Dancing to Freedom!


Cristian Oviedo
Cristian Oviedo

Do you have a desire that is so secret it is almost unknown even to you? In Jean Kwok’s Mambo in Chinatown, we have the treat of unraveling the life of Charlie Wong:

My name is Charlie Wong and I’m the daughter of a dancer and a noodle-maker. My mother was once a star ballerina at the famed Beijing Dance Academy before she ran off to marry my father, the handsomest noodle-maker in Beijing—or at least that’s what she always called him before she died. Hand in hand, they escaped to America to start their family.

In this novel, we learn that Charlie believes she is homely and she learned “early on not to attract any attention…if I was good for nothing but washing dishes, I’d resolved to be the best dishwasher I could.” Her mother and younger sister, Lisa, are “poised, elegant and beautiful,” and this “Black Swan” style tale begins with Charlie saying:

“To be honest, I didn’t mind. I wished not for a new job or place but for a different life altogether, to change not the where but the how of things. Some people dreamed of going someplace else; I dreamed of being someone else. Someone who hadn’t always been in the bottom half of her class at school….Sometimes I would look at Lisa and Pa and silently ask the gods, “Could I please not be born into such a good-looking family in my next life?” It wasn’t easy being a cow among gazelles.”

Fortunately Charlie has a godmother who teaches her tai chi, believes in her and shares wisdom: ‘If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.’” “Is that from a Hallmark card?” she asks her Godmother, who replies: “No, it’s Lao Tzu.” Through their Sunday lessons, Charlie occasionally has a glimpse of herself as something other than a dishwasher. Godmother Yuan inspires her: “Another Lao Tzu quote for you: ‘When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.’

Nicole Gil and Miguel Angel Maganda
Nicole Gil and Miguel Angel Maganda

Charlie literally stumbles into a new life at a dance studio where she begins to evolve and transform while her sister falls apart. She is told: “Dancing is just like walking. Don’t let anyone tell you other wise. If you can walk, you can dance.” While she does not believe in herself at first, others around her can see her potential and tell her “As a dancer, you don’t have to arrive at a destination, you only have to travel beautifully.”


I have started to take dance class in Los Angeles and I appreciated her struggles to belong and to learn and to grow. They tell her at the studio: “Remember, it’s not the steps. It’s the feeling. That is dancing.” She realizes: “When I danced, I felt alive and free, like I was discovering my true self, that I was more than just a dishwasher from Chinatown.”


Through taking risks, her life and her perspective change. Those around her notice the difference but are unsure what has happened. “All my life, I’d been trying to fulfill other people’s ideas of who I was supposed to be and failing, and [dance] was my chance to try to become who I was meant to be.”


At one point as she prepares for a competition, she is told: “Yes, you [and Ryan] are now a disaster together but you are a catastrophe with potential.” The journey is full of sore muscles, family tensions and tragedy but as Charlie becomes stronger, and more flexible, her courage allows her to see she is “capable of anything.”


At one point, Pa, who speaks rarely in this novel, says to Charlie after a difficult family situation:

“To be human is to be under assault. So much around us leads us to close ourselves off, to harden. And sometimes we act thus. But in spite of all this, we must choose to open, and to open again. Breathe. Open. You will be all right.”


With these words, I think we can all rise to the challenge to be courageous, to dance and to find our own path to freedom.


I hope you will share your story of discovering your independence in the We Said Go Travel Independence Travel Writing Contest or meet me for dancing with some of the world renown teachers in Los Angeles!

Meet me at Dance Class and learn with Incredible Teachers:

Cristian Oviedo is the current world champion in Cha Cha Cha and four-time world champion in Salsa on 1, Bachata and Freestyle.  His slogan is “Dance to Express, Not to Impress!” He is truly a phenomenal teacher and incredible dancer. Stop by at his new Thursday night social, one hour of class and then a salsa and Bachata party til the early morning hours. Two hours of lessons on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the same location: 2621 Pico Blvd Unit K Santa Monica 90405

Another amazing pair of dancers and teachers, Nicole Gil and Miguel Angel Maganda teach at Monsoon on Third Street Promenade every Wednesday and Saturday night and after their superb lessons there is a live band!

At LA Dance Fit, groove in Rumba Caliente with Jhonatan Jimenez, Zumba with Jhon Gonzalez, and Uplift with Deirdra Martinez.

Find your own freedom by sharing your story or moving with the music! Enjoy your July 4th celebrations.



Lisa Ellen Niver

Lisa Niver is an award-winning travel expert who has explored 102 countries on six continents. This University of Pennsylvania graduate sailed across the seas for seven years with Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and Renaissance Cruises and spent three years backpacking across Asia. Discover her articles in publications from AARP: The Magazine and AAA Explorer to WIRED and Wharton Magazine, as well as her site WeSaidGoTravel. On her award nominated global podcast, Make Your Own Map, Niver has interviewed Deepak Chopra, Olympic medalists, and numerous bestselling authors, and as a journalist has been invited to both the Oscars and the United Nations. For her print and digital stories as well as her television segments, she has been awarded three Southern California Journalism Awards and two National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards and been a finalist twenty-two times. Named a #3 travel influencer for 2023, Niver talks travel on broadcast television at KTLA TV Los Angeles, her YouTube channel with over 2 million views, and in her memoir, Brave-ish, One Breakup, Six Continents and Feeling Fearless After Fifty.

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