Culture Camp in Modesto

The children held lion-head masks painted green with bushy, black eyebrows and snarling grins. They shook the masks to jingle their bells and stomped in rhythm with the Chinese instrumental music.

This version of a traditional dance highlights the lion, regarded as a guardian creature in Chinese culture.

This week, three dozen Modesto schoolchildren are learning about Chinese food, arts and crafts, toys, calligraphy, language and dance.

In its first year, the Modesto Chinese Culture Camp gives students something to do during the summer while school is out, but it also increases cultural awareness.

"I'm always open to exposure to different cultures," said Nichole Johnson, who's son Bryce, 10, is attending the camp. "He's always been intrigued about the Chinese culture. As a nation, we're a global melting pot, so I think it's important to get an understanding of other cultures. I tell Bryce that just because other people are doing things differently, don't look at it as weird."

Other activities include learning how to yo-yo Chinese style. Players hold two sticks connected to a long rope. The trick is to spin a plastic, dumbbell-shaped cylinder on the rope. With practice, they can toss the plastic piece in the air and catch it on the rope.

Children also learned how to make puppets, draw Chinese characters and say words in Mandarin. Cost was $90 for the week; the camp runs for three hours each day for first- through sixth-graders.

Though the camp is being held at Enslen Elementary School, students from other schools signed up. Officials hope to make it an annual camp, and eventually offer Chinese language classes at Modesto's high schools.

Because of China's emerging influence in world culture and economics, demand is increasing for employees who speak Mandarin or Cantonese and understand Chinese culture, said Debbie Mar, organizer of the camp.

"Given our global economy the way it is today, I think young people are finding out by Internet use — they're finding jobs all over the world," Enslen Principal Deborah Grochau said.

Parent Nanou Uch signed up son Indra Bun, 5.

"It's important so that later in the future, he's more aware of what's going on other than his culture, that there are other ways of doing things," said Uch, who is of Cambodian descent.

Camp leaders include teachers from Wisdom Chinese School in Sacramento along with teachers visiting from China and Taiwan.

The culture camp piggybacked onto an afterschool club at Enslen where students learn Mandarin words. Grochau said the club started after last summer's Beijing Olympics.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339.