This past April I packed up my life in Oakland, CA and moved to Montevideo, Uruguay -- a small South American country of three million people and twelve million cows. Why? I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to develop work in the field of inclusive dance, or dance that integrates people with and without disabilities. For those of you who don't know, music and dance are two mediums that I began studying at a young age (my mother fell into the stereotype of the Chinese mother who strove to make her children proficient in classical piano and ballet by the age of four). As a teenager I chose to break out of my classical training in both art forms in order to find the 'style' that best suited my personal voice, which has been a journey that I am still on as an adult.
If you're interested in how I reinvented myself as a dancer with a disability, check out my blog post about my experience with AXIS Dance Company. In short, after two years dancing with AXIS (a wonderful, challenging, frustrating, life-changing experience), I decided to begin my development as an independent artist. So here I am in Uruguay until December. Despite all my fears and doubts leading up to this year, I have been pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the artistic community has been to me and my proposed work. In the two months that I've been here, I have partnered with the national dance conservatory, el SODRE, and the Fine Arts department of La Universidad República to give a variety of workshops. In addition, I'm collaborating with local dancers of all body types to create a series of short choreographic works that I hope to film or perform by the end of my stay here. Finally, I've gone to Argentina to work with an inclusive contemporary company called Compañía Sin Fronteras and I'm hoping to collaborate on a short choreographic work later on in the year (check 'em out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIrPgqvUt5o).
Despite the happy photos on social media, this experience has not come without its challenges. Just a few days ago I was turned away from a dance class, as the teacher adamantly argued that she did not teach people with disabilities. Furthermore, the city is far from being wheelchair friendly -- in some old parts of the city it feels as if you have stepped back into the 1970s. I certainly need to ask for more help to overcome the ubiquitous presence of stairs and severely damaged pavement, but I'm learning to soften my tendency towards fierce independence and embrace the obligatory interaction with the people around me. Aside from a few encounters with blatant ignorance, most people are happy to help and many times proceed to ask me questions about my work, a pleasant way to utilize the most organic form of self-marketing.
In this racially homogenous country there are few Asian people, and even fewer Asian people rolling around in wheelchairs so I generate a healthy amount of stares. I am probably the first young Asian American woman in a wheelchair that many people have seen; and all my fancy mobility gadgets and wheelchairs that are not available in this country and that enable me to go wherever I please independently, make me even more of an oddity. Removing myself from California, a place that I have called home for the past seven years and that boasts progressive attitudes towards inclusion, in order to live in a challenging place where I am a complete outsider, has been exactly the creative fuel that I have been searching for. Every encounter I have, both positive and negative, further proves to me that my work as an artist is necessary in every part of the world. We are so far from a reality in which people with disabilities are accepted in any arena of society, whether that is the arts, politics, sports, or the media. My hope is that this year will be an incubation period for some good creative work that I know is simmering inside of me. Stay tuned.