Remember your elementary school? Maybe there was a comfortable rug for storytime in one corner, brightly colored cubbies for lunch boxes in another. At recess, you raced your friends, jumped from soaring swings, and bounced muddy rubber balls in a game of four square.
Students at Shaolin Exquisite Kung Fu School, however, will remember their days a little differently.
Located in China's Henan province, the school is one of more than 50 that have popped up in the shadow of Shaolin Temple, where the legendary kung fu monks train. Most of the schools' young martial-arts hopefuls were sent to the countryside after struggling in China's traditionally rigorous academic settings.
Portland photographer and self-described "kung fu nut" Leah Nash had visited the area before, but on her most recent trip, she was struck by a small minority at one of these kung fu schools: girls.
Twenty-three girls, to be exact, which is still a small number of the Shaolin Exquisite Kung Fu School's 500 students. But in the traditionally masculine world of martial arts, these girls have to fight a little bit harder for a place among the masters.
"I was taken by their dedication and what also seemed like isolation," Nash explained in an interview. "[They are] a few females in a group of hundreds of males."
Nash zeroed in on one girl, 8-year-old ChengWu ShuQin. The youngest female at the school, ChengWu was a recent arrival, still struggling with homesickness and figuring out her place in a vast community of kids.
"I could have done a broader take on the girls instead of just focusing on ChengWu, but then sometimes that can make a project lose intimacy and focus," Nash said. "It can be good to keep a project simple and directed toward one person so we really get an inside look at her life."
The "inside look" Nash captured is one of a girl in the midst of many changes.
"She was still taking in her surroundings," Nash said. "One day she was a troublemaker, fighting with the boys and playing, the next she was a little girl missing her mother."
Eventually the children began to ignore the photographer, allowing Nash to capture those quiet moments in which the kids were truly uninhibited.
"My Chinese was pretty horrible, so I didn't always know what was going on, or what the interactions were," she said. "But my approach is to be super low-key … I would just hang out with all of them — in class, as they played games, while they were practicing — so they got used to it."
Far from home herself, Nash found the most memorable moment to be a day when ChengWu became especially homesick. Unlike Nash, who would return to the United States and her home in just a few weeks time, the little girl would be lucky to see her family once each year, as they live a three-day bus trip away.
"She broke down and ended up crying," Nash said. "The kids try so hard to look and be tough, and they are living in stark conditions (compared to American standards), that it is easy to forget they are just little kids, far, far away from their families."