Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Deep play

Everglade's picture

Pulling at my hair. Peeling the unruly dead skin on my hands. Biting my lips until they are perfectly soaked, perfectly smooth, perfectly bleeding.

A ray of pale white light exposes me. Am I on stage or in a laboratory room being observed and monitored and waiting for an anatomy? Not much of a difference here. I’ll do it myself.

I examine my body.

Female, 18, 5’’3, yellow skin, black hair, black eye. Oh, Asian. What does it mean to be Asian or Chinese? Traditional? Taciturn? Fortune cookies?

Two moles on my shoulder. One on the left, and one on the right. Ah, perfect symmetry! Is symmetry always perfect and harmonious and tranquilizing? I experiment with my brain. Two systematic and logical left brains, or two artistic and creative right brains? Not functioning very well.

My hand passes through my skin, my muscle tissues, my veins, and reaches my heart. Sadly, it’s not perfect. Some spots are darkened and hardened. Cut them out and start fresh.


According to Diane Ackerman, play requires “daring, risk, concentration, the ability to live with uncertainty, a willingness to follow the rules of the game, and a desire for transcendence”, and deep play “starts focusing one’s life and offering ecstatic moments”, is not always pleasant and positive, needs hard work and may not look like play.

Thus I consider my experience in this class, or broadly speaking, an American liberal arts college, as deep play. What distinguish this class from my previous schooling is that it allows me to express myself and someone actually reads it and takes it seriously. For example, I write in the Eastern State Penitentiary paper that I wanted to sing in the cell, and Anne thinks it’s the “crack” that I can use to develop a more interesting paper; my high school Chinese teacher would criticize me for not showing proper respect for this solemn place. Chinese school writing cares about eloquence, beautiful repetitive language that only serves a decorative function but has no meaning or thinking in it, and massive citing of ancient proverbs. I was on the edge of suffocating by the thoughts that I’ve stored over the years, and when I get the chance to express here, these thoughts burst out into clumsy, naïve, illogical, underdeveloped words. After several exasperate tries, I find the solution in extensive reading. Our reading assignments are numerous and diverse: some are poetic and enjoyable to read, but others are academic, obscure and challenging. It’s not pleasant to study and discuss an idea that I disagree with, but it’s an important thinking ability. After understanding the reading materials and using them as lenses for my paper, my writing becomes more coherent and intelligible. And the moment that I’m finally able to articulate an idea of myself, that I finish typing the last letter of that sentence, I’m overwhelmed by ecstasy—a very nerdy kind, but still, ecstasy. I feel confident to believe that my thoughts aren’t just balderdash and to confirm my former 18 years as valuable, and I’m hopeful for the remaining 60 years. The person I am at that moment is “the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life”.

When I begin this paper, I considered writing about piano playing, or my time in Eastern State Penitentiary, or volunteer works. This class is the last thing I thought about, because a class normally doesn’t look like play at all. Reading and writing are hard work. A lot of thinking is full of risk and uncertainty, because I might think too freely and become schizophrenic. Introspect, self-suspicion, self-denial and approval at the same time—these processes are very uncomfortable and focusing on my life. But putting all these together, I’ve had an unexpected deep play.


Ackerman, Diane. Deep Play. New York: Random House, 1999.