People whose children have left them to work and study in other regions or abroad get together to enjoy a dinner party organized by a community in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. More young Chinese are studying overseas each year. [Photo by Yi Ge/China Daily]
When retiree Ren Chunqing's daughter went to Japan to study two years ago, they communicated via video and telephone almost every day.
"I missed her very much in the first month, worrying that she couldn't adapt to the new environment, couldn't entirely understand Japanese and that the teaching method was different in foreign universities," said 51-year-old Ren, who is from Shanxi province.
Her daughter Guo Jiao left in October 2012 to study for a three-and-a-half year biology PhD at the University of Tokyo.
Ren said she only felt relieved about a month after her daughter left, when Guo reported her studies and life in Japan were going smoothly.
"My daughter is very independent and can look after herself very well — my worry was really unnecessary," Ren said.
Ren said she also felt "very alone and frustrated in the beginning".
She visited her daughter last year and stayed for about a month, but did not like Japan.
"There was the language barrier and I couldn't talk to anyone except my daughter. So most of time I stayed in her apartment, which was very boring. I had no sense of security," said Ren, whose husband, 54, is an ENT doctor.
Since her return from Japan, Ren has kept busy — finding new interests and renewed purpose in her life.
She often sings and dances with a group and studies photography at a local community college for seniors. She also travels occasionally and spends more time with her husband.
"I am busier than before. My life has become colorful," Ren said with a smile.
Ren is just one of the increasing number of "empty nest" Chinese families, in which the parents can face difficulties after their only child leaves to study overseas.
The number of Chinese students overseas reached 413,900 in 2013, an increase of 3.58 percent from the previous year, figures from the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange under the Ministry of Education showed.
The Education International Cooperation Group forecast the number of overseas students would reach 500,000 this year, which would be the seventh consecutive year of growth.
Sun Hongmo, the director of the China Center for International Educational Exchange, said the number of students who head overseas for studies at a younger age has also increased.
Last year, about 45 percent of Chinese students overseas were enrolled in master's and PhD programs in the United States, and about 40 percent were US undergraduates under the age of 18, Sun said.
Hao Meng, a consultant from the Education International Cooperation Group, said the number of students studying at elementary schools and high schools is increasing.
Because of this trend, many expect an increase in empty nest families in China as more young students head abroad.
Need to adjust
Counselors and educators suggest that many parents can feel lost and suffer psychological and emotional stress after their children go abroad.
They need to adjust to a new way of life — sometimes shifting their attention from child to spouse.
"It is inevitable that the parents feel lonely and frustrated after their children leave home, but they should learn how to make psychological adjustments, look for new interests and find happiness in daily life," said Jia Rongtao, a family education counselor and chairman of the Rongtao education group.
Jia said such parents can participate in recreational activities such as painting, calligraphy, playing the piano and singing, to enrich their lives and overcome loneliness.
"Society also needs to be more concerned about empty nest families. Communities can organize various activities and give psychological guidance and support when parents encounter emotional problems."
Zhang Jing, 27, has been studying in Hong Kong part time for a master's degree. She also works at a local research institution. This is the fourth year she has been away from her hometown in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province.
Zhang phones her parents every day and asks for advice when she faces difficulties.
"I think Hong Kong is a city full of opportunities and I will continue to work in the region," Zhang said.
"I want to stay together with my parents and have them live in Hong Kong as they become older, but I need to consider economic factors. I sometimes blame myself for not being able to be with them."
Zhang's mother, surnamed Liu, 54, works as a pharmacist in a hospital in Taiyuan. She told China Daily she was "very proud" when her daughter went to Hong Kong to study, but the longer her daughter stayed there, the more lonely she felt. Liu's husband, 53, is a businessman.
"I feel very rejuvenated when she comes back for vacation. I am willing to cook different kinds of food for her but, when she returns to Hong Kong, I have no interest in cooking and eat randomly. Life seems to be lacking something for me."
Liu goes to Hong Kong almost twice a year to see her daughter. She insists that she will support her daughter's choice "to develop her career and life in Hong Kong, and hope she can work happily and realize her dream".
Respect and support
Xu Yan, a professor from the school of psychology at Beijing Normal University, told China Daily that parents should care for their children "moderately" and not interfere with their personal lives.
"Their excessive concerns and worries might affect their children, overburden their children and even make them feel disgusted. This can affect the healthy development of the children," Xu said.
Xu said parents should not let children with low self-control go abroad because they may go astray and lose themselves when faced with temptations in foreign places.
"Furthermore, the parents should shift their attention to themselves and their spouse. Before their children go abroad, the whole attention of a family is often focused on the children. But the parents need to make a change, spend more time interacting with their spouse and care more about each other, to fill the vacuum of feelings when their children leave home."
Xu suggested that such parents respect and support their children's choice, giving suggestions and ideas if necessary, to let the children grow independently.
But there are also parents who are not affected by their children's absence.
A businesswoman surnamed Tao in Langfang, Hebei province, sent her 22-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son to Canada last year. She does not worry about them at all.
"It is a good opportunity for them to practice their different abilities. Studying abroad is their choice. I don't force them to do anything," said Tao, whose husband is a businessman.
She said her daughter often misses home and returns home at holidays.
"Their living environment in Canada is also safe. My life is almost as normal as before and I am busy with my work."