How My Dad's Disability Fueled My Passion

Content via The "Disability In..." Project
The "Disability In..." Project

Dance and disability are integral to my identity.

A shift in roles and identity

My parents grew up in communist China in the 1960s and were the first in their families to leave the country and raise children in America. While Mandarin was my first language, Chinese dance was my first love, my precious connection to my ethnic roots. Yet when I was five and my father thirty-eight, he was paralyzed by a hemorrhagic stroke. I could not understand why stroke had “chosen” my father, a man not yet 40 who practiced martial arts, ate well, neither drank nor smoked, and had no family history of stroke.

Overnight, our roles switched; the man who had once shouldered me around was now using my shoulders as a cane.

To say my father’s disability was taboo through my conservative Chinese upbringing would be an understatement; I did not even hear the word “stroke” until three years after it had happened. In this context, dance became an unaffordable luxury.

Little did I know, that was only the beginning of my father’s story. As he attended both physical therapy and Chinese treatments, I grew up with a dual exposure to Western and Chinese medicine. By sheer determination, my father relearned how to sit up, stand, and walk again. I always wondered what it must have been like for him to pass each of these milestones while my six-month old sister reached the same ones right beside him. I remember teaching my sister how to write the alphabet while my father slowly practiced the same letters with his curled right hand. Never complacent, he taught himself how to write with his left hand, installed a left-footed pedal in our car, and repassed the driving test. Finally, six years after his stroke, he returned to work as a speech-language pathologist

Dr. Li, the man who happened to be my father, was a recovered stroke patient now taking care of stroke patients.

How could I even put into words the swelling pride I felt as a young girl from seeing my father walk again? To see him sit at a patient’s bedside and teach each one how to swallow, when I knew he had struggled with those very same frustrations only a few years earlier? Such was the role model who inspired me not just to revive my passion for dance, but to also become a physician like him.

I threw myself wholeheartedly back into Chinese dance, promising myself I would show my father his disability would no longer keep me from pursuing my passions. I have been dancing for us both ever since.

A new sense of purpose


closeup of a father and daughter smiling

College allowed my interests in medicine and dance to thrive. While I pursued research on neuromuscular disorders, I concurrently choreographed for the Asian American Dance Troupe, learned salsa, and became a summer salsa instructor. Exploring other cultures through dance styles like Dominican bachata and Ghanaian tribal dancing made me decide to devote a postgraduate year to my next dance frontier: to learn a new dance style while immersing myself in its native culture.

After graduation, I began a year-long trip in Cádiz, Andalusia, Spain on the culturally-immersive M.C. Rockefeller fellowship. I am forever indebted to this community for granting me a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. From a girl trying to squeeze movement into her father’s limp arm, to a woman dancing her way through the flamenco towns of Andalusia, Spain, I am the composite of my experiences in disability and dance.

While learning flamenco dance, I interviewed locals in Spanish and translated these conversations into English and then into Chinese with my father. This led to the “Disability In… Project,” for which I conducted interviews in person and over Skype, posting videos such as “Disability In…New Dehli, India.”

It was this project, the privilege of hearing stories from members of the disabled and care-taking community from people around the world, that made me realize just how isolated my childhood experience of care-taking had been. Slowly, I began to realize how individuals in opposite corners of the globe, who speak entirely different languages and hold drastically different customs, nevertheless experience disability and care-taking in fundamentally similar ways.

Thank you to Alice Li for this original post about how her father’s disability has made a enormous impact on her life. Learn more about Alice’s passions and projects at Dancing Disability.

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