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.
Most beginners start by learning the style of the famous Chinese calligrapher Wang Xizhi, who lived more than 1,000 years ago. The Xizhi style is known as the easiest style to learn and is the most commonly recognized in China.
As the students progress, they begin learning more advanced styles of writing. A few writing styles, like the Taso Shu style for example, are known as more crafty than others.
“They have so many kinds of styles, some that are more popular and some that are more like artworks, like Taso Shu,” Lie said. “If you didn't really practice it, you cannot read it. Even I sometimes cannot read the Tsao Shu style.”
There is no set starting age to begin learning calligraphy, Lie said. Instead, students are taught as soon as they are able to hold the brush correctly.
The brush is held by placing the index and middle finger over the back end of the brush, with the thumb opposite. The ring finger and pinkie press against the front end of the brush and are used to guide.
“How to hold it correctly is very important,” Lie said. “Just like piano. If your structure is not right, you can only reach a certain level. You cannot get better. The same in calligraphy.”
Entering the community
Zhang, originally from China, was an education student at Oklahoma City University when a classmate told her about a Chinese school on campus. Zhang was in need of a part-time job, so she contacted the school and soon began teaching.
“In the beginning, I was a dance teacher, and I taught Chinese traditional dance because I was a dancer in China,” she said.
Since then, Zhang has received her degree and now teaches a small group of students in her origami/craft culture class.
The small class sizes allow for more hands-on instruction.
“It's not a busy school — we only do it every Sunday afternoon — so it doesn't take me too much time,” she said.
The school functions as more than just a place to learn. It's its own community in the heart of Oklahoma City's Asian District. Some parents linger while class is in session. Teachers are personally invested in the success of their students.
“It is small, but all the parents get involved, teachers get involved, so the students can look at that example,” Lie said.
Non-Chinese students can glean use from the school as well. Exposure to other cultures is always a good thing, Lie said. He also pointed out the growing economies in the East Asian countries of China and Japan.
Lie predicts many more American businesses will be looking to opportunities in China in the future.
“If you know (how to speak) Chinese, you will take care of like 75 percent of the population over there,” he said. “So it's good for your opportunity. Of course you can know Korean or Japanese better, but the big piece of pie over there is China.”
An estimated 85 percent of students who graduate from the school go on to take Chinese as their second language in college, Lie said.
Though students often don't like the extra work Chinese school takes, those who graduate usually appreciate the program's worth.
“After that they go, ‘Oh, I can speak Chinese and write Chinese.' They start to feel different, and the children start to feel they are a part of this.”