It wasn’t what I came to do. They weren’t who I came to see. Yet, my feet stopped moving. My breath was suspended. My eyes were wide. Even with the weight of a heavy bag hanging on my shoulders, I was wavering on the balls of my feet debating on whether to join with the 30 plus Beijing residents three times my age as they danced to Cha Cha music. Watching for a few more seconds, I took in the gray hair waving on top of their heads, and was captivated by the flying arms and turning hips. Would I join?
It was summer 2013 in Beijing, China, and I was wrapping up the Dragon Boat Festival weekend with a reunion with a good friend. Purple Bamboo Park was her suggestion, and I was happy to catch up over a stroll and an oar-propelled boat ride in a place I had yet to explore. After plenty of smiles, pictures, and honest U.S. to China life-adjustment confessions, it was time to leave. That’s when I saw them.
I knew I would stand out like a blue jay in a robin’s nest, but after a few seconds, my excitement overpowered the thought. Willing to join in, too, my friend and I positioned ourselves at the perimeter of the imaginary dance floor, and became little girls giggling and smiling as we danced. Doing a small curtsy to end the song, I felt a tap on the shoulder. To my thrilled surprise, an elderly Chinese man with a white T-shirt, dark loose pants, and a welcoming smile was motioning for me to dance with him. I had been welcomed into the flock. And so we danced. He with the agility of a fish in the sea, and I with the flattered charm of a butterfly fresh out of the cocoon.
Six months earlier I was still hoping for a chance to touch ground in China. Five months earlier, and even though my family marveled that I would be traveling alone to get there, I felt like my time to live as a world traveler had finally arrived. Just four days earlier I was confirming my train ticket for the first in-country travel that I had initiated on my own in China. Never had it occurred to me that I would come face-to-face with a part myself in a park where I simply expected to meet a friend and marvel at purple bamboo.
In that moment of twirling hips and spinning summer dress hemlines, I felt as capable of seeking and attracting joyful life experiences as I ever had. I am fully myself when I dance; I feel valued, creative and inspired. Claiming my independence means making my own decisions. It means taking a few risks. Even when loved ones prod me on refraining from traveling alone, independence means having a solo experience every once in a while, too. More than this, independence is an emotion. It is feeling like you’re away from everything familiar and in connection with everything intimately known at the same time. Surely in this moment I understood what the mid-20th century songstress meant, because I too was dancing in the streets.
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