Out of all my dances this season, the one for which I wear the simplest costume, make the shortest appearance, and perform the easiest role actually gives me much to contemplate. Read on and you’ll discover why…
I grew up in the East. That is, the East Coast of the United States. Boston, Baltimore, and Bridgewater, NJ were where Betty learned her ABC’s, spent hundreds of hours dangling from monkey bars at recess, and discovered all the other joys of childhood.
Though ethnically Chinese, I never woke up to steamed buns or rice congee paired with dried pork floss and squiggly pickled veggies. Breakfast was a time reserved for helping Lucky find his charms. (Gosh, I loved those shooting stars.) On summer nights, I whipped up three-ingredient milkshakes that were one-third strawberry syrup. In the winter, a mug of hot cocoa was my afterschool go-to, and I fished out those mini marshmallows so fast they never got a chance to dissolve.
Continents apart, I couldn’t experience what kids in China craved during hot spells of summer or frosts of winter. But I knew about one treat across the oceans that was beyond my grasp… and later I came to realize that for reasons more unfortunate than distance, it’ll remain unattainable indefinitely.
A Candy Most Dandy
In northern China when the weather turns chilly and the New Year festivities are nearing, street vendors hawk a tasty traditional commodity called candied hawthorn fruit skewers. In English, it’s a mouthful to say. In Chinese, however, it’s just three delicious syllables. Táng-hú-lu (糖葫芦) literally means “candied gourds.” Perhaps it’s so named because when pierced together on a bamboo skewer, the round haws resemble gourds—albeit glazed crimson ones, which must grow on trees in an oriental Candyland.
The tanghulu is said to be the perfect combination of mouth-puckering hawthorn and tooth-sticking syrup, and of squishy fruit and crunchy shell. Why do I say “is said?” Because I’ve never had one. These descriptions are the memories of a fellow dancer and roommate who grew up in the Chinese mainland. Even as she tried to find the words to explain the treat to me, her words became slurred by a torrent of saliva.
As far back as two Asia tours ago—yes, tour route is one of the ways Shen Yun performers keep track of the years—one of my touristy goals was to experience the magic of the tanghulu. Then as is now, Shen Yun was not allowed to perform in China. However, we receive a tremendously warm welcome in Chinese-cultured Taiwan each season. Yet after a month and a half of combing through day market after night market between performances, I realized that sugar-crusted skewers of Formosa come in strawberry, multicolored cherry tomato, kiwi, starfruit, dragonfruit, guava, and the like. Exotic, but not what I was looking for. It makes sense though: the Tropic of Cancer isn’t where you find northern shrubs like the hawthorn. So I forked over NT$50 (about $1.50), took a bite, and snapped a selfie with my red berry skewer. But in truth, it was a mission not entirely accomplished.
A Little Dream of Mine
Many audience members have said that watching Shen Yun is like being in a dream. And for many of our artists, Shen Yun is the place where dreams come true. Dreams both big and small.
This season, I play the rare role of a candy vendor in the story dance A Child’s Choice, and get my turn at tanghulu galore. Yet one of my customers is an orphan on the verge of discovering a tragic truth. Back in 1999, her parents were among millions peacefully practicing the spiritual belief of Falun Dafa when the communist regime began a brutal crackdown against the practice and its adherents. They, like so many others, were killed for their beliefs. The ongoing persecution has torn apart countless families to date, and this story is but one example.
So their infant was left with no memories of her parents or the faith they died to keep. More than 10 years after, sweet and innocent, she comes skipping down the lane when my tanghulu catches her eye. One bite is all she gets before tasting a most bitter truth; the past is finally revealed to her through a telling photograph. Then the girl ventures out on a quest. Along the way, she meets old friends, and discovers courage, conviction, and very important answers.
As for Betty, I’ll be dancing and selling (and reselling) hundreds of tanghulu with Shen Yun World Company throughout Canada, the U.S., and Europe this season. However tart and chewy and sweet and crunchy they may be, I’ll still only be tasting them in my imagination. For now.
Some day, we will bring Shen Yun to China. We will stage authentic traditional culture in its homeland. And when that day comes, I’ll get to cross several dreams off my bucket list—dreams both big and small.
January 30, 2017