A Chinese trek from Israel to California Center for the Arts

By Leeshai Lemish

ESCONDIDO, California–What’s an Israeli doing in a Chinese show? I’m asked this almost as often as I’m asked, when checking in at the airport alongside a hundred Chinese dancers and musicians – “Are you part of this group?”

The answer to the latter question is: “No, and yes.” No, I can’t dance – let alone perform the gravity-defying tumbling techniques of classical Chinese dance. I can’t sing. Nor can I respectably play an instrument – Chinese or otherwise. But yes, I am with the group.

Somehow I’ve been bestowed with the fortune of having a nightly free ticket to an amazing show while traveling around the world for now three years. My wonderful job is among the world’s best-kept secrets – I’m an emcee with Shen Yun Performing Arts.

An affable Chinese lady and I briefly introduce each of Shen Yun’s short dance and music numbers to the audience in English and Chinese. We might provide a bit of background for a lively ethnic dance in which tableware are used as props, explain a Chinese legend about the first woman on the moon, or introduce a Chinese instrument played on two strings. Then we leave the real work to the actual artists, who do their jobs exceptionally well.

And this week we are performing in one of my favorite cities – San Diego (well, Escondido, to be precise). Beyond the obvious reasons for loving the area, San Diego is special to me because I have three generations of family here and it’s where I briefly played semi-pro baseball after serving in the Israeli army.

A few questions inevitably come up. The answers are: No, I didn’t grow up in China; I’m not married to a Chinese woman, and I have no Chinese blood – although I do eat a lot of Chinese food, speak Chinese, and am fascinated by Chinese culture.

To clarify, this interest in China is not an interest in skyscrapers, GDP, Olympics, tainted milk, or labor camp China, as we now know it. It’s an interest in Chinese traditions with their extreme depth and diversity- 5,000 years of civilization, much of it continuously documented through a consistent script, and artistic heritage that has amazingly survived to this day.

I say “amazingly,” because much of these traditions have been lost under China’s current authoritarian regime. During the Cultural Revolution and other Chinese Communist Party campaigns, books, ancient artifacts, and temples were destroyed; traditions that had been transmitted from one generation to the next were cut off after thousands of years. Millions were killed.

Outside mainland China, much more of the traditions has survived. A typical example is how seemingly endless Chinese art masterpieces now on display in Taipei’s National Palace Museum are still around only because they were smuggled to Taiwan by the Nationalists who fled there 60 years ago.

Indeed, the New York-based Shen Yun’s mission of breathing life into nearly lost traditions is one of the things I find most inspiring to watch about this undertaking. This is what unites Shen Yun’s choreographers and composers, along with a shared spiritual commitment, and the courage to depict anything on stage. That’s why those of you who will come to the show will also see scenes of, for example, Falun Dafa practitioners resisting persecution – a contemporary issue – portrayed beautifully through dance and the narrative of ancient Chinese traditions.

During my time with Shen Yun, I continue to be impressed by the versatility and depth of classical Chinese dance. It is

its own comprehensive dance system, complete with its own set of systematized training, postures, and body rhythms that make it so unique. Many of the moves we’ve become used to seeing in gymnastics and acrobatics, in fact, actually originate from classical Chinese dance.Throw in hundreds of bright costumes, drums, a 3D-like projection, and a live orchestra that combines classical Western and Chinese instruments, and you start to get a feel for why, even as a non-Chinese, I enjoy this so much.

You could say my interest in China began in the Israeli army. As a rookie, I watched how one by one my seniors completed their mandatory terms and went trekking in India, Laos, and Cambodia. They returned for reserve duty with beards and long hair, and I was keen to hear my former officers tell stories of meditating on the Himalayan slopes.

This curiosity migrated from Yoga and India to China and its practices of tai chi, qigong, and Falun Dafa.

As a Pomona College freshman, I decided to take my writing in a new direction: the Chinese up-to-down to complement this left-to-right and the Hebrew right-to-left. In spite of the confusion, I fell in love with the Chinese language right away.

I was surprised to discover how supportive Chinese people generally are of others’ efforts to learn their language. A simple attempt at “ni hao” will get thumbs up from an elderly Chinese at an Asian supermarket, and a “xie xie” at the checkout counter will win a stream of endless compliments. We Israelis could learn a thing or two about encouraging those struggling with the equally challenging Hebrew.

As I wrapped up an Asian Studies degree at Pomona, a friend invited me to emcee a Chinese variety show in Los Angeles, and I later joined Shen Yun at its inception in 2006.
Nine years ago on a pitcher’s mound in Escondido I wouldn’t have imagined that the next time back I would be on stage. I’m discovering there’s a bit of chutzpah to how life’s journey unfolds.

Leeshai Lemish will be with Shen Yun Performing Arts at the California Center for the Arts Escondido tonight through Thursday.

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