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Herriman Journal

Chinese New Year festival at Herriman High celebrates language and culture

Mar 01, 2024 12:10PM ● By Elisa Eames

Students Paige Wursten and Rebekah Lin were available for photo ops at the celebration. (Elisa Eames/City Journals)

Red paper lanterns hung from the ceilings of Herriman High School while posters, fans and dragons festooned its walls and pillars. On Feb. 8, the school hosted the 3rd Annual Community Chinese New Year Celebration, which was a labor of love for several schools involved in Chinese language programs in the state. 

“This event… provide[d] a panoramic view of the Chinese program in… Utah,” said Kimberly Chen-Pace, who teaches Chinese at HHS. She is also involved with the Chinese Dual Language Immersion program and the University of Utah Chinese Bridge Program, which allows qualifying high school students to concurrently enroll in college courses. 

Kicking off the year of the dragon, the event was free of charge, open to anyone and featured a variety of cultural activities, photo opportunities, student-created educational displays, Chinese food vendors, performances and even games for children. Near the entrance stood a cherry blossom wishing tree made of paper and other materials. Visitors were encouraged to write their wishes down and attach them to the tree. 

Led by students, faculty and special invited guests dressed in traditional Chinese attire, activities included paper folding, crafts, beginning and advanced chopstick instruction, calligraphy and Chinese board games. Attendees who wanted to try their hands at playing the Chinese fiddle, called an erhu, were able to cross that off their bucket lists, and those interested in acupuncture or martial arts met with a specialist. 

“[The] Chinese New Year Celebration event provides students and the community a first-hand experience to immerse in Chinese culture,” Chen-Pace said.

In addition to HHS, other schools participating in the Chinese DLI and Bridge Programs include Eastlake Elementary, Mountain Creek Middle School and Bingham High School. Many DLI and Bridge enrollees began studying Chinese as early as first grade. Born in China, DLI student and U of U Chinese Bridge Program enrollee Jingxi Huang explained that to participate in the Bridge Program, students must pass both the advanced placement class and the advanced placement test in Mandarin Chinese. U of U professors come to HHS to instruct advanced students. “The program has some pretty cool opportunities,” Huang said. 

Kingston Scott, one of Huang’s class partners, showed off a mask that was part of the group’s display, remarking that masks like it are worn during performances of the Sichuan Opera in China. “The colors have different meanings,” he said. “Performers hide their faces for half a second, and then they have a completely different mask on. There is a technique to learning this.”

Proudly standing by their Chinese history display were Herriman High students Jack Beckstram, Austin Schindewolf, Jordan Hamilton and his brother, Logan Hamilton. “The first emperor of China was Emperor Qin (pronounced Cheen). He united all of China, and when he died, he wanted protection in the afterlife,” Jordan Hamilton said. “So before he died, he commissioned thousands of statues made of terracotta to protect him. But he hid them and had anyone involved killed, so no one knew where they were.” Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi ruled from 259 to 210 BCE, and it wasn’t until 1974 that the missing life-sized statues were finally happened upon by a farmer digging a well. Despite the large number of figures that were made—over 8,000—each is unique with distinct facial features and characteristics. 

Soon, it was time for the performances to begin. The first one of the evening was the Chinese Dragon Dance; dragons symbolize wisdom, power, dignity, fertility and success, and the dance is an important part of new year’s celebrations. Each holding aloft a section of a winding dragon, dancers snaked through the audience in the packed auditorium, which was also decked out with hanging lanterns and illuminated by the soft glow of red house lights. 

The evening’s scheduled program went on to include the Ribbon Dance, various other dances and musical and vocal performances. There was also a screening of a student-made film—completely in Chinese (with English subtitles)—which explored the often discouraging experiences of the 20,000 Chinese immigrants who worked on the transcontinental railroad in the 1800s; many of these immigrants worked so they could send money back to their families in China. During a song called “The Moon Represents My Heart,” performed by the Herriman High Orchestra, audience members turned on the flashlights on their phones and began waving the lights. 

A highlight of the evening’s impressive festivities showcased the abilities of the students themselves. Students from each grade, first through 12th, stood on the auditorium stage and introduced themselves to the audience—all in Chinese. They explained what they had been learning in their classes about Chinese history and culture and commented on what they found most interesting. Noticeably absent from each student’s hands—even the youngest—were any notes or prompts. 

Third grader Lucy from Eastlake Elementary said enthusiastically, “I think Chinese sounds really cool. I am able to read books in Chinese in school.” 

Herriman 12th grader Austin said, “My favorite part about being in Chinese class is learning to understand different cultures and being able to communicate with people from around the globe.” 

Former DLI and Bridge Program students currently attending the University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University also attended and shared their experiences and how learning Chinese has helped them. 

“I’ve been learning Chinese since the first grade, and I always wanted to use Chinese in the future,” said Cecilie Thomas, who attended Riverton High School and is now a U of U student. “I got called on a [religious] mission to Taiwan, and I want to teach Chinese when I get back. I want to teach Chinese at a preschool.” 

Daniel Covington graduated from the Northern Utah Academy of Mathematics, Engineering, and Science, and now attends the U of U. He believes that learning Chinese has helped him be more accepting of others. 

“It’s really important to be multicultural, see different points of view, and to be less judgmental about other cultures,” he said. “It’s an important principle of anthropology to not just have an ethnocentric point of view but to just accept.” 

A music lover as well as a Sinophile, Taylorsville High graduate Caleb Booth began playing the piano when he was just 3 and also began studying Chinese in first grade. He decided he wanted to combine his two loves. 

“I realized that Chinese music is a thing, and I can educate people in high school and college and spread awareness of the culture,” the current U of U student said enthusiastically. “Chinese music is becoming lost. A lot of it is westernized, and lots of teachers are afraid to approach Chinese pieces because they don’t know where to start.”

The culmination of the entire celebration was the traditional Chinese Lion Dance. As per custom, the lion was fed real lettuce for luck and then spit it back out, symbolizing the spread of wealth and prosperity to onlookers. Beginning onstage, two masked dancers moved alongside a red lion and an orange lion to the beat of drums behind them. Each lion was comprised of two dancers, and like the Dragon Dance, it wasn’t long before both lions and dancers were moving through the aisles of the auditorium. 

Following the Lion Dance, the final performance of the evening included a traditional Chinese New Year song wishing others happiness and prosperity, entitled the “Gong Xi Song.” In an expression of what the DLI and Bridge Programs mean to them, students in the audience happily joined those onstage in singing the song. 

Chen-Pace thanked audience members for their support of the language programs. “The goal is to spread the beauty of Chinese culture and language.” λ



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