Hol­i­day blues brew­ing for stu­dents over­seas The view from afar

Lone­li­ness is a ma­jor prob­lem for young Chi­nese study­ing at col­leges and schools abroad, as Peng Yin­ing re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By PENG YIN­ING peng yin­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn

FMiss­ing home

Sta­tis­tics from the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion show that in 2013, our years ago at age 14, Ren Yi­tao moved to the United States to study. Since then, she hasn’t spent Spring Fes­ti­val in China with her fam­ily.

This year, on Jan 30, the eve of the Year of the Horse, the 18-year-old from Bei­jing will spend the most im­por­tant tra­di­tional Chi­nese hol­i­day alone at her home in Florida.

She said that ev­ery year her home­sick­ness grows more acute as the fes­ti­val ap­proaches, and the Western Christ­mas and New Year hol­i­day sea­son makes the feel­ing even worse.

On Christ­mas Eve, Ren’s neigh­bor­hood was quiet, but suf­fused with hol­i­day spirit. Her neigh­bor’s house was dec­o­rated with lights. Santa fig­ures, rein­deer and candy canes had been set up in the yard.

“I could see the sparkling lights on the Christ­mas tree in their house. It looked so warm and cozy. It re­minded me of the hol­i­days I spent with my fam­ily mak­ing dumplings in my grandma’s liv­ing room. The hol­i­day is a time for fam­ily re­unions,” she said.

An in­creas­ing num­ber of Chi­nese have trav­eled abroad to study over re­cent years, many were barely out of their teens when they left. As the year draws to a close, a gen­eral air of fes­tiv­ity ex­ac­er­bates their feel­ing of lone­li­ness. Home­sick­ness is a huge chal­lenge.

“On fes­tive oc­ca­sions, one thinks more of­ten of dear ones far away,” said Ren, quot­ing a Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618-907) poem by Wang Wei.

“Maybe I was too young when I left home. It took me a long time to get used to life in the US. I still feel as though I’m drift­ing, be­cause I have no home,” she said. “Some­times I miss home so much I cry, es­pe­cially dur­ing the hol­i­days.”

Ren’s school doesn’t have a Spring Fes­ti­val hol­i­day, of course, and the two-week win­ter va­ca­tion isn’t long enough to jus­tify a trip to China. More­over, at $3,000, a re­turn flight is out of reach of many mid­dle-class fam­i­lies like hers, so she only goes home dur­ing the long sum­mer va­ca­tion.

“A lot of Chi­nese stu­dents went home dur­ing the win­ter break. We don’t cel­e­brate Christ­mas, but the time they (the re­turnees) spend in China with their fam­i­lies prob­a­bly goes some way to make up for miss­ing Spring Fes­ti­val,” she said. “I re­ally en­vied those who man­aged to go home.”

Zhao Sisi went to the United King­dom to study ac­coun­tancy and fi­nance in 2010 when she was age 19. How­ever, when she de­cided to re­turn to China dur­ing her first win­ter break, a heavy snow­fall left her stranded at an air­port in Lon­don for three days. Be­cause all the di­rect flights to the Chi­nese cap­i­tal were can­celed, she even­tu­ally flew to Moscow be­fore trans­fer­ring to a Bei­jing-bound flight.

“It took five days to get home, but the hol­i­day was only 10 days,” she said. “Know­ing how dif­fi­cult it was to travel, my mum urged me not to bother. I burst into tears when she said that. I had to go home.”

For the past three years she has lived alone in Devon, south­west Eng­land, and has moved home ev­ery year. An app on her smart­phone counts down her re­main­ing days in the UK.

“My neigh­bors are con­stantly chang­ing, and it isn’t easy to make friends at school,” she said. “I didn’t have any trou­ble sleep­ing be­fore I came abroad, but liv­ing alone in a stu­dio apart­ment in a for­eign coun­try re­ally keeps me awake.”

Ev­ery time she says good­bye to her par­ents at the air­port in Bei­jing, Zhao turns on her heel and prac­ti­cally runs through the cus­toms area. “I never turn back to look at them. I just want to dis­ap­pear as quickly as pos­si­ble,” she said. “My par­ents asked why, and I said I would cry if I turned back and might even be un­able to bring my­self to leave.” 450,000 Chi­nese stu­dents were study­ing over­seas, a rise from 400,000 in 2012. Mean­while, an in­creas­ing num­ber of young peo­ple have ex­pressed an in­ter­est in study­ing abroad, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished by the Center for China & Glob­al­iza­tion. It showed a 31 per­cent rise in the num­ber of Chi­nese who trav­eled to the US to study as un­der­grad­u­ates last year. The au­thors noted that the three main chal­lenges they face are the cul­tural gap, study pres­sures and lone­li­ness.

“In the be­gin­ning, my English wasn’t good enough to un­der­stand what the teach­ers said in class, so I had to record it and lis­ten to the au­dio later,” said Zhao.

On av­er­age she needed at least four hours to un­der­stand a one­hour class, but more time was re­quired if the les­son fea­tured a test or pre­sen­ta­tion.

“It was re­ally dif­fi­cult, and the more dif­fi­cult my life be­came the more I missed home,” she said.

At age 16, Duan Xiao­tong be­gan study­ing at a high school in Fin­land. Af­ter that, she moved to the US to study chem­istry. Life over­seas has made the Chi­nese fes­ti­vals more im­por­tant and mean­ing­ful to her.

“I didn’t re­ally care about Spring Fes­ti­val be­fore. I was al­ways bored by watch­ing the New Year gala on TV, but since I left home it’s be­come the most im­por­tant event of my year.”

Now, Duan al­ways watches the gala with fel­low Chi­nese stu­dents while eat­ing tra­di­tional snacks brought from home, in­clud­ing dried bean curd and hawthorn fruit with caramel.

“The hol­i­day sea­son is fun in the US, but a fam­ily re­union is more im­por­tant, so I go home dur­ing the win­ter break ev­ery year,” she said. “Many Chi­nese teenagers liv­ing over­seas want to go home. The de­ci­sion to study in a for­eign coun­try was made by their par­ents not by them.” Com­pli­cated feel­ings

Zhang Yilin has just sent his 16-year-old son to a high school in Aus­tralia. The 45-year-old lawyer from Bei­jing said that in his day the high cost and com­pli­cated for­mal­i­ties meant over­seas study wasn’t an op­tion for reg­u­lar peo­ple.

“Now I can fi­nally af­ford to go abroad, so I want my son to have the ed­u­ca­tion and ex­pe­ri­ences I didn’t have,” he said. “Be­ing apart is not easy for ei­ther of us. As a fa­ther, the only thing I can do to make it up for that is buy him a ticket back home in the hol­i­days.”

Ac­cord­ing to the CC&G re­port, an in­creas­ing num­ber of Chi­nese stu­dents are re­turn­ing to the coun­try af­ter fin­ish­ing their ed­u­ca­tion abroad. In the past five years, 800,000 have re­turned — a twofold rise on the to­tal num­ber dur­ing the pre­vi­ous three decades — and 90 per­cent of those sur­veyed for the re­port said their fam­i­lies were the main rea­son they moved back.

“My feel­ings are com­pli­cated; on the one hand I miss my fam­ily, on the other I don’t want to waste my par­ents’ money by fly­ing back and forth,” said Li Jincheng, a 19-yearold un­der­grad­u­ate in Louisiana.

Rather than re­turn to China dur­ing this year’s win­ter break, Li chose to travel around the US. “There were very few peo­ple on the streets dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son and most of the stores were closed,” he said. “On New Year’s Eve, I ate pizza in a hos­tel by my­self.”

Many teenagers are un­suited to liv­ing on their own and may feel stressed in an un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment, es­pe­cially dur­ing the hol­i­day pe­ri­ods. They may also feel they are be­ing ne­glected, said Wu Chengyi, an ad­viser at an in­ter­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion con­sul­tancy in Bei­jing.

“Par­ents have to make sure that their chil­dren are phys­i­cally and men­tally pre­pared to live and study by them­selves be­fore send­ing them off to a strange place,” he said. “If the chil­dren can’t come home dur­ing the hol­i­days, the par­ents should pay them lots of at­ten­tion by phon­ing, writ­ing e-mails and send­ing gifts.” Con­tact the writer at pengyin­ing@ chi­nadaily.com.cn Ren Yi­tao, 18, Florida, US

Be­fore I came to the United States at the age of 14, I imag­ined that I would live in a me­trop­o­lis like New York City, be­cause my im­pres­sions of this coun­try re­volved around skyscrap­ers, busy streets and cars. But I ended up liv­ing in a town where the high­est build­ing has just seven floors.

I wanted to go home in the first week I was here, not just be­cause the place dis­ap­pointed me, but it was also very dif­fi­cult to blend in.

Al­though I had been a good stu­dent in China, my English wasn’t good enough for the classes in the be­gin­ning. The un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment was over­whelm­ing.

Any­way, I stayed and tried my best to adapt to the change. To make friends, I sat at the lunch ta­ble with some girls from my class. At first I felt em­bar­rassed be­cause I didn’t un­der­stand any­thing they said, but grad­u­ally I started to make some re­marks such as, “This is nice.”

They were very nice to me and even­tu­ally we be­came friends. We went to the home­com­ing ball to­gether. I wore a dress lent to me by one of the other girls. I did my makeup at the home of one of them, and we braided each other’s hair while talk­ing about Tay­lor Swift like any other teenage girls in the US.

Peo­ple here are very friendly. Know­ing I have dif­fi­culty blend­ing in, my teacher brought me a box of cup­cakes for my birth­day and I shared them with the class. The stu­dents sang Happy Birth­day to me and I was deeply moved by that. Liv­ing alone in a for­eign coun­try is not easy, but I am glad I have friends and the sup­port of my fam­ily. Guan Xue­fan, 19, Seat­tle, US

I came to the US in Au­gust and I didn’t find it dif­fi­cult to live on my own, be­cause I at­tended a board­ing school from age 13.

Al­though I have no prob­lem tak­ing care of my­self, I am some­times con­fused by the cul­tural dif­fer­ences. I don’t know what to say when I talk with the lo­cals.

I thought foot­ball might be a good topic, so I went to watch a game but didn’t un­der­stand why peo­ple think it’s fun. Not know­ing the rules, I thought it was just a group of men run­ning around vi­o­lently, smash­ing into one another.

When I said this to a girl I met in my dor­mi­tory, she laughed and told me that not every­body in the US is in­ter­ested in foot­ball.

I had a good talk with her. She told me that she likes movies and so we watched one to­gether. I told her about my fa­vorite Chi­nese dish, tang hu lu (hawthorne fruit with caramel). I even showed her a photo, be­cause she had never seen it.

But most of the time, I don’t feel con­fi­dent when talk­ing with the lo­cals. Maybe it’s be­cause my English isn’t good enough. Most of the peo­ple I hang out with are Chi­nese stu­dents. We are con­sid­er­ing rent­ing an apart­ment to­gether next se­mes­ter, be­cause it’s im­pos­si­ble to cook Chi­nese food in the dor­mi­tory’s pub­lic kitchen with an in­duc­tion cooker and pans. We tried once, but some other stu­dents com­plained about the smoke and noise we made.

The cam­pus is beau­ti­ful and I like the free, in­de­pen­dent at­mos­phere at the school. That’s why I chose to come to the US. How­ever, the con­nec­tion be­tween China and me is strong, and I chose Seat­tle partly be­cause it is one of the clos­est US cities to my home­town, Bei­jing.

LI MIN / CHINA DAILY

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