By Catherine Gao
“Tonight we celebrate beauty; the beauty that resides in all of us. We are especially privileged tonight to have a group of people who are better able than most at expressing that beauty.” Fifty-three members of the Chinese Disabled People’s Performing Arts Troupe, led by president and star Tai Lihua, joined the USC Davidson Center audience greeted by Clayton Dube of the U.S.-China Institute on October 1.
In addition to this special event, October 1 also marked China’s national day and October 2 the launch of the Special Olympics in Shanghai. Not only did 7,500 athletes from more than 160 countries participate in it, China was the first country in Asia to have hosted the Special Olympics. In recent years more than 600,000 athletes in China have participated in local and national games.
Prior to the screening of My Dream, a brief discussion was presented on policies toward the disabled as well as the difficulties that individuals with mental or physical illness face in order to overcome social stigma in today’s society.
Tai Lihua, the president and art director of the Chinese Disabled People’s Performing Arts Troupe, joined the group at age fifteen. Today, she plays a significant role in helping the Troupe gain worldwide recognition as messengers of hope and has led performances in more than 50 countries. As she says, “To all of us, some things are given, some things are withheld, over which sometimes we have no choice. But one can always choose one’s outlook on life, and look more on the positive side, and face life’s disappointments with a cheerful and grateful heart.”
John Bola, an associate professor in the USC School of Social work, has recently been a visiting professor at Bejing University. He examined the recent strides toward a “harmonious society” in China under President Hu Jintao. This involves the recognition of inequality and dissatisfaction in the populace and the convergence of two motives: maintaining social stability and improving the quality of life and satisfaction of citizens. He noted that policies and practices toward the disabled had improved.
USC Social Work Professor Ann Marie Yamada then offered a presentation on some of the organizations in the Chinese American community that focus on helping families affected by disabilities. In addition, Professor Yamada discussed ways to fight stigma as well as to manage the impacts caused by disabilities.
Elyn Saks, professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences and the author of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, gave an account of how schizophrenia has affected her personally and professionally. She discussed the destructive capabilities of the stigma around mental illness and suggested ways to alleviate it.
My Dream features eighty-four performers, all of whom have overcome tremendous physical challenges and social stereotypes. It documents the intense preparations and dazzling performances of the Chinese Disabled People’s Performing Arts Troupe. Each individual performer is an example of inspiration and success while the troupe as a whole is a magnificent symbol of hope. Among the performers, some cannot hear, some cannot see, and some are physically disabled, but they all share the passion for life as they express it through song and dance, through words and movement.
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The film is both musically enchanting and visually exquisite as the performers strive for self-expression through their songs and dances. A blind pianist illuminates the room as he plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. A fifteen year old girl, named a UN Messenger of Peace, with spinal muscular dystrophy pours her hope into the song of Edelweiss from her wheelchair. A collaboration between the visually and hearing impaired presents a Peking Opera with remarkable precision as the blind memorize the rhythms and conduct sign language for the deaf while they perform the martial arts. A stunning performance of the thousand handed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva by a group of twenty-one hearing impaired dancers shows that the soul is the music of the dance.
At the end of the film, the audience showered the fifty members of the troupe present at the screening with a
standing ovation for their stories of courage and inspiration. The night concluded with four special performances that brought to life the magic of the film. The audience was moved by experiencing the live performances of song and dance.
As the My Dream program puts it, “Disability is not incapability but the feature of human diversity. Everyone deserves to live a life in dignity. Every life is precious.” More than just performers, these individuals, so full of life, transformed an ordinary Monday night into something extraordinarily beautiful.
Catherine Gao is an undergraduate at USC majoring in Business Administration and minoring in International Policy and Management.