Every Sunday afternoon on the west side of Olympia something extraordinary is happening. Chinese Americans are not only keeping their ancient culture alive for their own children, they are sharing it with all of us. The Olympia Area Chinese Association is a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve the Chinese heritage. There are over 150 families in Olympia from China and many more multicultural families who wish to learn more about the Chinese culture.
I visited the Chinese school as they were preparing for the Chinese New Year Celebration. This celebration takes place on Sunday, February 25 at Capital High School from 4:00 p.m. – 8:30p.m. It is open to all members of the community and is organized and sponsored by the Olympia Area Chinese Association. The celebration will include a potluck dinner, live cultural performances and prizes. Regular admission is $15, children under 10 are free.
Mingta Lin, former board member and school volunteer, was eager to give me a tour of the classrooms where students of all ages are taught Mandarin Chinese. Classes take place every Sunday from 2:00 p.m. – 4:15 p.m. Although there are over 2,000 dialects in China, Mandarin is considered Standard Chinese. “We have Chinese parents who want their children to speak their native language as well as parents of children who are adopted from China that want to give their adopted children the gift of understanding where they came from,” shares Lin.
There are currently ten classes of Chinese language instruction, 5 traditional Chinese classes and 5 learning simplified Chinese. The classes are grouped by age and ability. I was surprised to learn that an adult Chinese class was only $120 for 16 weeks of instruction. Learning Chinese for less than the cost of a movie each week was certainly intriguing to me. “We would like to bridge the gap between the Chinese community and the general population,” explains Lin. What better way to understand a culture than through its language.
The Sunday Chinese school, which is housed at Westwood Baptist Church, serves approximately 70 students but would love to expand their offerings. Most of the teachers have been there for many years. The principal of the school was one of the original founders. I am told that she tried to retire once, but the parents wooed back Principal Sheue-Lan Shyu. All the teachers are paid a stipend, but their love of Chinese culture and desire to share the language with all children is what keeps them coming back each year. While the students are in the classroom many of the parents stay at the school to socialize. A café with tables and chairs serves as a gathering for parents who enjoy the time spent with their Chinese peers.
Music streamed from the classrooms as students practiced traditional and modern Chinese dance. Some of the students were eager to share what they were learning and I enjoyed several rehearsals as the children learned their choreography. Many of the teachers come from a professional dance background so the students are getting excellent instruction and the performances are sure to please the audiences. The youngest students were the most enthusiastic as they waved their batons with ribbons through the air.
I was curious about what originally drew Chinese citizens to Olympia. I learned that in the 1870s the construction on the Northern Pacific Railroad in western Washington brought many Chinese laborers. The rail line that ran through Olympia was finished in 1878 and historians consider that section of rail to have saved Olympia from obscurity and helped to preserve its standing as the capitol city. At that time there was a vibrant Chinatown between Columbia Avenue and Capital Way. The dedication of an Olympia Chinatown Historical Marker took place May 22, 2004 at Heritage Park to honor the important role that the Chinese played in the history of Olympia.
The Olympia Area Chinese Association supports the community by contributing to other non-profit organizations as well. The students of the Chinese school participate in an annual performance of Chinese song and dance performed at the James Koval Center for the Performing Arts. This year the event raised over $4,000 and OACA donated the proceeds to the North Thurston Education Foundation, the Thurston County Food Bank and the Olympia Senior Center. The Olympia Area Chinese Association is eager to create partnerships and this is just one way they serve the community.
If you are interested in Chinese language instruction for you or your child, visit the Olympia Area Chinese Association website or email them at contact@OlympiaChinese.org. See you at the Chinese New Year Celebration!