Dressed in a red floral brocade dress and her blonde hair illuminated in lights, Cambry Gerardi, an eighth-grader from the Mandarin Immersion Magnet School (MIMS), stood alone on a stage in Zhengzhou, China and shared her story of learning Chinese.
In near perfect Mandarin, the non-native speaker described to the judges of the Chinese Bridge World Language Competition how a simple, albeit significant, chain of events solidified her love of the Chinese language and led her to that moment.
“My trip to the Chinese Bridge (competition) has helped me improve my Chinese and connect with friends from all over the world,” she told the audience.
At the age of 13, Cambry was the youngest competitor by four years in the American Idol–style speech competition, which includes Chinese language proficiency, knowledge about China, Chinese cultural skills and comprehensive learning abilities.
Cambry, who had to receive special permission to participate due to her age, finished in the top 10 of 200 competitors from around the globe. She was only two questions away from finishing in the Top 5.
A student at MIMS since the fourth grade, she stumbled into the Chinese language at the age of 5 when her parents placed her, by chance, in a Chinese after-school program. Two years later, her second-grade teacher, a Chinese national, saw her potential, and encouraged her to continue her studies, eventually giving her the Chinese name that she still uses to this day: Ji Kaibi.
“That’s when I began to understand the concept of the culture and language,” she said. “I am interested in the differences in point of views between China and America, there is a level of respect in China that I really admire.”
Throughout Cambry’s immersion journey, fate has been in the driver’s seat. After second grade, everything began to fall into place, securing the lead in Mulan, an acceptance to MIMS and eventually traveling to China in 2016 with her family to adopt her sister. Cambry’s family has since adopted two more children from China, and all five siblings speak Chinese as often as possible together.
Cambry’s immersion journey has not only been a catalyst for her future but also the future of her family.
“This has been a game-changer, we couldn’t write that story,” Cambry’s mom Angie Gardner said. “The Chinese culture is so much of who we are, and we want to keep that alive for our children.”
Since coming to MIMS, Cambry’s language proficiency has blossomed, and through her connection with HISD’s Confucius Institute, she has been able to build a bridge between her classroom and the Chinese world and culture.
As a Top 10 finisher, Cambry has a year of Chinese college tuition paid for and dreams of one day becoming a famous Chinese actress. But, for now, she is focused on requalifying for the Chinese Bridge Competition in a few years and seeing just how far she can rise when she truly matches her rivals in age and experience.
“I like the opportunities this brings – the competitions, making friends from all around the world,” Cambry said. “I know what opportunities it can bring me in the future, so I don’t want to waste all those chances.”