In Room 514, 17 students wait. Some are groggy, it’s the start of the day after all. Some are talking, their conversations peppered with short Chinese phrases. “Ni Hao!” Hello. “Zao-an.” Good morning.
All 17 faces of the 2nd hour Chinese class look to the front of the room as a small, spritely woman clears her throat to speak. Chinese teacher Hau-In Lau pulls her long black hair back from her face and begins to speak.
“The cabaret is coming up,” Lau says. “Think of this as an opportunity . . . opportunity to connect with a Chinese character.”
Lau announces that they’re going to the stage gym to practice. She points to the boys who’ve offered to carry the fabric dragon. “Follow the dragon boys,” Lau says.
The Chinese Cabaret is part of the Chinese New Year Banquet hosted by the Center for International Studies (CIS). The Center for International Studies is a language program at Shawnee Mission South where students can intensively study Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Russian.
The banquet is a fundraising event whose proceeds pay for travel and activities for the CIS and East Chinese students. East is the only other school in the district to offer Chinese, so they’ve gone on trips to China with the CIS students twice in years past.
Each year, the CIS seniors organize the Chinese New Year celebration so their classmates can showcase their skills. Lau teaches at both CIS and East, so she was excited about bringing the two programs working together.
CIS senior Miles Simpson went on one of the trips two years ago when they went to tour southern China. While he enjoyed visiting bustling cities like Hong Kong, Simpson’s fondest memory of the trip was spending time off the beaten path in rural city of Ginlin.
Simpson hopes the fundraiser can be successful enough to help others have the chance to connect with the culture and be fully immersed in the language.
Senior Nicole Prenevost is thrilled with the chance to be a part of the cabaret with the CIS students because “they’re so intense and passionate about what they’re doing. It’s great to get together with more people who love Chinese.”
Down in the stage gym the class begins sifting through their bags of costumes—beaded headdresses are tried on, yellow silk robes are admired and embroidered sashes are tied. The students are brought back to dress-up time as kids. Suddenly they’re swirling their sleeves, using lantern rods as samurai swords and spin-kicking each other.
Then, Lau calls out “Listen! Line up!” and they move towards one end of the basketball court. In a row along the white end line, they stand as a team. Except they’re not players but a cast of characters. They each represent a piece of Chinese history from a scholar from the Ming Dynasty to a woman from the Republic of China. They read their lines, first in Chinese then in English. All the costume-induced giggles are gone and they’re focused. As they recite, Lau interjects “Xiao!” Smile.
Prenevost explained why they take so much care with their lines. Chinese has more consonants than English so there are many combinations to learn to recognize.
“It can be tricky,” Prenevost said. “The first month and a half of Chinese class we just did drills on how to pronounce all of the vowels and the tones and the consonants.”
Next they break off into groups—the girls go to practice their lantern dance and the boys go to practice their dragon dance.
Each of the girls picks up a red lantern hanging from a wooden rod and they take their positions—holding their lanterns perfectly still.
The music starts scratching out from the old CD player set on the gymnastics mats in the corner and the girls start to sway. They move their lanterns deliberately as they move to their right. Lau notices their solemn looks. “Xiao!” They take a few graceful turns and set down the lanterns on the edges of their circle. The girls form two lines and start weaving back and forth to the tune of what now sounds like an Irish reel.
As the girls perfect their dance, the boys start assembling their beast. The red and green scaled body of the dragon has been stretched out on the gym floor. They busy themselves slipping wooden rods through the holes in the fabric. Once everyone is in order they start to serpentine around the gym.
The 1st hour Chinese class is learning to dance as well but they have an additional task:
singing. The two songs they’re working on are “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a ‘80s classic Chinese love ballad by Teresa Tong, and “Manly Man”, the Chinese version of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Disney’s “Mulan.”
The students gather at the front of the classroom, the boys around the podium and the girls beside Lau’s desk. The boys start off singing the first verse of “The Moon is My Heart” and the girls respond with the next and so on, until the final verse when their voices come together.
But they really get excited when the first familiar notes of “Manly Man” start to play. For this song they’re all more relaxed—they try to hit the high notes and aren’t embarrassed if they miss. Junior Susie McClannahan says the class enjoys their second song because “it’s from ‘Mulan’, so what’s not to like?”
McClannahan also says the practice has been more than a chance to reconnect with Disney favorites.
“[The cabaret] has got everyone communicating more,” McClannahan said. “Now we have to actually chill and work with each other instead of just being in class.”
After they run through both songs it’s down to the stage gym to practice the Taiwanese Aboriginal Dance. Their costumes are simpler than those of the other class—red cotton skirts, pants and blouses and red-feathered headdresses. They line up and run to the other side of the gym in a winding train as the music starts. They take their first steps, tentatively yet in unison.
Lau watches them dance. She smiles when they hit a step right and looks over with concern when they’re frustrated. Lau knows firsthand what it’s like learning a complex Chinese dance.
Last March, Lau was asked to be a part of a dance for the Ethnic Enrichment Commission (EEC) of Kansas City’s Diplomatic Ball. The EEC is made up of organizations representing minority groups in the city and it works to support all cultural activities.
Lau had never performed Chinese dances before that March, so when she was first asked she was as hesitant as her students. Representatives from the consulates of 66 nations and leaders of cultural groups from around the city attended the ball—over 600 people in all. Lau recalls her nerves when she was performing and hopes she can help her students overcome their fears. She tries to compliment them as they practice but also tell them how to improve. “Good good job!” or “With more pow!” she’ll say.
Sophomore Takanori Sawaguchi said Lau has spent time making sure the students are comfortable with every dance step. He remembers she even showed them the video of her performance as an example of a traditional Chinese dance.
Lau hopes that learning the dances and songs will give them a personal tie to the culture of China and help them care about continuing their learning.
Prenevost is impressed with her teacher’s true concern that the students take away a love of the language, not just a set of skills.
“She [Lau] encourages you to learn for your own sake and not so much for the curriculum,” Prenevost said. “She talks a lot about the joys of learning different languages.”
The night of the cabaret large red lanterns hang from the ceiling of the South cafeteria and candles glimmer on every table. The guests look towards the podium at CIS Senior Celeste Banks takes the podium and clears her throat says, “The Chinese New Year is one of the most treasured celebrations in Chinese culture. It’s customary to reunite with family and friends and have a joyous celebration. We’ve already reunited as a big family, so now it’s time to start our joyous celebration.” And with that the first song begins.