Couch and Stage

Integrating words and action in psychotherapy.

Destination China

A journey through family and culture

I get a text on Viber, my favorite international phone app. It’s from my son, Mackey, who teaches English in a Chinese secondary school in the city of Wenzhou. ‘Hey, Dad,’ he says, ‘My school wants you to give a lecture about drama therapy.’

‘And I hoped to go to China just as your father,’ I reply.

‘It will be an experience,’ he responds. ‘You like that.’

‘We both do.’

‘Who will be in the audience?’ I ask.

‘About 350 kids ages 14-16, and some teachers. They think you’re a celebrity.’ 

‘Why?’

‘You’re my father. And you have two books published in Chinese.’

‘What do I tell them?’ I ask. 

‘We’ll talk about it when you and Georgie arrive.’

As so I leave home again, with my daughter, Georgie, as traveling companion. I am aware that there are old professional roles to fulfill and new personal ones to discover. But, as usual, I am never quite clear why the desire for leaving home is so strong. This time, however, my role and my destination are clear. I am a father visiting his son, and exploring the world with his children. 

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Mackey, Georgie and I meet in Shanghai, a city I know only superficially. As if for the first time I become aware of its late 22nd century architecture and early 20th century sensibility, and with Mackey as guide, we set out to see and be seen by this gem of a city.  As always, I begin in a professional role, giving a lecture and workshop at the Winter Institute in Performance Studies at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. I feel seen in a new way by my children who not only attend, but also fully engage. 

Following the workshop, we follow Mackey through the streets and districts—into the fake markets and old alleyways during the day, along the post-modern boulevards and early twentieth century Bund as darkness falls. On our only Sunday we visit People’s Square where the old people practice tai chi and qigong and the female couples rehearse dance steps. Near the Museum of Contemporary Art, a gaggle of elders engage in the weekly ritual of the marriage market, advertising for suitors for their grandchildren. There are leaflets everywhere, on bulletin boards, tacked to bright flowery umbrellas with photos in grainy color and a text in bold black and white characters giving the necessities of age, education, salary and moral character. One elder in a Mao suit asks me to consider the woman by his side, whom he reckons is about my age. Mackey rescues me with some deft translation.

After a late night of karaoke with a small group of entrepreneurs who sing patriotic songs from their days living through the Cultural Revolution, we head south, on the way to Mackey’s school in Wenzhou. 

‘Dad, people will stare at you and Georgie in the street. They might even walk right up to you as if to take away your space.’

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Because you are not Chinese.’ 

‘But they must see a lot of Westerners.’ 

‘Not a lot and not in some neighborhoods far away from the hub.’ 

‘How should I respond?’ 

‘Smile,’ says Mackey. ‘Be natural.’ 

Georgie gets most of the attention, with women approaching and commenting upon her looks. The men seem displeased whenever I look too hard at the visual delights around me, or attempt to invade their space by taking a photograph, immediately signaling my lack of manners. But then I look at the men too critically when they spit on the street or pick their teeth or cough up phlegm with a throaty growl. It reminds me of behaviors that offend me back home—American baseball players spitting out their sunflower seeds on national TV, people in public places unwittingly blurting out private conversations on their cell phones, myself on particularly phlegmy days in midsummer New York City, clearing my throat as if it were a wind tunnel. So I smile, connecting the dots of poor public behavior, East and West. 

In my hotel room that night, I read an article in the ‘China Times’ about depression. The writer says that depression is rampant in China and that although there are 300,000 therapists registered with the government, very few ever studied psychology or had any supervised clinical experience. One becomes a therapist by passing an exam.  

Before we reunite with Mackey in Wenzhou, Georgie and I are guided by a dear student of mine into Yi Xing, a beautiful area of tea farms and bamboo forests. Although I manage to escape dog fillet for lunch, I get to sample other delicacies at dinner. Our host is a burly man with good working-class credentials. When we meet and my student introduces me as her professor, he appears distracted. I interpret this as disinterest, with maybe a touch of scorn.  I feel uncomfortable in his presence, even as he meticulously prepares tea for us in the traditional way, his thick hands working harmoniously with the tiny clay pot and cups. He seems to warm up to me as I enthusiastically sample dozens of cups of the aromatic pu-erh tea, that is, until he offers me a cigarette and I refuse. 

But there is time for redemption. Later at dinner, he is adamant in filling my plate to the brim with each new dish brought to the Lazy Susan.

‘And what is this one?’ I ask my student.

‘Snake,’ she replies. 

‘And this?’ 

‘Donkey.’ 

As I attempt each one, she is pleased. Then she says; ‘He wants to know if you drink wine.’

‘Of course,’ I respond.

He fills my glass until it cascades over the edge. Hard as I try I can barely get one sip down.

Aware of the game and of my struggle to save face, Georgie says: ‘You don’t have to perform. He likes you. Just be yourself.’

I hope everyone is looking away when I ‘accidentally’ spill some rice wine on the floor.

As we complete the banquet, my host briefly departs. When he returns he says: ‘I have a present for the Professor.’

He offers me a beautiful yellow embroidered box. Stunned and embarrassed I manage to say: ‘Xie, xie.’ My impulse is to hug my host, but I refrain to the profound relief of my daughter.

‘It is a Yi Xing teapot, made by a local potter, very special,’ he says as I slip out into the night.

On our journey to Wenzhou, Georgie and I stop for a night in Hangzhou, a city memorialized in the Chinese saying: ‘Above there is heaven, below there is Hangzhou.’  We walk along the magnificent West Lake on a cold rainy day and for a brief time, experience the sadness of the outsider without a guide--in the beauty, but not of it. We are happy to leave that heaven on earth and to reunite with Mackey on solid ground. 

We find Wenzhou bustling and provincial, with very few non-Chinese in sight.  Mackey is correct in that in each street or alley, people stop and stare.  

‘I wonder what they see?’ asks Georgie. 

‘I wonder what we see?’ I respond. 

At Mackey’s school I ask: ‘Will there be translation of my lecture?’ 

‘No,’ Mackey says. ‘The school wants them to learn English. Just keep it simple. They are used to lecture. If you use drama, they will be confused.’ 

‘Should I talk about depression?’ I ask. 

‘No!’ say Georgie and Mackey in chorus.

‘I could do something with art,’ offers Georgie. 

‘Great idea,’ said Mackey. ‘Work together.’ 

‘They won’t be confused. Trust me,’ says Georgie. 

Georgie begins to tack large sheets of paper to the wall. Mackey prepares his camera. He will make a film about this family journey, West and East. 

‘I hope I come up with something,’ I say. 

‘We’re really not worried,’ says Mackey. ‘And one other thing. The students probably won’t come up if you ask them to. But you should still ask them. The teachers told some to volunteer.’

At show time, I say to Georgie: ‘I can smell the energy of the kids.’

‘Go for it,’ she replies. 

And so I say to the group: ‘You know, I am here today with my daughter. A long time ago when she was little, she believed that there were monsters under her bed. Sometimes she would get up in the middle of the night, very frightened, and tell me she saw a monster. Most parents, maybe even yours, would know better and tell their child to go back to sleep.’ 

‘You didn’t do that,’ says Georgie. 

‘Do you remember what I did?’

‘You asked me what the scary monster looks like.’ 

In flow, I say: ‘Pretend you are that little girl and show me what the scary monster looks like.’

On cue, Georgie embodies the monster. 

‘What does it sound like?’

‘Grrrrr.’

‘That doesn’t sounds so scary to me,’ I say, and Georgie lets out a bold growl that brings delighted laughter from the kids. 

‘Dad, tell me a story about the monster,’ she says. 

And so I do, making up a story about a terrifying being, who lives under children’s beds and takes great pleasure in scaring them at night. I add a history of a difficult childhood, distracted parents and peers who bully the poor bully-to-be. And then I say: ‘Georgie, can you draw a picture of the monster?’

And so with a black marker on the paper for all to see, she draws a stunning monster.

Over the next hour, the students pair up and make up stories about their own monsters and superheroes who can neutralize the power of the monsters. Several of the stories are shared in the large group and two brave souls come up to the podium, draw their monsters on the large paper, and not only tell their stories to all, but dramatize them in front of 350 peers and teachers.

Some of the stories are astonishing: a female superhero kills all the beautiful girls in the country; a spy from China flies over to the US to rescue President Obama from a death threat by a Chinese assassin.

At the end, a sense of exuberance and joy prevails. If asked about drama and art therapy, surely the students would tell stories about monsters under the bed neutralized by drama and art and about pride of self and country enhanced through play. 

It is time for Georgie and I to leave Mackey. Although I am not ready, I am full. Before we leave, Mackey says, ‘I am so happy that you both got to see me in China. It makes it real.’

‘It was so much fun traveling with you both,’ I say. ‘And then in Mackey’s school, realizing we are all doing the same thing.’

‘I never wanted to be a teacher,’ Mackey says. ‘And I never wanted to be an artist, either, because that’s what everyone in my family did.’

‘Teacher, artist, therapist,’ says Georgie. ‘Feels like the same thing.’

I ask Mackey, ‘When are you coming home?’

He says, ‘It feels like home here.’ 

‘You mean the family?’ asks Georgie. 

‘I guess. And our love of this culture,’ Mackey says, ‘the stories we live, the way we allow ourselves to be seen.’ 

‘Even when Dad ‘accidentally’ spills wine on the restaurant floor to save face,’ quips Georgie. 

‘That, too,’ I say. ‘It was even good to be seen by you that way.’

 ‘What are you going to bring home with you?’ asks Mackey.

‘Stories,’ says Georgie. 

‘Teapots,’ I respond.

‘And?’ asks Mackey. 

‘Comfort that one girl in one school in Wenzhou rescues President Obama from certain death,’ I say. ‘He needs it.’

Our taxi waits and it is time to go home. We hug as we always do and say very little on parting. The journey home is uneventful, the seats very uncomfortable, the meal inedible and the movie screen too far away to see. We have to wait a long time for a taxi at JFK. It is cold, time to resume our lives in the city. 

Robert J. Landy, Ph.D., is a Professor of Educational Theatre and Applied Psychology and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at New York University.

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