A Curtain Call for the Dancing Activist
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:56
Photos courtesy of Risalat Khan '13
Wang is known among his friends as an elegant dancer and a brilliant choreographer.

There is no simple way to describe Yilin Andre Wang — he refuses to be categorized. He’s served as a senator in the Association of Amherst Students for two years. He’s served as a co-chair of Pride Alliance and the Chinese Student Association. He was chosen to be the student speaker at TedXAmherstCollege. He wrote for The Amherst Student’s Arts & Living section for three years. Wang is a dancer, a choreographer, a researcher, a child prodigy, a leader, a trilingual, an openly gay male international student from China and a good friend. As Political Science Professor Javier Corrales put it, “Andre is an Amherst gem.”

Childhood in China

Wang started learning English when he was six years old, but he said he didn’t get too serious about it until a few years later. Wang was a shy kid, and his parents, who were political activists in China with a progressive attitude toward their child’s education, tried to expose him to different activities in order to encourage him to break out of his shell. One of them was a summer camp designed for teenagers learning English. Wang was nine at the time.

“Because of the age difference, I was bullied a lot in the camp, which was not a fun experience if you’re by yourself, and you couldn’t communicate your ideas. I came back with the desire to learn English. It was bad, but also good in the way that it motivated me,” Wang said.

Two years after that, Wang’s English was good enough for him to be chosen by his school and his province to participate in a hugely popular English speaking competition in China.

“I was a part of their bilingual program, and they wanted to show everyone that it worked. I didn’t want to go because I wanted to participate in the math competition, which I had been waiting for years. I refused to go to the English competition. Then the Bureau of Education got involved, so for a month, I received special training for the competition,” said Wang.

After he placed third in the competition, he became a minor celebrity in China.

“People would recognize me on the streets. I was invited to do all these talks and panels, and one time it took me half an hour to sign autographs because the line was so long. This then further catapulted me into learning English because there was that expectation that I was ahead of everybody else,” he said.

The competition undoubtedly served as a pivotal point in Wang’s life. He revealed that it not only helped him with English but also opened his eyes to his relationship with institutions.

“That’s when I experienced bureaucracy for the first time,” Wang said. “I felt like my personal opinion didn’t matter at all. I was a rebellious kid, and that really took things to the next level. I started thinking more critically about my relationship with institutions and authorities.”

Young Wang’s mind continued to grow and expand under his parents’ support and his undying curiosity.

“I grew up in a household where my interest was never dampened,” Wang said. “It was always encouraged. So, that translated into my interest in a wide variety of things. I never thought about whether something was appropriate for my age or not. As long as I wanted to do it, I could. This has been a consistent theme as I was growing up. I just want to pick what I want to learn.”

He first discovered Amherst when he was presenting higher education institutions through a high school radio station. Needless to say, the open curriculum at Amherst was a huge draw for Wang. A few years later, he applied and was accepted.

Activism at Amherst

When Wang came to Amherst, he was concerned about the lack of awareness and understanding of Chinese culture and politics on campus. This concern motivated him to become the co-chair of what is now known as the Chinese Student Association.

He also joined Pride Alliance on his first day and eventually became a co-chair.

“Acceptance and understanding are different things, and people don’t necessarily know what LGBT students’ lives are like on campus,” Wang said. “It really takes personal interactions to do that, but not all people have very close LGBT-identified friends, so I thought I should promote a social understanding.”

Wang, with the help of others, successfully lobbied for gender-neutral student housing at Amherst in 2012.
Later on, motivated by his dissatisfaction with what was going on with student life, he joined the AAS senate.
Wang said he learned valuable lessons from leading so many student groups.

“If I learned anything from the experiences, it’s that there is a lot to be done,” Wang said. “I think this is an ongoing question I’ll ask myself: what kind of preparations would go into making an action work, and how do we measure success based on what we have done? I think that in part informs my decision to go into academia to do research, because one of the conclusions I’ve come to is that we, a lot of times, do things without really understanding what the implications are and without knowing what works best.”

Dance Lessons

Wang’s passion for performance began when he was in kindergarten. His mother signed him up for a dance class, and she tried to get him into different activities in order to help him become less shy.

“So that was the start of performance arts in my life,” Wang said. “Everything I did was all very stage-related. But it became less of something to change my personality with and more of an avenue where I could be somebody else. It was like activating a different side of me that I’m too reluctant to show, the side of me that’s probably more emotional, more vulnerable and more dramatic. I was a good kid, and there are many things associated with that in Chinese culture. I guess it was sort of my way of rebelling.”

He took up drama, dance, vocals, instrumentals, martial arts and more. By the end of high school, Wang had done pretty much everything that could be done on stage.

Throughout his time at Amherst, Wang remained very active in the Five College Dance Department, working on four to five productions per semester.

It’s not hard to tell that Wang’s passionate about dance. It’s something that he has been engaged in deeply and personally. Naturally, it’s become a significant part of his Amherst education.

“In modern dance, my training deals with awareness of the external and the internal environment,” Wang said. “Dance is about so much more than just technique. It’s a way of seeing things. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re tired, be tired. It’s not about correction. It’s about awareness and self-knowledge. I also learned what effort means. When I think about effort, for example, how much effort I put into my academic work, I start thinking less in terms of simply resting well and doing work, but more in terms of finding pleasure in the effort. When I go through challenges, I become more resilient.”

Experience and Identity

Wang has a peculiar definition of identity. He views it “less as a label and more as a functional, malleable property.” Certainly, Amherst has influenced it immensely.

“The many facets of humanity are subject to where we are and what is around us. Amherst broadens me, and that in turn broadens who I am. That means I’m better equipped to deal with changes and ambiguities. I guess this is like the modern value that my education has given me. Because it has made me a bigger person, I feel more comfortable now graduating and going into the larger world with the knowledge that the upgrade, in terms of identity, that I get from Amherst would allow me to deal with those changes and ambiguities,” said Wang.

A crucial part of his identity is his sexuality. As a previously closeted gay male from China, Wang expressed that his life at Amherst has been, in part, a liberating experience.

“Before coming to the States, I was pretty closeted in China. So I made a resolution to myself that when I came to the United States, I was going to come here as an openly gay person. And I’m glad I did. I feel like it was a very steep learning curve. You kind of learn it through observation and trial and error. Even though learning about it included many awkward or weird moments, I had the relief that at least I was able to live out this aspect of my identity that I’ve known for a long time,” said Wang.

The Amherst experience is a collection of moments, and those moments are rarely as we imagine them beforehand. Wang mentioned two moments specifically.

“After performing the guest artist work in March, I thought that was probably the best performance I have ever done in my life. I was very proud,” Wang said. “Then there are moments that I had thought would mean a lot to me but didn’t. I’d been dreaming about the moment that I would turn in my thesis. I thought it would be tremendous. But what actually happened was, I submitted my thesis at 10:47 in the morning, just walked out and went to my bio class. It was just like any other thing I’ve done.”

So it goes. We are constantly, and unpredictably, let down, surprised, disappointed and ecstatic. But in the end, we are all transformed in ways that we can not foresee.

“There are a lot of moments I remember. They’re not distilled. They don’t have a specific meaning attached to them. But I remember them, and they’re a part of the larger Amherst experience. Amherst has changed the course of my life probably more than anything else,” said Wang. “I look forward to being away from Amherst and looking back at it to see what it means for me. An optimistic way to look at this would be that in that sense I’ll never leave Amherst. Now that I have the Amherst experience, it’ll be with me wherever I go.”

Upon graduating, Wang will travel the country with his parents for two weeks. Then he plans to continue his research on stereotype and prejudice, judgment and decision-making, deception detection and the psychology of sexuality as a social psychology Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis.