Month: September 2016

When you don’t do it for the resume…

I am no stranger to voluntourism. Dictionary says this term means “a combination of both volunteering and tourism” but I would argue that it means “to volunteer to benefit oneself regardless of the consequences”.

As we all know, volunteer experience is crucial for a student to get into elite universities in the US. As an increasing number of Chinese students who want to study abroad, the need of volunteer opportunities in mainland China grew so tremendously that we breed a market of “voluntourism”. Anyone can pay an agency or start their own organization to go to some rural villages to teach or go to an underdeveloped country to build roads and houses for ONE WEEK and proudly put their experiences on their resumes or present themselves founders of NGOs yet ignoring the fact that there is no one helping out locally on a daily basis and there was no sustainability to those programs.

Soon “volunteering” became an open secret in the international student circle. Because if you write about your “life-changing” experience in you college essay, you might have a higher chance to gain the golden ticket to get in to your dream schools.

However, I was guilty of being part of that market too. 

I taught English at a rural village in Shanan’Xi province, China for 10 days (each) in the summer of 2013 and 2014, knowing that there is no sustainability to the program.

For a long time, I was debating whether I should continue volunteering in my college years after witnessing how commercialized volunteerism has become in both China and the US. I questioned “how much value is it really in these volunteer jobs?” “Are we the one benefit more from these experience or the people we helped?”

Fast forward to the beginning of my Freshmen year in college,  I encountered Movement Exchange: an non-profit organization that has staff members live in Panama, organizing all year round FREE dance education in local orphanages, and providing varies opportunities for children from underprivileged  communities. I wholeheartedly support their cause because dance has help me overcome some hardest times of my life and I want others, especially underprivileged children and teens, to have access to this important form of art.

After months of fundraising and working, I hopped on the plane to Panama City with four other passionate dancers from UCSD’s chapter of Movement Exchange.

During my 8-day exchange in Panama City under the supervision of our three ardent mentors(Kimberly, Adele, and Tina), I understood not only the importance of sustainability to a NGO but also the saw impact of it. I witness the connections and trust our mentors and the kids have built overtime, I was amazed by the dreams and ambitions our students carried even though most of them came from abusive, problematic families, and I was stunned by how dance evoked a person’s inner confidence and most importantly how it changed someone’s life. (A dancer in Colon, the poorest city in the entire Central America, shared the story of how break dancing saved him from street fights and drugs). Additionally, as dance diplomats me and my teammates had lessons on cross-cultural understanding, youth and community empowerment through dance, dance as a tool of violent prevention etc. everyday.

Rome wasn’t build in one day, neither were these miracles happened during one specific group’s 8-day exchange. The changes began in the beats of musics, the laughs and the tears, as well as the belief of sustainable, effective volunteering.

If you like to move your bodies to musics and you are passionate about changing people’s lives for the better, you should totally join Movement Exchange to Panama on our next trip! Just dance to the music and share what you love. You will be suprised how much you can teach the kids, how much you will learn from them, and how much you will learn about yourself as well!

To volunteer not because you NEED it, but because you LOVE it. 

*Picture taken at University of Panama after our president Duyen and lovely member Taeksu taught a hip hop class there*14285210_1271146112925907_277685557_o

Puente del Mundo

Puente del Mundo

Panama has a wonderful nickname – Puente del mundo, Corazon del Universido.
In English, it translates to Bridge of the World, Heart of the Universe. The “Bridge of the World” comes from the Panama Canal and “Heart of the Universe” comes from Panama’s location on the world map. However, the nickname has a much deeper meaning for me.

During my one week stay in Panama, I learned HOW to be the bridge of the world. I was able to appreciate cultural differences and learned how to connect people through dance. For this trip, it didn’t matter how good of a dancer you are, but how well you were able to connect with the kids and be a successful teacher. Being a bridge between two different people, cultures, or countries is an unforgettable lesson Panama taught me. I also learned to do everything I do with the Heart of the Universe – to be open-minded and compassionate. At the beginning of each class, we taught the teenagers that respect is very important in Hip Hop – respect for everyone and for yourself. Our goal was for them to develop compassion with respect someday. For example, Alice taught the Mongolian chopsticks dance at Aldea SOS in Panama City. We were already warned that the kids like to make fun of Asians and say things like Chinita and make squinty eyes at us. We barely experienced it the entire week because I truly believe that the kids respected us and didn’t want to make fun of us. One girl kept saying Chinita during Alice’s class but stopped after a little bit because no one else cared about what she said. Everyone else was paying attention to Alice because they really wanted to learn the dance. This demonstrate to me the progress of respect and compassion the kids developed to other cultures. So many people that we have met in Panama were so welcoming to our little group. From the kids at the orphanage, the university students, our dance teachers, to random bboys at the park next door or who stopped at Aldea SOS in Colon to battle one of us – thank you for the amazing exchanges we had.

Those two values, being a bridge of the world with a heart of the universe, were the only things that really mattered during this trip. I learned to let go of all my spoiled expectations and materialistic values and just appreciate every moment. It didn’t matter what we wore, ate, if the water stopped running and we couldn’t shower, or it suddenly starts pouring outside – life is still good. It never stops the people in Panama from enjoying the day so why should it bother us? We are so spoiled with an excess of choices in food, clothing, music, phones etc. and take so many things for granted. When I gave one of the teenagers, Jonatan, my backpack, I remembered how ridiculous I was when I first bought this backpack. I spent too much money on a brand name (Hershel) backpack that was way too big for me. I never liked wearing it but the brand was so popular at that time. I even stopped using it after my graduation. When I gave the backpack away, I was so relieved to let go of this materialistic side of me and give it to an amazing owner who would really appreciate it  – Jonatan, an orphan with dreams and aspirations just like me. We could have talked for hours about his dream to become the first male Olympic gymnast for Panama, our goals to become doctors, how many languages we both speak, or just about our love for dance. He loves learning languages because he knows the importance of it and it helps him connect with people. He is one of the most interesting people I have met and a friend I’ll never forget. Jonatan represents what Panama is to me – the bridge of the world, heart of the universe.

Malambo Day 2

Malambo Day 2

Ignorance is a bliss.

That phrase was very true for my first day at Malambo.
First day at Malambo was actually a blessing and was not too hard for me because I was unable to understand any of girls’ bad mouthed words and teasing. (Shoutout to my teaching partner Heidi who is fluent in Spanish).


Second day was much the same, but harder.
After hearing what Malambo girls said to each other, it was a bit tougher to keep my cool. Teaching older girls choreo was challenging with some of them leaving every other moment and staying inattentive.
But as the time went on, I began to focus on the girls who did not leave. Job got much easier. And soon I was looking at group of ten, fifteen Malambo girls dancing.


However, my favorite moment of the day did not come until post performance.
After performance, when I was helping a kid with a basic c-walking step she had question about, Kimberly came to ask me to do a Nike freeze for a kid. Once I did, I was surrounded by curious eyes, and was bombarded with bunch of Spanish words I did not understand. I then spent next 15 min running between girls standing upside down, speaking little Spanish I knew.


I still do not know all the good and bad things those girls might’ve said to me. But at the end of the day, they were just girls who are curious, and wanted to have fun. Had I understood everything they said to me, I probably wouldn’t have had that awesome 15 mins. Ignorance was a bliss, but what I needed might’ve been just a bigger heart to lift their wall.
Connections at Malambo

Connections at Malambo

Today, our last day with the Malambo girls, was gratifying, exhilarating, and heartbreaking. We have been bonding with a lot of these girls for four days now and through my broken Spanish I was able to learn about them and about myself. For the past three days we have been working with both the older and the younger girls on different warm ups and combinations. Watching them progress, change and grow has been such an amazing experience.
Before going on this trip I didn’t expect to bond with one person as much as I did with Aris. From sitting in front of me on the bus day one, to helping me speak Spanish day two, to telling the other girls to keep dancing on day three, to coming up with her own choreography on day four, Aris taught me how strong friendships can be even with a language barrier. I would hold her hand, teach her steps and watch her interact with the other girls. When something was troubling her I was their to cheer her up.
I was happy to be there but I was also frustrated because I could not explain to her how much she meant to me. I wanted to explain in words and not just hugs, dance, and facial expressions, how proud I was of what she had accomplished in 4 short days and how inspired I was by her dancing. I decided the only thing I could do was write her a letter. With the help of Edgar, who is fluent in Spanish, I crafted a letter that explained how I felt and how I would always remember her.
I will never forget the look on her face when I gave her the letter, or how 20 min later she returned with a letter of her own explaining how I was her best friend and she will continue to dance. Holding back tears I hugged her and thanked her for everything.
I then taught two more classes and helped the girls perform in the show all while thinking that this could be the last time I see her. After the show she told me she had a surprise for me. I followed her into one of the houses and covered by eyes. She came out with two teddy bears explaining the big one was me and the little one was her. She walked me to the bus and we said goodbye. Sitting on the buss in our way back to the hostel the tears finally came, for everything I was leaving but especially her. Her kind eyes and knowing smile touched my heart in a way I was not expecting and I am so glad I was able to make that connection with her. I’ll never forget Malambo and the connections I made there.

Curtains closed, minds open, and hearts exposed

Curtains closed, minds open, and hearts exposed

Edgar and I first found out that we were teaching at the University of Panamá while reading our itinerary a couple of days before leaving for our exchange. Immediately, the two of us began conversing about our lesson plan and songs that we each wanted to choreograph to. While these aspects of teaching are vital to the structure of a dance class, we never could have expected the amount of support that we received during our time of instruction.

I have been teaching dance for the past 5 years form ages ranging between 6-17 years old. I have noticed that American dance students cling to their reflection in the mirror and follow the specific directions they are given throughout class. However, there seems to be a lack of community and support for their fellow classmates.

From the second I walked into the University studio, I felt the positive energy and the eagerness to work hard and focus throughout class – something I had never felt before in classes I had taught in the past. Each dancer exuded their own style and quirks throughout the movement and continued to push themselves for the entirety of the class. Edgar and I were able to combine our movement combinations and work together to give corrections and take feedback in regards to our teaching. At the end of class, I took a step back and watched the students improvise in the center of the room with their hearts exposed and minds hard at work. I felt a sense of accomplishment and excitement about my teaching abilities that I had not previously felt in the states.

While dance is considered a disciplined art form, it is also an emotional outlet. Consequently, dance promotes positive self esteem and further enhances the personalities of each dancer.
This experience has taught me to keep the mirror curtains closed, mind open, and heart exposed. My hope is to allow students to remove themselves from the mirror and focus more on the others that share the same passions and desires. You never know what you will discover about yourself while interacting with others.

University of Panama x UCI

University of Panama x UCI

Coming to the University of Panama for the first time, I did not know what to expect. I was excited to converse with the students and make new friends but most importantly I was ready to dance, teach and learn from the Panamanian dancers. It was a dance exchange like this that I have always wanted to experience and Panama gave that to me fully. On Monday August 29th, class was lead by two of the Panamanian 3rd year dance students. After starting the class with warm ups and conditioning, the students lead us through a great across the floor exercise which was very helpful because it consisted of the movement which was later applied to the choreography we learned.
Doing the across the floors is one of the best memories I will keep from my experience at the University. It was amazing to see how all of us were working hard but also made it essential to cheer each other on and get to know each other a little bit more. The support in the room was constantly blooming.
When it came to learning the actual choreography, it came very easy to most people in the room since we had already visited most of the material during the across the floor. It was great to be able to stand next to someone new and learn together. There were a few moments when one of the Panamanian girls and I made constant eye contact to double check with each other if we were doing a move correctly or to clarify timing. After a constant exchange of smiles, I knew that we both felt comfortable with each other and were happy to be dancing together. It was nice to have made this connection with her because after we finished working on the choreography, there was a session of contact improvisation which we both immediately engaged in together.
The next day, Tuesday August 30th, it was our turn to lead the class. After a warm up and ab workout lead by Chay, Rae lead the class through a contact improv session in which we created a large circle and different dancers could go into the circle whenever they felt that they wanted to while the remaining dancers stayed back and watched. This was one of the best experiences I have ever had with dance because it was a very vulnerable experience for all of us. It was amazing to see how easy we were all able to trust each other and organically come together and do a lot of intense lifting and weight sharing which requires complete surrender to one another. It was in this moment that I realized the power dancers have when they come together. Although most of us could not understand each other, it did not matter. It was the magic of dance that brought us all together and created this beautiful exchange.
It was now time for Terra and I to teach choreography to the class. My main role was that of being the translator for the class. It was such a rewarding experience for me to be able to translate for Terra during her section of the choreography but also watch her shine as she demonstrated the moves and counted in Spanish. I felt that this was such a breakthrough moment because even though some were nervous about teaching and not knowing the language, we quickly leaned how not essential speaking was because with dance it’s all about sharing, acceptance and openness. It was amazing to see how hard everyone was working which let me know that everyone in the room had come with the same attitude of giving and receiving. This made me feel so full inside. We ended the class with foggy mirrors, sweaty floors and full with love and life.



Today, the morning was humid and warm, as the past four days in Panamá have been. This trip had been incredibly free-flowing, and as individuals experienced life-opening moments, mine was yet to truly hit home.

Two years ago, I arrived to the waistline of the world as a wide-eyed and thoroughly confused freshman. Throughout the course of the trip, I would suffer from an inner-ear infection, see various doctors and miss days to serve at the orphanages. But luckily, by the end of the week, I got to visit Aldea SOS in Panama City.

His name is Samuel. Now twelve years old, he is taller, with light cocoa brown skin. His wide eyes are set wider than I last saw him, but he has the same haircut, the same smile. Two years ago he rushed to the bus to hold my hand as we were leaving, and ran as far to the gates of the orphanage as possible to catch a last glance of the yellow bus.

Today, I walked up the moist green earth of the orphanage to see him. I first saw him through the bars that guard the window, and he was hesitant. Perhaps is was the fact that my entire group of dance diplomats was there, but he was shy as we awkwardly greeted each other for the first time in two years. Eyes met and we exchanged smiles. I cried without realizing it and he shifted in his place awkwardly as twelve year old boys do.

What sort of reunion was I to expect? With these kids, people come and go so often, and I was no exception to this pattern. Regardless of the fact that his picture was on my wall since my last trip to Panama, Samuel had no idea what he symbolized for my life.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m an English major, and I look for tropes and meaning in my own life, that his being represents so much to me. He has been an everlasting reminder of those who have less than I, who struggle and are hungry for love. Like me.

But today, seeing Samuel doing well and so grown has reminded me that life goes on. We live, love, grow and make decisions. In what seems black and white, we find the gray. In moments of hand holding, of music, of grace, we find joy.

I watched him as he moved chairs and took out the garbage. He climbed a tree. He looked back at me. Regardless of it all, I still choose to love him, and always will. He has shown me, through his actions, however limited they may be, that human connection is first and foremost the important.

So whatever civic engagement I choose, whichever profession I embrace, I know, by his example, that human beings–in all their chaos, with all their flaws–come first.

Gracias, Samuel.

(His favorite color is green.)