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.
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.