News / USA

Unlikely Pair Find Solace in Traditional Chinese Music

Elizabeth Lee

A Chinese musical program near Oakland, California's Chinatown has been offering a safe haven for children of working class Chinese American families.  It's a place where students can spend free time learning a skill from traditional Chinese music and instruments.  While most of the students are of Chinese descent, two are not.  But they have stood out among their peers.

Near Oakland's Chinatown, this youth orchestra is a place where Chinese children can get in touch with their roots and learn a unique skill.

It's also a safe haven for students who would otherwise have nothing else to do when school is out, says music professor Sherlyn Chew.

"A lot of our students are what you called latch key children where the parents work long hours at restaurants," said Chew.

In this sea of Chinese faces, there are two students who at first, don't seem to belong.

Alejandro Chavez and Tyler Thompson are not Chinese and don't even speak the language.  But they have become key players in this orchestra. Chew was their music teacher when they were just four and five years old.  She saw something special in them.

"Music for all students should be fun, but it is a discipline you have to practice. Both of them were willing to do that," Chew explained.

Tyler Thompson attended a school near his mother's workplace in Oakland's Chinatown where he learned songs in Chinese from Chew.

"One day he said to me he said 'you know my mother comes home from work very tired and I would sing her the song you taught me and I'm able to make her feel better.' And I said what a nice kid," added Chew.

Chew also discovered that Thompson had a gift for singing Chinese opera.

"It was a challenge to me at first to actually understand it," Thompson recalled.

Thompson says it was also hard for some of his Chinese classmates to understand why he wanted to sing Chinese opera.

"I didn't see any problem with it but they did, and I know it would probably be the same, vice versa, if I heard one Asian sing really old school R&B songs.   I would just be 'what would you know about that?'" Thompson added.

But there were also classmates who accepted him more because he wanted to learn about their culture.  

Alejandro Chavez has also excelled ever since Chew discovered him in a predominately Latino school 10 years ago.  He plays an ancient Chinese instrument called the Sheng.

"Just being able to say I play an instrument from ancient China, I have history in my hands," said Chavez.

Chavez says being part of the orchestra has opened his mind.

"Well it's taught me not to be Latinos here, white people here, so mixed together. It's really changed my life really," Chavez noted.  "Cause if I weren't here where would I be?"

Chew says she hopes all her students will learn to appreciate not just the music, but each other and carry the life lessons they have learned beyond this orchestra.

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