My Words! My Voice! I did it My Way!

Emily Li '18
The multi-talented Emily Li ’18 won third place on Chinese Idol before participating in Dancing with the Stars of China and Explorations of the World. Here, she writes about her experiences in the professional dance world.
After a flurry of autographs, interviews, and smiling so much my face feels numb, I eagerly return to my welcoming hotel bed. I smile giddily at the ceiling as I think about meeting my dance partner the next morning. Three months into my gap year and already everything is so surreal.
My first day of China’s version of “Dancing with the Stars” begins with a message: “Meet the Director in his office.” My assistant and I share a look of excitement and anxiety. I rush into his office, smiling wide, excited to meet my next boss. Leaning back in his leather recliner, a black-haired middle-aged man greets me with a brief smirk. He turns to my assistant. “Emily is too happy. It’s boring. It’s annoying.”
“Hi...sorry. I understand Chinese, you can speak directly to…”  Cutting me off, he explains to my assistant why I won’t “make it” on passion or ability alone. “Wait, excuse me, I...” He continues to disregard my presence, “She needs content. She lacks that celebrity factor.” Flustered, I nevertheless persist in defending myself as this utter stranger presumptuously sizes up then tears down my character.
“Here’s her introduction script. That’ll be all.” I walk out of the room, stunned by the rude encounter. As I skim the Chinese text, phrases like “horrific dance teacher,” and “spoiled by American freedom” stand out. It’s a concocted narrative about an abusive ballet teacher and bad “American” parenting that is blatantly untrue. No way was I going to read this on live television.
That night, determined to create a more truthful speech, I stay up annotating the 5-minute autobiography. I strike false phrases. I circle made-up stories. I write my accurate replacements in the margins.
The next morning, I hand the Director four new pages of notes. He slowly puts on his glasses and flips through them. After a painful silence, he clears his throat and glances smugly at me. “Okay. Now, introduce yourself.” Unprepared, I trip over my words as I try to explain myself in my second language. “You can’t even speak in coherent words,” he mutters. Ashamed, I stare at my shoes. As my eyes moisten and my teeth clench, he continues to mock my revisions. “Imagine that. You thought you would write a better speech than an acclaimed director?”
The next few days, I work through my frustration in countless hours of dance rehearsal. Normal hours have me arriving at the studio at 9:00 a.m. and leaving at 3:00 a.m with my feet covered in bandages. I spend every minute of free time drafting outspoken emails that I don’t dare to send—I feel trapped.
On the day of the live show, I run up to the stage with a nervous smile. Adjusting the mic’s height, I clear my throat. The white screen of the teleprompter glares menacingly at me across the stage. I read the Chinese characters. As the melodramatic background music begins to play, the characters on the screen taunt me. I glance at my shoes; the Director’s smug smile flashes across my mind. I feel like a puppet controlled by strings. I pause for a second in front of millions of viewers across China.
I look up at the crowd and hesitantly start again, but in my own words—disregarding the contrived script, disregarding the Director’s insistence that I’m not enough, that my voice is unworthy. I cut the puppeteer's strings and introduce myself again on my own terms: as a Chinese-American who is proud of her roots. I speak in Chinese about the merging of the two cultures within me. I speak about my dance teacher’s insistence on adding my own style to dance. I speak about my values: to say what I want to say and do what is right. I speak honestly and proudly, and, although grammatically incorrect at times, I speak the truth.
Emily performing on “Dancing with the Stars of China”

Emily performing on “Chinese Idol”

Emily performing at Lawernceville


For 125 seasons, Periwig has celebrated the performing arts, shaping the lives of young artists.

Now we celebrate you…

Please join us for an exciting 125th Season of theatre, music and dance. Lawrenceville Performing Arts invites you to return to the stage of Kirby Arts Center once again to join our Parade of Stars for Guys and Dolls, dance in the Spring Dance Concert or perform in our Alumni Concert.
Through House and Harkness, Lawrenceville challenges a diverse community of promising young people to lead lives of learning, integrity, and high purpose.  Our mission is to inspire the best in each to seek the best for all.