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West may be best for nation's teenagers

By Chang Jun (China Daily) Updated: 2016-10-05 07:45

Emily Chen's experiences at a private boarding school in the United States have had nothing but positive results. It has been the opposite for some other young Chinese children attending US middle schools, spurring negative headlines and creating a stereotype of "rich, idle and reckless", Chang Jun reports in San Francisco.

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

It turned out to be a decision that the parents and child could not be happier about. This past spring, after attending the Grier School in central Pennsylvania as an international boarding student, Emily was accepted at the University of California, Davis, and Penn State University.

"I used to hate school and homework in China," said Emily, adding 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."

Her father, a physician and renowned expert in late-stage cancer research and treatment in China, said investing in Emily's education yields ample rewards. "I'm not positive that she would have been admitted to the same US universities if she received her education in China," he said.

Although China has started gradually transforming its education system, its framework and foundational concepts are often criticized as being narrowly focused on students' academic performance instead of developing character and leadership. Schools are rated by enrollment percentage and students' scores, parents send children to after-school enrichment programs, and heavy homework and work sheet loads devour time for extracurricular activities.

'Nightmarish years'

"I still can't forget the nightmarish years when we had to shuffle Emily back and forth between school and after-school training institutions," Chen said. "My wife kept pushing Emily to study harder and would lose her temper at her progress. None of us were happy."

When Emily decided to attend middle school in the US and in 2013 enrolled at Grier in Birmingham, the family breathed a sigh of relief. Different teaching methods, different learning approaches and expectations from the school have made Emily 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, the number of Chinese K-12 students soared to 34,578 this year, almost half of international students attending US high schools and primary schools.

In 2010, 8,857 Chinese students attended USK-12 schools, according to the Student Exchange and Visitor Program.

Eva Liu, a Silicon Valley marketing professional, and several of her entrepreneurial friends designed a website- app that helps Chinese parents locate the best public and private K-12 schools in theUnited States.

"We feel that sending young children to US boarding schools will continue," Liu said. "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."

Chinese students at Grier are almost half of the about 300 enrolled at the private boarding and day school. The school's administration setup 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 US middle schools have become common 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 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 new Mercedes-Benz C350 with four other students back home after grocery shopping. Xu neglected a stop sign and broad-sided a car, killing the other driver and injuring four people. Xu's mother posted a $ 2 million bail to get her son released from jail. Prosecutors worried that the foreign student would jump bail but he was nonetheless released. Xu was deported in 2014 and 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 Chinese students in a Southern California private school were sentenced to years in prison after being convicted of kidnapping and assaulting two Chinese classmates. Yunyao "Helen" Zhai was sentenced to 13 years; Yuhan "Coco" Yang got 10 years; and Xinlei "John" Zhang got six years. Zhai, the ringleader, 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.

'Wake-up call'

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

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas C. Falls said at an earlier hearing 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 savage enough to kill each other.

"This is a wake-up 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 ask themselves whether their children are ready to live in a foreign country and assimilate to an unfamiliar culture without supervision and hands-on guidance?

Big decision

Xie Gang, a school psychologist at 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."

Most 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.

Difficult adaptation

Chinese students are asked to speak only English on campus, and they share a room with US students. "I struggled to initiate a conversation with my roommate Jackie at the very beginning," Emily Chen said.

Subject learning at the beginning is also challenging. "I couldn't follow the teacher's instruction."

Herald and his wife would make international phone calls to Emily's cellphone on Friday night.

"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," Chen said.

Food is another headache. Emily usually strolled 10 minutes around the school food court, which is full of US 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," Emily said.

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 wheat 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," Emily said.

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. US 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.

Ling Guo is a stay-at-home mother and hosts four Chinese international students at her two-story, four-bedroom 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," Guo said. "I called them to set up an interview and field check then they sent me these four Chinese kids."

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 hard-earned. Cherish it!"

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, Lin said. "Each time I open the doors to their rooms, it's like a scene after a tornado touched down."

Lin said 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.

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 Liu, the marketing professional.

Luo Ping, a 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 native peers about language and culture. A Chinese-speaking host family won't help a lot in this regard," she said.

For Emily Chen and her Chinese girl classmates, their US 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," Emily said. "Now I'm ready for my college years."

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 West may be best for nation's teenagers

The 20th China International Educational Exhibition Tour is held in Beijing in Mach last year. Parents and children who want to study overseas meet face to face with the staff. A Qing / For China Daily


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