West is best for some Chi­nese stu­dents

Emily Chen’s ex­pe­ri­ences at a pri­vate board­ing school in the US have had noth­ing but pos­i­tive re­sults. It has been the op­po­site for some other young Chi­nese chil­dren at­tend­ing Amer­i­can middle schools, spurring neg­a­tive head­lines and cre­at­ing a stereo­type

China Daily (Canada) - - DEPTH -

When three years ago Her­ald Chen de­cided to send his only daugh­ter Emily to the United States for high school, he was hope­ful that his 15-year-old could re­gain en­thu­si­asm for learn­ing and be happy.

It turned out to be a de­ci­sion that both par­ents and child could not be hap­pier about. Af­ter at­tend­ing the Grier School in cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia as an in­ter­na­tional board­ing stu­dent, Emily this spring has re­ceived ac­cep­tances to two col­leges, the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis and Penn State Univer­sity.

“I used to hate school and home­work in China,” said Emily, who added that she didn’t get much at­ten­tion from teach­ers be­cause she strug­gled in class. “But here at Grier I have all th­ese fond mem­o­ries about learn­ing and mo­ti­va­tion and have ben­e­fited much from in­ter­act­ing with peers from all over the world.”

A physi­cian and renowned ex­pert in late-stage can­cer re­search and treat­ment in China, Chen said in­vest­ing in his daugh­ter’s education yields am­ple re­wards. “I’m not pos­i­tive that she could be ad­mit­ted to the same Amer­i­can univer­si­ties if re­ceiv­ing education in China,” he said. “She sim­ply did not have a chance to pass the col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion.”

Al­though China in re­cent years started grad­u­ally trans­form­ing its education sys­tem, its frame­work and foun­da­tional con­cepts are of­ten crit­i­cized as be­ing nar­rowly fo­cused on stu­dents’ aca­demic per­for­mance in­stead of whole­some char­ac­ter-build­ing and lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment. Schools are rated by en­roll­ment per­cent­age and stu­dents’ scores, clus­ters of par­ents send chil­dren to af­ter­school en­rich­ment pro­grams, and heavy loads of home­work and work­sheet de­vour ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.

‘Night­mare-like year’

“I still can’t for­get the night­mare­like years when we had to shuf­fle Emily back and forth be­tween school and af­ter­school train­ing in­sti­tu­tions,” said Chen. “My wife kept push­ing Emily to study harder and would lose her tem­per at her progress. None of us was happy.”

When Emily de­cided to at­tend middle school in the US and in 2013 en­rolled at Grier in Birm­ing­ham, about 250 miles west of Philadel­phia, the en­tire fam­ily breathed a sigh of re­lief. Dif­fer­ent teach­ing meth­ods, dif­fer­ent learn­ing ap­proaches and ex­pec­ta­tions from the school have prompted Emily to be in­de­pen­dent and self-ad­vo­cat­ing.

“My ex­pe­ri­ences at the school led me to take leaps of faith in my­self and en­cour­age me to be­lieve I could make great things hap­pen,” Emily said.

The Chen fam­ily story is not an ex­cep­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the US Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity (DHS), the num­ber of Chi­nese K-12 stu­dents soared to 34,578 this year and ac­counts for al­most half of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents at­tend­ing Amer­i­can high schools and pri­mary schools. The youngest, as in­di­cated in records, is only 10.

In 2010, there were 8,857 Chi­nese stu­dents at­tend­ing US K-12 schools, ac­cord­ing to data col­lected by the Stu­dent Ex­change and Vis­i­tor Pro­gram (SEVP).

Eva Liu, a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional in Sil­i­con Val­ley, along with sev­eral of her en­tre­pre­neur­ial friends, de­signed a web­site http://wai­jule. com/ and app that helps Chi­nese par­ents lo­cate the best pub­lic and pri­vate K-12 schools in the United States.

“We feel that send­ing young chil­dren to Amer­i­can board­ing schools will con­tinue,” said Liu. “The in­crease shows no sign of abat­ing in the near fu­ture due to the sheer size of China’s pop­u­la­tion and the rise of a wealthy class buoyed by years of eco­nomic growth.”

Af­ter reg­u­larly an­swer­ing in­quiries from China about good schools, homes lo­cated in good school dis­tricts, and other re­sources in the US, Liu launched her web­site and app, which fo­cus on high-qual­ity K-12 school sys­tems and ser­vices.

“They are gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity among par­ents of in­ter­est,” said Liu. “Chi­nese par­ents un­der­stand what val­ues the Amer­i­can education will gen­er­ate, and they are get­ting it.”

For ex­am­ple, some Chi­nese fam­i­lies will buy houses in up­scale towns with strong pub­lic schools.

“Our web­site col­lects all this in­for­ma­tion for Chi­nese fam­i­lies,” said Liu, adding that her clients are mostly af­flu­ent Chi­nese with only one child.

At Grier, Chen and other Chi­nese stu­dents make up al­most half the pop­u­la­tion of about 300 at the pri­vate board­ing and day school. The school’s ad­min­is­tra­tion set up a pub­lic­ity of­fice in China sev­eral years ago to wel­come Chi­nese stu­dents to off­set de­clin­ing do­mes­tic en­roll­ment and fund­ing.

“Fifty thou­sand dol­lars a year in­clud­ing tu­ition and board­ing fees is not a small num­ber,” Emily said. “I un­der­stand my par­ents pin high hopes on me.”

Young trou­ble­mak­ers

Young Chi­nese chil­dren at­tend­ing Amer­i­can middle schools have be­come a com­mon scene across the na­tion, and the nick­name “para­chute kids” has been given to the spe­cial group by the US me­dia and pub­lic.

In re­cent years, some of them had made a lot of neg­a­tive head­lines, cre­at­ing a stereo­type of “rich, idle and reck­less Chi­nese teenagers”.

In Novem­ber 2012, 19-year-old Xu Yichun study­ing at the South Puget Sound Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Seat­tle, was driv­ing his newly pur­chased Mercedes-Benz C350 with four other stu­dents on their way back to the apart­ment from gro­cery shop­ping. Xu did not stop at a stop sign and broad­sided a car driv­ing to­wards him, caus­ing the death of the other driver and in­juries to four lo­cal res­i­dents. Xu’s mother af­ter­wards posted a $2 mil­lion bail to get her son re­leased. Pros­e­cu­tors were wor­ried that the for­eign stu­dent would jump bail but none­the­less al­lowed the re­lease. Xu was de­ported in 2014 and is barred from re­turn­ing to the US for 10 years, ac­cord­ing to Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment of­fi­cials in Seat­tle.

On Feb 17, three 19-year-old stu­dents from China who had been study­ing at a pri­vate school in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia were sen­tenced to mul­ti­ple years in prison af­ter be­ing con­victed of kid­nap­ping and as­sault­ing two Chi­nese class­mates last March. Yun­yao “He­len” Zhai was sen­tenced to 13 years; Yuhan “Coco” Yang got 10 years; and Xin­lei “John” Zhang got six years. Zhai, the rin­gleader in the case, apol­o­gized for her ac­tions in a let­ter read to the court. “I hope they (the vic­tims) do not carry the wounds from what I did for the rest of their lives,” she wrote.

‘Wakeup call’

The three were charged with as­sault­ing an 18-year-old class­mate by kid­nap­ping her and tak­ing her to a park where she was stripped, beaten, punched, kicked, spat on, burned with cig­a­rettes and forced to eat her own hair dur­ing a five­hour as­sault.

Los An­ge­les County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Thomas C. Falls said at an ear­lier hear­ing in the case that it re­minded him of Lord of the Flies, Wil­liam Gold­ing’s 1954 novel about boys stranded on a de­serted is­land with­out adult su­per­vi­sion who be­come blood­thirsty and sav­age enough to kill each other.

“This is a wakeup call for the ‘para­chute kid syn­drome,’” said Yuhan Yang, in a state­ment read to the court by her at­tor­ney. “Par­ents in China are well-mean­ing and send their kids thou­sands of miles away with no su­per­vi­sion and too much free­dom. That is a for­mula for disas­ter.”

The case has at­tracted wide­spread at­ten­tion in China, height­en­ing con­cerns among par­ents with chil­dren study­ing abroad. Some ob­servers blame the bad news on the chil­dren’s psy­cho­log­i­cal im­ma­tu­rity, their ig­no­rance of lo­cal laws and codes of con­duct or their in­grained way­ward­ness and dis­re­spect for par­ents and teach­ers.

What­ever the root cause, mem­bers of this group of Chi­nese in­ter­na­tional stu­dents have been be­hind too many tragedies.

As send­ing young chil­dren to the US for school be­comes more and more fash­ion­able in China, wealthy par­ents should think care­fully about one ques­tion be­fore they rush to fol­low the fad: Is your child re­ally ready to live in a for­eign coun­try and as­sim­i­late to a com­pletely un­fa­mil­iar cul­ture with­out proper su­per­vi­sion and hands-on guid­ance?

In her state­ment, Zhai said liv­ing so far from her par­ents af­fected her in many ways. “They sent me to the US for a bet­ter life and a fuller education,” she said. “Along with that came a lot of free­dom, in fact too much free­dom. Here, I be­came lonely and lost. I didn’t tell my par­ents be­cause I didn’t want them to worry about me.”

“I’m sure they suf­fer lone­li­ness,” Ray­ford Foun­tain, Yang’s at­tor­ney, said of para­chute chil­dren. “So they bond with other kids in the small Chi­nese cir­cles with no su­per­vi­sion, no one to turn to for as­sis­tance. So th­ese things can get out of con­trol.”

Xin­lei “John” Zhang’s father said he deeply re­gret­ted send­ing his son to the US at such an early age. “This was a wrong de­ci­sion we made sev­eral years ago and now it’s a tragedy for the whole fam­ily,” he said, adding that he had spent $400,000 on le­gal fees and travel back and forth for hear­ings. “Chi­nese par­ents who want to send their young chil­dren abroad should learn a les­son from our case,” he told the me­dia on Feb 17.

Big de­ci­sion

Xie Gang, a school psy­chol­o­gist with the Fre­mont Uni­fied School District, said the fam­ily de­ci­sion to send a teenager across the Pa­cific Ocean to the US is huge. “It takes the ef­forts of the fam­ily, par­ents, child, and other in­di­vid­u­als in­volved to help make this tran­si­tion as smooth as pos­si­ble. Re­mem­ber, ado­les­cence is a syn­onym of ver­sa­tile and vul­ner­a­ble.”

The ma­jor­ity of th­ese para­chute teens are alone, their par­ents re­main back in China mostly be­cause they still need to work to sup­port the fam­ily.

As for lodg­ing, para­chute chil­dren ei­ther go to board­ing schools or live with host fam­i­lies. Ei­ther way, they need to make an ef­fort to adapt to a for­eign cul­ture and sur­round­ings on their own.

At Grier, Emily Chen and her Chi­nese class­mates stay at the school dor­mi­to­ries, a stan­dard room with two beds and one bath­room.

“We want our Chi­nese in­ter­na­tional stu­dents to as­sim­i­late to the lo­cal cul­ture and English lan­guage quickly by walk­ing out of their com­fort zones,’’ said the school prin­ci­ple on ori­en­ta­tion night in Septem­ber 2013. Smart phones are not al­lowed in class­rooms in case Chi­nese stu­dents might use them for in­stant mes­sag­ing and chat­ting with friends at home.

Dif­fi­cult adap­ta­tion

Chi­nese stu­dents are asked to speak only English on cam­pus, and they share a room with Amer­i­can stu­dents. “I strug­gled to ini­ti­ate a con­ver­sa­tion with my room­mate Jackie at the very be­gin­ning,” said Emily Chen. “Lone­li­ness was my first im­pres­sion.”

Sub­ject learn­ing at the be­gin­ning is also chal­leng­ing. “I couldn’t fol­low the teacher’s in­struc­tion and had no clue about the al­ge­bra and math­e­mat­i­cal jar­gons they are us­ing,” said Emily. “So I used a tape recorder and lis­tened sev­eral times to make sure I un­der­stood.”

Her­ald and his wife would make in­ter­na­tional phone calls to Emily’s cell phone on Fri­day night, when the school loos­ened its pol­icy and granted fam­ily time. “My wife would start sob­bing and my daugh­ter would cry also,” Chen re­called. “I re­mem­bered at least two to three times I told my daugh­ter to come back if she re­ally felt sad. She was only 15 and still a kid.”

Food is an­other headache. Emily usu­ally strolled 10 min­utes around the school food court, which is full of Amer­i­can salad, burg­ers, pizza and cold drinks, and ended up with a cup of noo­dles. “Stir fry and hot dishes are what I’m so used to. But at Grier, the mix­ture of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion does not bring in a nice of­fer­ing of Chi­nese food,” said Emily.

For­tu­nately, the in­flux of Chi­nese stu­dents has boosted the growth of culi­nary busi­nesses in the neigh­bor­ing Birm­ing­ham area. Chi­nese cui­sine shops fea­tur­ing Sichuan spicy food and Shan­dong wheaten prod­ucts draw reg­u­lar pa­trons from board­ing schools like Grier.

“We all so look for­ward to week­ends so we can take a taxi to Chi­na­town and have a treat for our Chi­nese stom­achs and taste buds,” said Emily. “Af­ter one se­mes­ter, we all felt more com­fort­able with the new en­vi­ron­ment, and home­sick­ness was not an is­sue any longer.”

Liv­ing with host fam­i­lies

Many over­seas Chi­nese stu­dents live with host fam­i­lies and at­tend pri­vate schools like the Fre­mont Chris­tian School in East Bay, Cal­i­for­nia. Amer­i­can im­mi­gra­tion law gives Chi­nese fam­i­lies lit­tle choice: In­ter­na­tional stu­dents can only at­tend pub­lic schools for one year and must re­im­burse the school district.

Cal­i­for­nia is a top desti­na­tion for th­ese stu­dents due to its close­ness to China and its long his­tory of adopt­ing Chi­nese im­mi­grants and cul­tural in­flu­ence.

Ling Guo is a stay-at-home mother and hosts four Chi­nese in­ter­na­tional stu­dents at her two-story, fourbed­room sin­gle fam­ily home in the Fre­mont, Bay area. By con­tract, her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­clude shuf­fling the four back and forth be­tween school and home, as well as pro­vid­ing three meals a day.

Guo ar­ranges for two stu­dents to share one room, and charges $1,000 monthly for each. “I saw an ad from a lo­cal agency hir­ing host fam­i­lies,” said Guo. “I called them to set up an in­ter­view and field check then they sent me th­ese four Chi­nese kids.”

All at­tend­ing a lo­cal Chris­tian school for their ju­nior years, the four stu­dents come from dif­fer­ent parts of China with var­i­ous fam­ily back­grounds. “Three of them are hard­work­ing kids, and the other one only likes play­ing video games and on­line shop­ping,” said Guo.

Guo said a host fam­ily in a way acts as the guardians of the Chi­nese stu­dents. “I al­ways tell them to go to work if I see them wast­ing their time. But they don’t like the ex­tra su­per­vi­sion other than what they get from school and their par­ents,” Guo com­plained. “I tell them your par­ents’ money is hard­earned. Cher­ish it!”

We feel that send­ing young chil­dren to Amer­i­can board­ing schools will con­tinue. The in­crease shows no sign of abat­ing in the near fu­ture due to the sheer size of China’s pop­u­la­tion and the rise of a wealthy class buoyed by years of eco­nomic growth.”

Liv­ing habits

Other host fam­i­lies have is­sues with the liv­ing habits of the Chi­nese teens. “Most of them are self-cen­tered and don’t know to care about other peo­ple,” said Mag­gie Lin, who has been host­ing in­ter­na­tional stu­dents for more than six years in San Fran­cisco.

Many chil­dren like to stay up late and still take show­ers even if it’s al­ready mid­night, said Lin. “Each time I open the doors to their rooms, it’s like a scene af­ter a tor­nado touched down.”

Lin no­ticed most of the Chi­nese teens are ad­dicted to the vir­tual cy­ber world and show no in­ter­est in face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “With the ma­jor­ity of them be­ing the only child of the fam­ily, they are spoiled in many ways,” said Lin, adding lack of sym­pa­thy and pas­sion are the most wor­ri­some fea­tures of para­chute kids.

In Penin­su­lar and South Bay cities such as Moun­tain View and Palo Alto where schools are more pres­ti­gious, the cost for liv­ing with a host fam­ily soars. “A stu­dent needs to pay at least $24,000 a year for a sin­gle room in Los Al­tos,” said Ivy Liu, the mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional.

Luo Ping, a lo­cal res­i­dent and a mother of two young boys, said she could not un­der­stand why Chi­nese par­ents send their chil­dren to live with host fam­i­lies. “Chil­dren need to learn from peer na­tives about lan­guage and cul­ture. A Chi­ne­ses­peak­ing host fam­ily won’t help a lot in this re­gard,” she said.

For Emily Chen and her Chi­nese girl class­mates, their Amer­i­can ad­ven­ture started as a rough voy­age, and has turned out to be a fruit­ful ad­ven­ture. “I’m more cre­ative and in­de­pen­dent af­ter three years of study­ing in the US,” said Emily. “Now I’m ready for my col­lege years.”

Con­tact the writer at junechang@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com.


Emily Chen (se­cond from left), an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent from China at­tend­ing the Grier School in cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia, par­tic­i­pates in a vol­un­teers group with her class­mates on Thanks­giv­ing in 2015 serv­ing food for the home­less in neigh­bor­ing ar­eas.


Chi­nese stu­dents take year­book pho­tos with their teach­ers and Amer­i­can class­mates on the cam­pus of Grier School this year. Stu­dents from China have made up half of the school’s 300 stu­dent pop­u­la­tion in re­cent years.

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