March 3, 2014

BEIJING — It’s the Spring of 2009 and I, a Utah-raised 30-year-old mother of three, have just moved to Beijing.

As I enter the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven for the first time, I notice thousands of people spread throughout the grounds. They’re divided into many different groups. To the right, a few hundred people are doing what looks like simplified aerobics. To the left, a small group of flutists are gathered around a music stand, playing old Chinese folk songs.

In the distance, I see a few dozen couples quick-stepping through a foxtrot. And over behind the trees, a hundred elderly men are engaged in a friendly competition over who can do the most push-ups. As I walk on, I notice more and more people. They are playing badminton, strumming instruments and singing in an impromptu choir.

Is it some sort of holiday? Is there a festival here today?

No. This is just a normal, everyday morning in parks and parking lots and street corners all over China. This is how the day begins—with everyone joining their friends outside to play.

When our new Chinese friends first started asking us if we were “going out to play this weekend,” we smiled a little at the charming ‘mistranslation.’ It seemed so funny and so childlike to hear an adult inviting other adults over to play. But we quickly discovered that in Mandarin, the word play applies to everyone.

In the U.S., we use terms like ‘go out’ or ‘get together,’ but in China adults play. “What did you do this weekend?” “I played with my friends.”

The difference goes far deeper than linguistics. 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 a contest, not for anything other than the sheer joy of singing. If you want to spontaneously compose poetry and write it in water calligraphy on the sidewalk, someone will follow closely behind you to ponder what you wrote. If you want to swing dance at the Summer Palace, there are about a hundred people who would love to join you.

And any of these activities will earn you a sincerely appreciative audience, and maybe even a group of co-performers. And they will clap and cheer and genuinely enjoy watching you do what you love, just because you love it. Whether you are any good or not.

In the U.S., we seem to feel that if you aren’t good enough at doing something to be paid for it, you shouldn’t be doing it at all. And you definitely shouldn’t be doing it in public. America is full of passionate shower-singers who will never sing in front of another human being. Teenage girls take 10 years of dance lessons and are suddenly too old to dance any more. Moms whisper to their friends that they know it’s silly, but they miss taking flute lessons.

Too often we trap ourselves in boxes of our own making, cut ourselves off from doing the things that bring us joy. We seem to have convinced ourselves that only those with supernatural gifts should participate.

I suddenly realized, that first day at the Temple of Heaven, that my life was missing something beautiful. I was captivated by the passionate enthusiasm of people out playing, out doing what they loved, with no sense of embarrassment. I envied them, and I wanted to be them.

What I didn’t realize then was that play is contagious. Even among the foreigners living in Beijing there was an understanding that you could, and should, do what you loved. American adults found themselves taking classes, lessons and workshops and then showing off their new skills without shame. After only a year of learning creative-freedom-by-osmosis I started studying the erhu, a Chinese instrument resembling a two-stringed fiddle. A few months later, I started studying Bollywood dance and began performing — in public.

I now teach Bollywood dance in Iowa, and I still perform — in public. Some of my students are foreign, some are American. The skill level is pretty evenly spread across both groups, but the sheer terror on the faces of my American students when I ask about performing tells the whole story. And it breaks my heart.

If we truly knew what we were missing, we wouldn’t stand for it. Everyone deserves to play. Vincent Van Gogh said, “If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

I am determined never to lose the best gift China gave me — the gift of fearless play.

Olivia is a writer and compulsive traveler. She spent almost four years living in China with her husband and three kids, and blogs about traveling with kids at