Incredible Kids

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Let’s face it – every child is Incredible.

New parents all over the world hold their gurgling newborns aloft, pledging them the cutest, the sweetest, the smartest ever born. From their first word to graduation day, parents celebrate each and every childhood talent or achievement – no matter how seemingly insignificant or small.

While parental cheering-squads are vital, observing peers is priceless. A little bit of healthy competition and inspiration allows children to witness achievements in their own sphere of competence – and therefore hone their desire to strive for excellence.

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you that above all else, they just want their kids to be happy. And most parents will agree – a sense of purpose and achievement is a good start to lifelong contentment. The following Incredible Kids are already achieving contentment, through strong commitment and a passion for what they love. May their achievements make you smile, and perhaps inspire your own incredible kids to become the most Incredible Kids ever.

The Musician

Name: Hannah Brock
Age: 8
Nationality: British
School: British School of Beijing, year 4

Hannah Brock has music in her blood; a natural rhythm in her veins – for she can skilfully play an impressive total of four musical instruments. And she’s just eight years old.

Arriving in Beijing at age two, Hannah was only three when she heard someone playing the drums at nursery school. She was instantly hooked and begged to learn. Astoundingly, it took only an afternoon to master the basics, and nowadays she can perform a full drum solo. “My dad says, if you start playing something, you have to commit to it,” says Hannah, and so she did – before the drums were superseded by the piano at three-and-a-half. While most four-year-olds obsess over Barbie dolls, it was the stunning Chinese zither – the guzheng – that entranced Hannah next. “I liked the sound of it; whatever you play on it sounds nice.”

Hannah’s parents, Andy and Yang Jing, have always believed music is something their daughter must want to do. “We actually held her back for some time before we agreed to formal lessons, so she was more keen to do it,” says mum, Yang Jing. With only one piano/guzheng lesson and a few hours of home practise a week, it’s obvious Hannah has natural musical talent. “The teachers said she was ahead of other kids soon after she started.”

Music is never a task for Hannah, who also enjoys ice skating, hockey, acting and singing in the BSB Junior and Beijing International choirs. “When I play, I don’t think about anything else or what I have to do next,” she says. With guzheng being her favorite instrument, it took this young virtuoso three years to decide on another conquest. At age seven, she settled on the cello. And after cello? Probably the flute or clarinet – or both. After all, there’s no woodwind instrument in her impressive repertoire. Yet.

Hannah has twice appeared on TV – once for drums, once for guzheng – yet despite her musicality, she hasn’t taken part in many competitions. “We haven't encouraged her as they can be quite boring and stressful, “ says Yang Jing.

Hannah gave her dad a wonderful birthday present last year by winning BSB’s inaugural instrumental competition, playing the guzheng. She was then asked to play in front of 700 people, without a skerrick of nerves. Her next challenge will be in October this year – she will play at a city celebration in Cambridge, England, and also plans to play the streets of Edinburgh during the summer Festival, and perhaps earn a few pennies as the UK’s first guzheng busker! And what will she play? “I quite like the Beatles,” she says. “I like their song titles.” One of her favourite pieces of all, however, is Ballade Pour Adeline by Paul de Senneville, made famous by pianist Richard Clayderman.

Hannah says she might like to be a musician when she grows up – indeed, a family friend (and professional musician) believes she has what it takes. And if she doesn’t end up entrancing the world with her tuneful talent? After talking avidly on conservation issues, and a love of history and baking, there’s no doubt this Incredible girl will become an historical expert on organic pastries in no time. But seriously, though – look out for her first CD. If this melodious maestro is only just beginning her orchestral journey, it’s sure to be an Incredible one.

The Swimmer

Name: Hendrik Faber
Age: 8
Nationality: Dutch
School: Dulwich College, year 4

If there is a boy on the planet with more singular focus than Hendrik Faber, you’d be hard pressed to find him. When Hendrik talks about his passion for swimming, nothing else blips the sonar. This multi-lingual kid has already lived in five countries – Brunei, Holland, Trinidad, the US and finally, China – arriving in March 2006.

Hendrik hasn’t always had a passion for the pool. His dad, Frits, tragically lost a five-year-old sister to drowning, so learning to swim was always a priority. It was the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, however, that sent Hendrik in a torpedo-like direction, straight into the deep end. Watching the Olympic swimming finals on TV, he was stricken by George Bovell, a bronze medal winner from Trinidad. Hendrik had a thought: “If he can do that, so can I.” It was then champion swimmer Michael Phelps, who cemented this passion.

“After seeing Michael Phelps in action, Hendrik began listening to his swimming teacher,” says Frits. “Things grew rapidly from there.” And nothing was going to stop him. After trying out for the school swim team, Hendrik was devastated to fail at tryouts. Un-deterred, he pretended he’d made the team, and went along to training sessions anyway. Five or six weeks later, someone finally said “Who is this kid who keeps coming to training?”

This daring tenacity paid off. The team invited Hendrik to try out again… needless to say, he now trains with them six times a week. At his first swim meet, at ISB in 2006, he failed to make finals. At his second ISB meet in 2007, he placed second overall – an Incredible achievement for someone who had only been in training one year.

In November 2007, Hendrik travelled to his first international swim meet – the Taipei Citi Invitational – where he placed third overall, with four gold medals. One month later, at the Bangkok Patana Tiger Sharks ‘Feeding Frenzy’, Hendrik struck real gold – coming first overall with five gold, four silver and one bronze. His next meets are Thailand in March and the big one – the Manta’s Swim Invitational – in Hong Kong in May. These upcoming goals may, however, be a little challenging. A recent ski jumping accident has sidelined this super-fish – although it’s doubtful a leg pinned with metal and wrapped in plaster will hamper Hendrik’s progress.

“Swimming makes me feel happy,” says Hendrik, who also enjoys skiing, surfing and drawing. “I want to win the most medals in the world, and be the fastest swimmer ever.” And what about his 2016 Olympic dream? “I need to train hard and do my best. Style is everything.”

Hendrik’s multitude of ribbons are framed in gelato colours along the dining room wall, and proud parents Frits and step-mum Deann commissioned a special cabinet for their son’s exuberance of medals – 28 in total (and after only seven months of competing). After two trophy wins, what’s next on the agenda? A bespoke cabinet to hold Olympic medals, perhaps? No doubt, it will be filled to brimming by August 2016.

What does this dedicated and talented sportsman want to be when he grows up? “A swimmer.” What if he can’t become a swimmer? “I’ll try again until I can become a swimmer.” How would he make the world a better place? “By swimming for my country. Or instructing others how to swim.” Incredibly focused? Definitely.

The Math Rocker

Name: Kwan Hee Lee
Age: 14
Nationality: Korean
School: Western Academy of Beijing, year 9

Many an educational academic will tell you of the strong correlation between mathematics and music. If there’s any tangible proof of this, Kwan Hee Lee is it. This multi-lingual kid (Korean, English, Chinese, French) arrived in Beijing as an ESL student in 2002. Not only a top academic, Kwan Hee has been on student council, has won a number of math awards and plays bass in a rock band.

Yes. A math whiz kid who plays in a heavy metal rock band.

“My mum used to be a math teacher so she’d teach me outside school,” says Kwan Hee, who has participated annually in Beijing’s Mathematic Olympiad. In year 7, he achieved a perfect score in the Australian Math competition, travelling to Hong Kong for his award. Every day, he takes advanced placement calculus, and he’s also in advanced English, studying literature and essay writing. His favorite literary hero? Shakespeare. His favorite band? Metallica. You work out the dichotomy.

By two-and-a-half, Kwan Hee knew the Korean alphabet, and reading came fast and easily. In kindergarten, he began piano; reading music was also a breeze. By five years old, he was taking piano lessons twice a week, and can now play the regular masters “pretty well. You know – Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart.” Violin is also part of his repertoire, as is the bass guitar he plays as part of a rock trio. The band, called The Taken, have played at several WAB Rock performances as well as Rock in the Park, and last year won first place in Battle of the Bands at Chaoyang Park, belting out two Metallica hits. “We are actually looking for a drummer at WAB,” says Kwan Hee. Any takers to join The Taken?

For a self-confessed shy kid, music is a creative release for Kwan Hee. “I’m lucky that study comes easily for me, but I love music and it’s more interesting than math. We just grab guitars and muck around, trying to find a tune.” He feels his music has allowed him to socialise more easily and to be more outgoing. Not only a muso, Kwan Hee is also interested in tennis and horseback riding. He has participated in a Model United Nations Conference in Cairo in 2006, where he had to research and debate issues on global warming, nuclear safety and disarmament in Northern Ireland. “I was pretty nervous at first, but now I’m much better.”

With his maturity, humble nature and astonishing ability to meld the creative arts with cultivated smarts, this teen is cool-personified. Proud parents Sung Min and So Yeong feel Kwan Hee has found a good balance in his life. “I want him to experience many different things, so he can himself choose what he wants to do,” says dad Sung Min.

And what does he want to do? “Perhaps engineering,” says Kwan Hee, but this hard-working teen insists it’s too early to really know. “Right now, I just want to focus on getting good grades for a college which offers musical and math education.”

Kwan Hee has a 10pm curfew, to which this heavy rocker doesn’t bat an eyelid. “If I don’t sleep, I don’t focus well,” he admits. “I sleep a lot.” With the Incredible list of achievements this kid strives for every day, it’s just as well he catches some solid z’s.

The Prodigy

Name: Sophia Hinson
Age: 6
Nationality: American
School: Daystar Academy, year 1

There may be an advanced mind ticking away in this only-just-six-years-old girl, but the lovely thing about Sophia Hinson is that she’s still a ‘regular’ child. She wants to play, she wants to wriggle, she wants juice, a snack and to talk talk talk. “I know something!” is a frequent catch-cry. And indeed – she knows a lot, including the fact that 800 plus 800 equals 1600. Not bad.

Born in the USA, mum Huhe only spoke Mandarin to Sophia, while her dad Roger spoke only English. Unlike many children exposed to dual languages from birth, Sophia started speaking at an extraordinarily young age. At barely nine months old, her first word, ‘nana’ – short for banana – signalled hunger. By 11 months, this astonishing little tot was already piecing together four or five words at a time. Very soon afterwards, Sophia could speak both languages with equal fluency.

Despite Sophia’s early linguistic skills, she was 15 months old before her parents noticed Sophia’s uncanny ability to memorize information. She had been completing complicated puzzles for months, designed for children twice her age, and by the time she was 18 months old, Sophia could recognise all 50 US States. “I would randomly ask her what State was next to another, and she could identify it,” says Huhe. “Our friends were astounded.” Roger remembers a restaurant incident well. Huhe had torn off a piece of bread and handed it to Sophia – it was a dog leg shape with an elongated lower half. From her high chair, Sophia proudly proclaimed – “Look, Mama. California!”

Sophia’s parents began reading to Sophia at three months old. “I would do actions when I read,” says Huhe, “And Sophia would do every single action, unprompted. She would memorize books and know what page was next.” By the time she was three, Sophia was reading and currently, this first-grader reads at a 4th grade level.

At age four, Huhe decided to home-school Sophia, who was already adding, subtracting and counting to 100 with ease. When the family of five arrived in Tianjin mid-2006, Sophia went to school for the first time. “The school recommended we put Sophia ahead one year,” says her mum. “We were worried, but she coped very well.” She also managed, in only one year, to pick up Tianjinhua – a local dialect not very intelligible to Beijingers.

Sophia started with the bi-lingual Daystar Academy in Beijing mid-2007. Math is Sophia’s favorite subject, and, conducive with her analytical style, she loves to count, sing, do mazes and play the recorder. She also has interest in other languages. The moment Huhe mentions that her dad speaks Spanish, Sophia promptly counts from one to ten in Espagnol. “I would love to speak all the languages of the world,” she declares.

When asked what she would like to be when she grows up, Sophia unflinchingly affirms “Chiropractor!” (also her Dad’s profession). “Or a doctor,” she adds, “Or a fire fighter. I want to save people.” After chatting extensively about dinosaurs, Sophia is very clear on how she could make the world a better place. “I would buy some yarn and knit something and visit people and give it to them.” So wonderful to remember this Incredible kid is still only six years old, after all.

The Philanthropist

Name: Jorge Zárate
Age: 15
Nationality: Mexican
School: Dulwich College, year 11

Jorge Zárate may be just shy of sixteen, but he has already achieved philanthropic efforts many adults could only aspire to. A high-achieving student, Jorge displays a maturity and self-awareness beyond his years. “Jorge is very aware of what is happening to other people,” says his dad, Jorge senior. “He realises others are not as fortunate as he is, and wants to give back to society wherever he can.”

The Zárates lived in Argentina for nine years before arriving in Beijing in August 2006. Tri-lingual Jorge (he also speaks Spanish, English and French) can now add the study of Mandarin to his multi-lingual résumé. He is also a prolific reader, plays piano, sings in the chamber choir, and loves to act. But it’s his humanitarian work that really sets Jorge apart.

“You might not be able to change the whole panorama of the world’s problems, but even small actions can do a lot,” says Jorge. Indeed, one person can make a world of difference. Jorge’s first expedition into small but world-shifting actions was at the tender age of eleven, when he travelled with a group to Santa Fe, one of Argentina’s poorest areas, to take provisions to underprivileged children. The group worked hard to raise money before arriving with their life-changing supplies.

In Beijing, Jorge has become involved in his school’s Interact club, which strives to raise funds for charities here in Beijing. The club organises trivia nights and has bake sales and raffles to raise money. Interact recently sent a group of students to Cambodia to work with Tabitha – a self-help program providing housing around the world. Volunteer teams band together to raise funds to build a basic house. Jorge and his team not only raised these funds, they travelled to a destitute area just outside Phnom Penh to work with locals, building crude dwellings that seem palatial in such impoverished conditions. “Despite all they have been through, the people seemed happy,” says Jorge. “They were so thankful.”

In April 2007, Jorge participated in the Model United Nations Conference in Kuala Lumpur, where students act as UN delegates and debate significant global issues. Representing the African nation of Chad, Jorge researched and debated issues like collective security and the wellbeing of African people. Jorge will again participate in the 2008 MUNC, but this time will be co-chairing the economic and social panel; something he is very excited about.

“These are such rewarding experiences,” says proud mum, Nora. “Jorge has never wanted to appear like a hero, but he does want to encourage others to make a difference.”

So, what would this inspirational teen like to be when he grows up? “I have considered politics and enjoy international relations, but my dream is to be a doctor for Médecins San Frontiers. Or to work for the World Health Organisation.”

What advice would Jorge give to other kids wanting to achieve such humanitarian feats? “Keep on trying,” he smiles. “Don’t give up. We’ve got what we need to change the world, we just need good will. If everyone does little things, you can get somewhere. Ghandi said ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ If people want to solve it, they can. It’s an attitude thing.”

And what an Incredible attitude to have.

First published, in part, in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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