In the fall of 2023, two students from Yinghua Academy Chinese immersion school in northeast Minneapolis went on the trip of a lifetime. Keewaydin resident and sixth grader Sage Houdek and seventh grader Kaia Bursell from Dellwood, Minn., spent 10 days in China as part of the global competition, Chinese Bridge.
They earned their spots by first competing in the U.S., delivering a speech in Chinese and a personal talent (Sage played the violin and Kaia sang). Each won the top position in their district to join just four other students from the U.S. and compete at the world level. Part contest, part television show, part cultural exchange, the event showcased the abilities of participants from 97 different countries from primary school on up, while offering a glimpse of life in Kunming, China.
Sage said it was incredible to have been learning Chinese at school (she enrolled at Yinghua in kindergarten) then finally be able to use the language in the real world. But it was also exhausting. “It was very tiring, because using not your native language all day long makes your brain work more,” she said.
Kaia shared a similar sentiment: “It was a really different experience because Chinese is my second language, so it made me have to use my brain, think a little bit more about what I wanna say. I felt like it also really expanded my vocabulary ‘cause I’m so exposed to everything.”
After an assembly at the school, Yinghua Director Dr. Luyi Lien commended the students. “This is really a proud moment for us to know our students are so well prepared for the world. Not just language, but also their way of doing things, understanding other cultures, and coping with any challenges they have faced,” she said.
Each student traveled with one parent – Sage with her mom, Kristi Papenfuss, and Kaia with her mom, Cindy Bursell. Bursell, who came to the U.S. from Indonesia and speaks both Indonesian and English, was thrilled to see her daughter excel in her second language.
“I am beyond proud of her, because I can certainly say that she is bilingual,” she said. “She was able to help me communicate with other people. She’s very competent when people ask her [questions] in Chinese.”
In fact, the parents had to rely on their kids for most of their communication.
“It was so interesting to me because I have never been really completely dependent on my child to express my thoughts and ideas,” said Papenfuss, who has traveled internationally and is fluent in English and Spanish. “It was really cool to see how responsible my kid was… How much she knew linguistically and culturally and how responsible and mature she was to be able to guide me through situations that I had zero context or ability to function in.”
Even during a long layover in Shanghai, the kids took charge. They figured out where to spend their time, how to get tickets for the “super-fast train” and where the stations were. They led their parents on a walking tour around the People’s Square in the center of Shanghai, population 26 million.
Since Chinese was the common language of all the contestants, it opened up communications so they could get to know one another.
“I’ve never been around all these different people from all over the world, and it was really interesting to learn their culture and how they live and how China and Chinese has connected them to the world,” said Sage. She also knows Spanish but felt more comfortable speaking Chinese – even with Spanish-speaking students.
“There were so many different people from different backgrounds and different histories, and just to meet them and learn how they live was just a really delightful experience,” said Kaia.
In and around Kunming
Each day was meticulously planned. On top of rehearsing and performing for the competition, contestants spent time at a primary school, with a host family, on a trip to the zoo, a fossil museum, the Old Town, and the Dounan Flower Market – the largest flower wholesale market in Asia. Think Stock Exchange for flowers.
“It was pretty crazy… and it smelled really good,” said Sage.
School was a lot different there than in the U.S. Sage said students and teachers were very respectful and would bow and say “Good morning” to each other. It was also very quiet. “The only time anyone talked was when they raised their hand to answer questions, and they stood up and bowed and answered the question then [sat] back down and bowed again,” she said.
Due to its year-round mild climate, Kunming is called the “Spring City.” So while the school’s classrooms are inside, the hallways are outside. “You can feel the fresh air, and it’s really nice,” said Sage.
Students participated in various activities, such as papercutting, calligraphy, Chinese painting and lantern making. In one unit they studied “time” – the equinox and the way the earth moves – which they were then tested on. This score, along with quizzes from some of their other excursions, was added to their performance scores to determine total scores in the competition.
In addition to having a jam-packed itinerary, the whole experience was filmed. They traveled on chartered buses, 58 primary school students with their parents, with camera crews present and conducting interviews wherever they went. It was essentially a reality TV show. There’d be drones overhead taking pictures, and people followed them with cameras – even at the hotel.
“We were celebrities,” said Sage, describing being crowded by people in a park who wanted to take photos with the contestants. She said it felt very game show-y, and by the end of each day her mouth hurt from so much smiling.
Overall, Kunming was different than expected.
Sage pictured a lot of temples and old architecture, but except in the Old Town, the city was very modern. It was also very clean.
“We didn’t see even one piece of trash,” said Sage. Gardens and planters were everywhere, with people watering them 24/7.
Papenfuss said it was beautiful, with high rises next to green space. “It would be like if next to Lake Nokomis we had a 12-square-block area of [20-story] high rises, and then you had the creek and the parks,” she said. “We just don’t have that here.”
It was also not as crowded or chaotic or as loud as she expected. “It was actually really kind of calm… lots of green space and lots of electric vehicles and scooters, which don’t make any sound, lots of bikes,” she said.
Asked what kind of food they ate, Sage replied, “We ate a lot of noodles. Breakfast, noodles. Lunch, noodles. Dinner, guess what? Noodles.”
Their favorite experience was spending a few hours with a host family in their home, where they shared a meal. For Sage it was awkward at first, mainly because the dad thought she couldn’t speak Chinese. It got easier once he knew she could understand him. In their household was another girl Sage’s age, 11, a younger sister who was about nine and a little brother who wasn’t in school yet. They also had two other siblings in high school.
“It was really neat to see [Sage] just be able to hang out with normal people without cameras, without competition people, without all the hubbub… just in someone’s apartment, playing a game with a kid and having tea and having lunch,” said Papenfuss. “That was, for me… one of the best things, ‘cause it was like just being with regular people, you know, not being on a show.”
Bursell also said their visit with the host family was the most memorable thing. “We were very comfortable there, we [felt] very welcome there, [it was] just interesting to see how they live.” They provided a home-cooked meal that was cooked “to perfection.”
They also made dumplings together. As is tradition, they put a coin in one of the dumplings, which would bring good luck to whoever got it. As luck would have it, Kaia found the coin in her first dumpling.
Asked how Yinghua Academy helped prepare the students, Dr. Lien said preparation began on their first day of school.
“We are a Chinese immersion school, meaning the students coming to the school starting day one they start to learn Chinese. So they are immersed in the Chinese language and culture,” she said. “We think about how we can help them to become not just bilingual, bicultural, but really multilingual, multicultural for them to see the world in a different lens.”
Both students encourage others to go if ever they can.
Sage’s advice? “Practice, practice, practice. And don’t get intimidated by what the other kids do, ‘cause you’re doing what you’re doing, and it doesn’t matter what they’re doing. ‘Cause you know you have practiced enough and can go out there and show them what you know how to do.”
“If you ever get the experience to go to this competition or any competition, just take the opportunity,” said Kaia. “Life is too short. Just do what you can.”