By Sandy Balzer | Photos by Ryan Rosene
When 15-year-old Cayleigh Capaldi stumbled across an online ad requesting submissions to participate in The Hangzhou Global Tour 2015, the contest organizers had unknowingly connected with the perfect candidate. A straight-A high school sophomore, Cayleigh has been studying Mandarin since sixth grade. As one member of a close, creative family of performers, Cayleigh knew her family had a great chance to win the 30-day trip spanning three continents, seven countries, and 10 cities.
If chosen, the Capaldi family would join the winning Chinese family in Hangzhou for the first seven days of the tour, learning the history and culture of Hangzhou. The ambassador families would then take what they’ve learned and share it at scheduled events in cities throughout the tour to promote tourism in Hangzhou. In addition, both families would record their learnings in daily blogs and videos.
The day I met with Cayleigh and her family in a coffee shop in their current hometown of Carmel, Cayleigh’s mother, Leigh, remembered feeling uncertain about the contest. “The skeptics in us said, ‘It’s not real, it could be a scam.” But they decided it couldn’t hurt to produce a family video.
After all, the Capaldis are a show business family. Domenick is a talented singer, songwriter, and musician who once toured with the rock group Foreigner. Leigh is an acclaimed actress and Olivier Award winner who has performed on Broadway and London’s West End stages. Cayleigh is also comfortable onstage, loves to sing, and has perfect pitch. That perfect pitch contributed to her accomplished Mandarin skills as Domenick explained, “Chinese and Mandarin in particular is very tonal, musical. Cayleigh’s perfect pitch allows her to hear and speak it musically.
“Cayleigh grew up in concert halls and dressing rooms. We are performers—we’re old Vaudevillians. We felt that was what was unique about our family,” Domenick explained.
The first opportunity to share their musical communication style arrived during a huge media kick-off event at The Wyndham Grand Hotel in Hangzhou. With a practiced performer’s confidence, Cayleigh took the microphone and walked among the naturally reserved group of over one hundred press singing “Hangzhou Happy” in Mandarin to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” The press was captivated.
“We did numerous radio interviews, and we would sing the song by request. It began to catch on in the media,” Leigh recalls. In fact, the tour organizers asked Domenick to write the tour theme song performed in collaboration between the two ambassador families and featuring Cayleigh singing lead.
The Capaldis spent the first nine days of the tour immersed in learning about Hangzhou and genuinely fell in love with the city. Throughout their time in China and beyond, her parents most enjoyed watching Cayleigh gain confidence in her language skills. She engaged with locals and crew while traveling through China and helped translate for the mother and daughter of the partner Chinese family who only spoke Mandarin. The reactions of native speakers were heartwarming as Cayleigh explained, “Their faces lit up. They didn’t expect this young American girl to be able to converse in their language.”
Domenick cites a moment of wonder on the bullet train from Paris to Geneva as he and Leigh watched Cayleigh converse like a native Chinese for three hours, teaching the hipster, Hong Kong-based film crew how to play an irreverent American card game. He noted that throughout the trip, “her language skills, musical skills, just her interests as a young person all seemed to coalesce in this one amazing experience.”
“It shaped me as a person. I know I have been changed. I have the confidence to cross borders, stretch myself, connect with other people. I want to go back,” Cayleigh adds.