I wish I could just write about something else. Instead of the week I’ve had. I’m not sure I’ve had more ups and downs within such a short period of time before. I’ve remained silent because I literally can’t think of anything else to say.
Then I realized that I can’t be a selective presenter. I must tell everything, good and bad.
It started Christmas Eve.
I dabbed makeup onto the tiny face before me, wondering, as I had all night, why we were dolling the children up for their dances if the only people who were going to see it was us. I had started at 5 o’clock and was still painting on my human canvasses at 7 o’clock.
I hadn’t eaten and I was dreading my own part that I would play tonight. I’m not a dancer. People have called me graceful before and that is very kind, but my coordination is reserved for impractical situations like climbing trees or crossing creeks.
I don’t know how many talent shows you’ve witnessed, but I doubt you’ve ever seen someone showcase their ability to climb trees or cross various bodies of flowing water. If there was such a thing, I would compete with better success.
No, this was us standing in a line and doing coordinated and interesting steps.
It was those crazy Filipinos.
I had expressed to them how there is no traditional dance of my people that I had been taught as a child like they apparently had. No expectation that one day I would be required to perform against my will. I always figured that if someone asked, I would politely say, “No, thank you.” and that they would just accept that and move on to a more willing dancer.
When you have been asked by the Pastor’s wife to present a dance and you have four Filipinos telling you that they will not dance unless you do as well, you might do what I did. Which was agree to it and complain the entire time.
After every practice over the two days they gave us, I would slump to the floor, in imitation of my little sister Anna and tell them, “I hate my liiiiiiiiife!”
Every move I made was a disaster.
At one point in the dance, we would all crouch to the floor and one-by-one each person would stand and execute a graceful move of their choice. Eight beats… only eight beats. When my turn came to stand and do something, I would limp out a series of hand motions and foot-tapping.
At first they told me I was good.
“No, really! You are doing well!”
Then, when they discovered that no amount of practice was improving me, they told me to just have fun. Which is a nice way of admitting that I truly was not good, but it’s ok, because if you laugh at yourself, others will feel less bad about laughing at you.
So here I was, dreading it with all my heart and painting the face of a little girl who had been raised to do her traditional Hmong dance all her life.
“Teacher! You dance?” the kids would ask me. I would nod and they would turn with excited face to the person behind them. “Teacher Eliza will dance!”
My dread heightened as the word spread and I realized that they would make a point of watching me. Great. I was hoping that the group-dance thing would rescue me.
I literally prayed and asked God to make it all go away. I am not a performer, although everything at this school has thrown me in front of a crowd with the Filipinos. Skits almost every week to tell Bible stories, teaching every day and then singing, which was by far the easiest and most anonymous thing. Now, dancing.
I tried not to imagine my family, cosily sipping coffee in front of the coal stove, snow falling past the windows, staying up late watching old Christmas movies.
That is how I am accustomed to spending Christmas Eve, not trying to compete with a bunch of five-thru-fourteen-year-olds in a foreign country.
They told me that dance is very important to Thai culture, that for every occasion they have a dance. So, I know why they asked, but in the moment, I would have traded nearly anything to not stand in front of a crowd and provide a glaring contrast for the graceful Filipinos.
I finished the face in front of me and one of the older boys, Tao, brought in two trays of food.
A Christmas feast. Pork, falling off the bone, served with noodles. Tao had piled oranges and a strange green fruit on the tray. I thanked him and he winked and left, laughing at all the makeup piled on desks in the classroom.
“Do you think it’s magic?” I yelled after him, “You are such a boy!”
I would have defended the ritualistic face-painting more, only I hated it now too and Tao doesn’t speak English.
I slid to the floor and pulled the metal tray to me. No utensils had been provided. It felt good to rebel against the system and use my God-given liberty to eat all the food with my fingers. Especially since my fight-or-flight response was screaming at me to pretend I had a fever and lock myself in my room.
I may not be able to refuse to dance, but I can sure laugh in the face of restrictive norms and eat all of a Christmas Eve dinner with my hands.
“Pe Eliza!” Judy, one of the Filipinos came in, “We dance in 30 minutes, you are not ready?”
She had her long, black hair in curlers and settled at a desk to apply her make-up.
“I will dance like this.” I gestured to my hoodie that I had been wearing all day.
Judy stared and I lifted a handful of noodles to my mouth. Rose came in at that moment. She was also wearing a hoodie.
“Rose!” Judy was aghast, “You will not change?!”
“No,” Rose looked down at her clothes, “Why should I?”
That’s my girl. Rose is the best. The most practical woman I know. I slurped my noodles as Judy looked back and forth, as if deciding on who she disapproved of more. The uncultured American who didn’t know any better, or the Filipino who didn’t care?
She settled on me. I was, after all, sitting on the floor, eating noodles with my hands in a detestable hooded sweatshirt. However, no amount of eye-rolling or sighing would budge me from my decision.
Judy turned to her preparations, obviously giving up on Rose and I.
I ate my oranges and tried to feel happy. It was Christmas Eve! And how adorable was it that they bought oranges for all the kids?
“Pe Eliza,” Judy turned, “Is it ok?” she gestured to her face.
“Yes, its good.” I mumbled.
She started pulling out the curlers and brushed her hair, looking a bit skeptical but without another person to ask. Rose had wandered out after being so scorned for her clothing choices. A glance at the clock caused Judy to burst into a flurry of action.
“Pe Eliza! Its time!”
I looked at the clock and felt dread like a lump in my stomach. It sure was time.
I followed her out of the classroom and into the crisp evening air. It is a bit chilly here now and it gets dark very early. I could hear the kids up on the second floor of the mess hall, chattering with Christmas music playing.
Through the mess hall, past the remnants of dinner and up the stairs.
They had lights set up at the front of the room and the kids were sitting in their groups, dressed in their traditional clothing and watching the first group dance. It was the little kids, doing the hand-motions to a child’s song.
It struck me suddenly that I wasn’t getting out of this. This was happening. I was going to stand up in front of all these people and do many embarrassing things.
It wasn’t one of those times where you hope you don’t mess up but have a reasonable expectation of doing well… I was going to mess up. It was going to happen and they would laugh.
Its not a nice feeling.
In the next moment I had another revolutionary thought.
I do. Just me. The kids will laugh and forget the next moment, the adults present are kind and generous. I, however, because of my incredibly monstrous ego, will shrivel and die because I am forced to do something I am not amazing at.
A fit of the giggles hit me. These kids were braver than I.
Here I was, moping about my forced role, and here they were, volunteering to showcase their talents for the enjoyment of others. I was eating food with my hands in protest, wearing my hoodie to show my independence, and making it all about me.
I decided to take their advice. Just have fun.
When they announced our group, the kids cheered to see their teachers up there. I saw them smile and I instantly felt the dread go away.
Not everything is about me.
When those eight beats of my solo arrived, I rose and twirled like I remember twirling when I was a little girl. A pirouette and a step from one side to the other. So yeah, I have been dancing from childhood, just not like a Thai or Filipino. Just like me.
I’m sure it looked ridiculous, I know they were laughing at me and I was laughing at me too. But something struck me, as we left the stage to applause, and that was that I enjoyed it and the kids had enjoyed it.
I had messed up. There was no mistaking that but it isn’t about me. I had released my strangle-hold on what people think and in the process I had brought joy to them.
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”
I’m not suggesting that we all go and dance to save the world. In fact, I intend to restrict my clumsy twirling to my home. However, I’m discovering that embarrassment and discomfort are not the enemies I assumed they were.
I can preserve my “dignity” and not reach out to the world around me but I’ve just put myself in a cage. There is always potential to fail and most times, it is unavoidable.
But what of the failure I will experience when I stand before God and tell Him that I didn’t speak to that person because I was embarrassed to? That it made me uncomfortable? That I didn’t use my talents because I was afraid?
It was a disaster, no doubt, but God taught me through my imperfect actions that there is no sense dreading what we must do. There is no sense in avoiding what makes us uncomfortable. We’ve been commanded to dance and right or wrong in anyone’s eyes, we must dance.
Unfortunately, discomfort and shame are not things God restricted to a one-day lesson. I was in for review in a couple days.