The pounding of clay against a folding, wooden table sounds like an army of little hammers.
Jasmine Zhang's origami and crafts class includes three kindergartners and one 11-year-old. Today, they're making clay pumpkin lanterns, but they're also laying a foundation for cultural growth.
“We want the students to have a connection with their roots,” said Tony Lie, principal of the Oklahoma City Chinese School, a nonprofit organization that teaches children Chinese language and culture.
After the students have molded their clay, they set it aside to dry. Then Zhang moves the table to a corner and prepares to give her students a brief lesson in yoga.
Yoga is used around the world to calm the mind, but Zhang's students are tightly wound.
“Is this exercise?” asked Abby Tai, 5, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“Yes, this is exercise,” Zhang said.
Language through culture
The Oklahoma City Chinese School meets every Sunday during the school year at Trinity International Baptist Church, NW 23 and N Douglas Avenue.
Students spend two hours in language classes. The school teaches both traditional Chinese and a simplified version.
Simplified Chinese was developed in the 1950s, and has become the most common form of the language.
“Right now, we have less traditional because less students want to learn traditional,” Lie said. “Simplified uses phonics. It's a lot easier, and it's a trend. Ninety-five percent of the population of Chinese uses the phonic system. Only in Taiwan do they use traditional.”
Lie was born in Taiwan. He moved to the United States in 1987 to study information system management at Oklahoma City University.
There also is an optional third-hour cultural class that students may take. Students can choose from calligraphy/painting, origami/crafts, dancing, martial arts or traditional Chinese yo-yo.
The Chinese school mostly is made up of Chinese-American students and children of Chinese immigrants, but students from all backgrounds are welcome to enroll. Lie estimates that there are about 50 students enrolled in the school.
The school admits children as young as 3 and as old as 18.
“It's a pretty low number right now, because lots of students, when they reach high school, they just find all kinds of excuses for not coming,” Lie said. “‘Oh, I got too much to do at school. Oh, I've got to emphasize on college.' But you've been spending so many years here and you stop it and it's hard to pick it up again.”
To Lie, writing in Chinese is as much an art form as it is a practical skill. Like any art, it takes time and dedication to perfect the craft.
“Usually, if you really practice every day and take about a year, you can start to write pretty good,” he said. “But if you only practice once a week, then it takes forever. Just like piano. If you just practice once a week, man, you'll probably just stay there forever.”
In the calligraphy class, students use ink and a brush to form their characters, as is traditional in China. New students begin by practicing only basic brush strokes until they are ready to move up to the more simple writing styles.