I love moving on this blonde, wooden floor, falling on it, lying on my back on it, even dozing on it for a half hour or so, after which, I wake up with a start, stiff and guilty for sleeping through precious rehearsal time, ordering myself to come up with something new or at least reconsidered, reshaped or refined.  This studio, in Santa Monica’s downtown, is far cleaner, larger and lighter than the dark, dusty fourth floor walk-up I’m used to renting by the hour in New York’s flat-iron district. It’s July, 1980. I’ve moved here recently and reluctantly with my boyfriend. That this sumptuous space is all mine for a couple of hours a day, three days a week, is my consolation prize for severing myself from the nerve center of modern dance, my passion for the past ten years.

I’m making a solo.  I’m not yet confident enough to dance freely with an empty mind, knowing that I will eventually make a piece from whatever movements arise from my body. I still accept as Word the tenet of the seminal choreographer, Merce Cunningham, that a choreographer needs ideas and structures to take her beyond the habitual into fresh material. Adhering to this aesthetic like a transitional object, I create unrelated phrases for my arms, legs, hips and shoulders, even my head, and put them together, like patting my head with one hand while making circles with the other on my tummy. It keeps me busy, and I never have to face the frightening question of what I feel like doing, which, I think, would be too self-indulgent to be productive.

By August, I have a dance in four parts, each with a different tempo, spatial pattern, theme and mood. Since it makes its own music with footfalls and body slaps, I dance it in silence and call it Sonata. In September, I audition it for a Los Angeles Choreographers’ Showcase.

After the audition, I’m resting on a folding chair in a dingy downtown studio, still sweating, catching my breath and eating an apple when Fred Strickler, one of the judges, rushes into the room looking like he’s in shock.  

“Are you a tap dancer?”

“No. I took a few lessons, but I never pursued it. Why?”

“Your dance is so rhythmical and musical.”

“Thank you,” I say, my mouth full of apple.

“I love that. I want to learn it.”

This is the first time I’ve met Fred, a former member of Bella Lewitzky’s dance company, now a tap dancer and professor of dance at University of California, Riverside.  I doubt that I’ll ever teach Sonata to him, but I’m glad he likes it. It seems the rest of the panel does, too. They accept it into the showcase, and I perform it in December at UCLA’s Schonberg Auditorium, a 500 seat venue, the largest place I’ve ever shown my work.


The standard of excellence that matters to me, however, lies in New York. So the following February, I fly there to audition Sonata for Dance Theater Workshop’s choreographer’s showcase. 

DTW is a black box venue on W. 19th St. At the moment, only the work lights are on, casting their neutral, harsh glow as I perform. Seven or eight judges, established choreographers, producers and teachers, including Bessie Schonberg who was my choreography teacher at Sarah Lawrence, sit several chairs apart from each other as though they don’t want to be contaminated by each other’s opinions. Seducing them seems unlikely. All I can do is feel the thin, rubber soles of my jazz shoes on the marley; the soft lavender knit pants on my legs as I move through the space with my steps and stamps; the purple silk t-shirt against my skin as I get increasingly sweaty from the dancing and from the lights. Whatever the judges think of my dancing, I know that it’s fluid and that the rhythms, timing, direction changes and shapes are clear.

This is the third time I’ve auditioned a piece at DTW. It’s my last shot. I can’t take any more rejection from this place. So I don’t care about the flatness in David White’s voice, DTW’s producer, when he calls later to say, “You’re in, but the dance needs editing. 12 minutes is too long for a solo.” And I listen distractedly while Bessie tells me I must “indulge more in each moment.” In the end, they accepted me. All the rest is commentary.          

In April, I perform Sonata at DTW on four consecutive Tuesdays. After the first performance, a young, up and coming dancer, Deborah Gladstein, rushes backstage to say how much she loves the dance. We become friends. She convinces me to take a choreography class which Bessie, now retired from Sarah Lawrence, will be teaching. When Bessie assigns us to work in duets, I make a short duet for Deborah and me using material from Sonata—small circular movements of the head, shoulders, and hips which I put in counterpoint to one another, like an orchestration of tics, shrugs and wiggles. After coordinating body parts all those months, the study practically makes itself. Bessie greets it so enthusiastically that one Sunday afternoon, after leaving a dance concert together, Deborah turns to me and asks, “So Liz, should we do a concert together?”


In October, wearing a pink rayon top, black silk pants and jazz shoes, I’m running in a circle backwards during the third section of Sonata, part of the evening of solos and duets that Deborah and I are presenting at the Merce Cunningham Studio on the top floor of Westbeth, an artists’ cooperative in the far West Village. I concentrate on the lift of my torso as I run, barely aware of the anxious hum in my chest wondering whether I’m sufficiently engrossing the audience. I accelerate my pace and make the circle tighter and tighter until I’m running as fast as I can in a spiral towards the center of the studio where I will, in a moment, change my direction and stomp my foot as a way of breaking my momentum  and ending this section.

But before I get there, I lose my footing, fall backwards on my butt and slide several feet on the shiny floor. Just as I’m thinking oh shit, instinct takes over. I rest my arms and hands above me, exhale and look up at the ceiling as though the falling and the sliding and the laying there and the breathing are all intentional. Then I roll onto my side, stand up and resume the dance like a basketball player who’s just missed a big shot but knows she has to keep moving. Whatever Jack Anderson thinks, he gives us such a positive review in The New York Times that I can return to Los Angeles, if not complete, then with a less acute ache that my dancing days in New York are over.


Over the next four years, I perform Sonata in many venues, including at UC Riverside, where, at Fred Strickler’s invitation, I’ve been teaching dance technique and composition while he’s on sabbatical, touring and tap dancing. When I decide to present an evening of choreography at the House in Santa Monica, I ask Fred when he returns from touring if he still wants to learn it. He does.

By now, I have stripped Sonata’s structure down to its essential phrases, to what my body has to say or sing, making it several minutes shorter. David White, DTW’s producer, would approve. So would Bessie: I actually linger in the movement at times, allowing a leg extension to unfold slowly while I sink into my supporting leg and soften my chest, or stopping in a lunge and opening my arms while I shake my head in a small, sad “no” like I’m imitating the aging Katharine Hepburn’s tremor as she recalls her classic line, “The Calla Lilies are in bloom again.”

In other words, I’ve discovered what pleases me and allowed its expression.  And what pleases me is getting to the floor in the second section so seamlessly that my knees touch the ground without a sound. When Fred has difficulty landing on his knees without crashing them, I demonstrate: I roll my left shoulder forward, hang my head down and round my back. Then I roll my right shoulder back, tilt my head up and arch my back. From there, I lower my body onto the floor as though I’m about to pray, suspending my fall with my core so that there’s no crashing but there’s no holding back either. Fred says “Oh, that’s so nice,” just as I reach the ground with both control and surrender, like gravity and I are playing together, and we have both won.


My name is Wong Man-Kit

A woman in a Toronto grocery store tells Asian store employees to Go back to China.”

I was born in Hong Kong in 1962 and came to the U.S. with my mother when she left my father. I was five years old. I learned early on that speaking Chinese made me different, so I stopped speaking Chinese. I was young enough that I learned to speak English without an accent, and I used to bask in my ability to speak English better than my mom, who had a thick Chinese accent.

I was young and different, so I searched for something, anything, to make me feel better about myself, even at the expense of pushing away my own mother.  

In my attempt to assimilate, I stopped speaking Chinese but that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to be Chinese. I wasn’t looking at myself. I was looking at the kids around me, and they didn’t look Chinese.


Pew Research Center:One-in-six kids is living in a blended family.”

My mom married a man named Roger when I was six. Roger came from Minnesota. He was Caucasian, didn’t speak Chinese—and never wanted to learn. My stepfather and I weren’t close, and I’m going to be honest: I never felt he wanted me in his life. Still, I needed to feel like I could fit in Roger’s life. Roger was in the Navy and worked with his hands, so in high school, I took an auto shop class where we assembled lawn mower engines before stepping up to a car motor. My shop instructor saw the lawn mower I tried to put together and never let me within twenty feet of a car engine. I think he felt sorry for me because he gave me a “D” in the class when I deserved worse.


Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese…could [you] adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”—Betty Brown,Texas state representative

My birth name was Wong Man-Kit. Chinese people use their surname first followed by the given name. Imagine going through American schools in the 1960s and 1970s with the name Wong Man-Kit. It didn’t take me long to realize I needed an American name and I chose “Raymond.” But “Raymond” sounded a little too Chinese so I shortened it to “Ray” because nobody was ever going to confuse the name “Ray” with someone Chinese.


At the end of the day, the Chargers wanted a lot more taxpayer money than we could have ever agreed to.”—San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer

I used to feel so alone and alienated in San Diego that I took it out on its professional teams. In 1984, when everyone in the city was going crazy over the Padres reaching their first World Series, guess who was wearing a Detroit Tigers cap? In the 1998 Series between the Padres and Yankees, I was rabid for the Yankees. I had been to New York only once to visit a friend in Binghamton. And in the 1995 Super Bowl, I clapped every time the 49ers scored.


In 1996, I returned to Hong Kong. I was 33. I had not seen the city or my father since 1967. There had been no contact between us: no phone calls, no letters, not even a postcard. When I saw my father for the first time in twenty-nine years, he only spoke Cantonese. I only spoke English.

I was with my mother, a woman I’d always pushed away. She represented a culture and people I had wanted no part of. I had spent my entire life running. Running from my family, running from my culture, running from myself.

That trip put me face to face with everything I had been running from: Chinese people everywhere speaking Cantonese—my native language; meeting my father; visiting his family— my family—in mainland China; walking alongside my mom through her home town; hiking up a mountain in the rain to visit my grandparents’ gravesite; praying to the memory of my deceased ancestors. I saw my family. I saw myself.

After my father died in 2010, my Vietnamese wife, Quyen, put his picture on the bookcase in our study. At every meal, my wife sets a dish of food next to his picture and invites his spirit to eat with our family. It’s her way—our way—of keeping his memory alive.


In 1996, I felt like an outsider in my own family. I was single and couldn’t imagine myself being married, let alone having children. The thought of being a parent scared the hell out of me; I wanted no part of messing up a child’s life. However, Quyen believed in me.

Today, Quyen and I have been married nineteen years and we have two children. My family is the most important thing in my life, and I know I belong with them.


In 1967, I had stopped using my Chinese name because I was ashamed of being Chinese. I even used to tell people I was British because Hong Kong was under British Crown rule from 1841 to 1997.

Today, when people ask me what I am, I tell them I’m Chinese.

I’m a San Diegan, a Californian, an American, a U.S. citizen. I’m also Chinese, an immigrant, a sports fan, a Meals On Wheels volunteer, a comic book and original art collector, a counselor, an entrepreneur, an author, a husband, a friend, and a father.


In 1996, I rooted against San Diego sports teams because I felt like an outcast in San Diego.

Today, I’m angry at Dean Spanos for abandoning our city by taking the Chargers to Los Angeles. When the Padres finally win a World Series, I will be at Petco Park cheering them on.







A Nightscape’s Wonder

Our cell phone alarms brought us loudly and abruptly to wakefulness at one o’ clock in the morning. I opened my eyes to the cool, exposed darkness of wilderness and wondered aloud whether we had even slept at all. By two o’clock, we had shuffled and groaned our way out of our sleeping bags, fumbled through the tying of our shoes and the packing of our gear, and readied ourselves for the dark, uphill journey that lay ahead.

It was August 24, 2014, and we—my dad, my brother, my boyfriend, and I—set out to summit Mount San Jacinto before dawn and see the sunrise from the peak. To accomplish this, we arrived at the base of the trail the day before and hiked in about two miles before stopping to set up camp. We spent the evening in Round Valley, a small primitive campground en route to the 10,834-foot-high peak.

By day, the visual landscape of Mount San Jacinto State Park dominates the senses. In the higher elevations, rows of steadfast pines stand among gray, granitic rocks of varying sizes. Red and green manzanita, tawny chaparral yucca, and other hardy shrubs line the park’s dusty trails. The southern Californian mountains are surrounded by lowland development, notably the sprawling desert city of Palm Springs, but on the park trails you see only wilderness. You see it, predominantly (rather than hear it or smell it), because humans are visual creatures. More of the human brain is devoted to vision than to any of the other four senses. The word landscape itself possesses a primarily visual connotation, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the land that can be seen in one glance.”

At night, though, a glance doesn’t convey as much sensory information as it does during the well-lit daytime hours. A landscape can become something else altogether, and what is lost visually may be gained through other senses or modes of perception.

On that evening in August, the moon set at 6:45 p.m., producing a particularly dark night. As we began our ascent, armed with headlamps and carefully minding each step, I began to question the motivation behind this nighttime adventure. Ostensibly, the goal was to witness the sunrise from the top of southern California’s second-highest peak. But technically that could be accomplished by hiking to the top during the day and sleeping there overnight —an excursion that would have expended the same amount of time, overall, as sleeping in Round Valley and then summiting. Exposing ourselves to the night and hiking with only the light of the stars and our headlamps to guide us felt risky and unnecessary. Without the crutch of good eyesight, could I sense danger before it was too late? Could I avoid the oncoming hungry animal, the deranged criminal, the precarious ledge? And yet, despite the risk, I felt I was embarking on a truly unique and exciting experience that I, as a hiker, had never faced before.

The benefits of wilderness hiking are easily felt, if not always well understood. Humans have maintained a close relationship with nature throughout much of their history and are arguably themselves a part of nature. (We are organic beings, after all, part of the web of all life on Earth despite our apparent dominion over it.) Though the sharp juxtaposition of urban areas like Palm Springs and wilderness areas like Mount San Jacinto State Park suggest otherwise, humans belong with nature. Proven positive effects of human-nature interaction include physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits. Natural encounters increase self-esteem and reduce anger, improve academic performance, and lower stress levels. Wilderness settings, located away from urban centers and usually set aside specifically for their aesthetic beauty and rich ecological value, offer interactions with nature in its purest form.

In addition to a connection with nature, wilderness offers a place to escape, to experience physical challenges, and to enjoy a type of solitude not often found anywhere else. As an avid hiker, these benefits were familiar to me. But hiking at night for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The wilderness is a different place at night—unfamiliar, untamed, and even scary.

Darkness often carries negative connotations and evokes fear in Western cultures. The Bible associates darkness with wickedness. Erebus, the primordial god of darkness in Greek mythology, shares his name with a gloomy region of the underworld to which mortals travel immediately after death. In some sense, our fear is justified. Studies show that the cover of darkness encourages more dishonest behavior from humans, while daylight can dissuade criminals from acting for fear of being caught. By purely physical standards, though, darkness is merely the absence of light—it is not even its own phenomenon, but is rather the vacancy of another—suggesting that it cannot be inherently wicked.

As we slowly navigated the switchbacks leading up the mountain, I thought about the nocturnal animals that I couldn’t see, but that could surely see me—animals adapted to the darkness in ways far beyond my human abilities. Research implies that humans fear darkness because we are a species accustomed to daytime activity, but that nocturnal creatures—including the deer mice and great-horned owls that I imagined were watching us—fear daylight more than darkness. Fear, it seems, stems in part from that which we aren’t used to or aren’t adapted to, and not from the darkness itself.

That night, I found no harm in the darkness. Instead, I found the same familiar aspects of wilderness experiences, amplified or altered by the absence of light. Night hiking not only offers, but also intensifies the opportunities for escape, solitude, and new and challenging physical experiences sought by park visitors. For me it uncovered a whole new world, not a landscape, but a nightscape, previously unexplored.

At night, vision is no longer our most relevant sense. We used our eyes mainly to track our feet on their journey upwards, and occasionally to marvel at the stars above us. More striking than sight was sound—both its presence and its absence. Although scientists have demonstrated that mice deprived of vision for a week can develop enhanced sound processing abilities, it isn’t likely that short periods of darkness actually enhance a person’s sense of sound. Rather, the lack of typical daytime noises and visual stimulation leads to fewer distractions, so you can focus more on the sound around you, or on the lack thereof.

As we ascended, I was especially conscious of the sound my feet made each time they contacted the earth, of the constant rustling of my clothes as I moved, of my strained breathing, and of the duplicate sounds made by those around me. The stillness of the night brought a silence not attainable in the daytime, broken only by the occasional roaring of the wind through the pine needles above us.

The darkness of nighttime brought a sense of wonder and novelty to our journey. As our visual world shrank, our auditory world expanded. The stillness and solitude of the night provoked reflection on the environment around us. The challenge of navigating the trail in low light heightened our concentration and our mental state. The world became a conglomeration of sounds, feelings, and mysteries.

Photo by Kathryn Francis

We hiked for three hours in the dark, reaching the peak just after astronomical twilight—the first hint of light in the night sky following the period of absolute darkness. We watched as layers of color spread across the horizon beyond Palm Springs, a city of lights among the darkness far below us. First orange, then yellow, then a delicate blue mingled with the black sky. We watched as the light overtook both the stars above and the city lights below, illuminating the sprawling, sleepy desert metropolis. The sun emerged completely above the horizon just after six in the morning. Despite these gloriously stunning visual effects, as I looked out over the urban sprawl lighting up below me, I felt the night’s stillness and wonder slipping away.

Ahead of me lay a landscape, a thing of visual beauty. But behind me lay a nightscape—challenging, stimulating, new. A thing not of visual beauty, but of heightened perception and uncertainty. The sunrise we had come so far to see did not disappoint, but equally marvelous to me was the dark world we experienced along the way.