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
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.