Where have all the flowers gone?
"Our country is a big garden and the children are happy in the garden, like the flowers." The lyric of this Chinese children's song has entertained generations of children. They are taught that their country is a perfect greenhouse for them to grow up in.
Maybe some of the children will go abroad, but according to a traditional understanding, the time for living in another country will not come until they become adults. In other words, going abroad is not part of life for most children, especially for those who haven't yet finished their high school or even college education.
Lure of abroad
But the tide has turned in recent years. According to a survey conducted by the Social Survey Institution of China (SSIC) in 2002, 72 percent of parents living in major Chinese cities will not send their children to foreign countries until they are old enough. These parents think "old enough" means that the children should have finished their high school education, at least. Yet by last year, the figure had changed drastically: According to a survey conducted by Market-Expert Co Ltd in Shanghai, 45.2 percent were now considering sending their children abroad. Among these children, 47.4 percent were junior high school students, while the senior high school students accounted for 42.9 percent. Obviously, going abroad and learning abroad have become a far more popular option for Chinese children.
Traditionally, Chinese have always been proud of the basic education provided for children. The nine-year compulsory education system works well in most areas of China. Chinese students who carry on to pursue masters or doctoral degrees abroad were often better equipped than students from other countries due to the educational foundations laid in China. So most parents thought the advantage of studying abroad were mostly to be found in the area of higher education, teaching advanced technologies and knowledge that domestic students can't easily acquire.
Such ideas have a long history and profound cultural background. Before the modern period, when China was still a feudal society, Chinese didn't think that they had any need to learn from other countries or other cultures. All Chinese needed to do was to spread the "civilized" Chinese culture to other countries.
When China entered the modern era, however, the country was faced with the superior scientific technologies of Western cultures. Though Chinese were impressed by the technologies that created and supported powerful warships and cannon, they still believed that China should rely on its basic education and its own cultural traditions. The modern scientific technologies from the West were seen as mere "tools" while Chinese should still stick to their own "soul" wherever possible -- traditional education that put little emphasis on natural sciences.
Although in 1872, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had sponsored the first group of children to go to US to receive a Western education, the keynote was still the same: To learn nothing but modern scientific technologies.
After 1949, the introversion of China continued to persist. Yet ever more Chinese began to accept that Western culture was not confined to advanced natural science. With the flourishing of economic development, developed countries become the idols of developing countries, at least in regards to economic matters. The developing countries began to copy and re-create aspects of the developed countries' economies.
Setting up educational systems that raise suitable personnel for such economic development was also put on the agenda of developing countries, especially China.
Globalization has also played an important role in the rising number of Chinese children heading abroad. Globalization is a by-product of the development modern economy. Because increasing numbers of multinational corporations have built up their branches in China, especially in Shanghai, the economic center of China, hiring local staff became an important strategic task. In a general sense, those who have received some Western education are more suited to such positions than those who know little about how a Western corporation works.
Language has become another deciding factor: It can scarcely be imagined that in the overseas branch of multinational corporation, the staff will only be able to speak their mother tongue.
On the other hand, in a fast developing society, greater life pressure on youngsters becomes inevitable. Most parents in Shanghai would like their children to work in top corporations and earn good salaries, because, as the economic center of China, Shanghai offers the most opportunities and challenges to its youngsters. Understanding the way these top corporations work and mastering foreign languages as early as possible definitely brings advantages when looking for good careers. Learning abroad becomes an effective way to fulfill these requirements.
The current education system in China also helps to drive more and younger children abroad. Because of tough admission tests to colleges, a lot of children find themselves blocked from the Chinese higher educational institutions they would prefer. Because it could be difficult for them to find a good job without a bachelor's degree in Shanghai, many parents think that sending their children abroad and letting them take the relatively easier admission tests for overseas colleges offers a solution for those children who might struggle with the domestic admissions test.
With an increasing number of children going abroad to study, social problems have also arisen. Because they lack self-control and independence, many children indulge themselves in vices that are more tightly restricted in China, such as taking drugs or engaging in pre-marital sex. Cases in which children have bankrupted their parents through their extravagance abroad can easily be found.
There is also a shortage of agencies arranging for children to go abroad. According to a survey conducted by the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission in 2003, the number of legal and registered agencies only amounts to 14. Compared with the increasing number of children who plan to go abroad, this figure is clearly far too limited. The deep effects of this tide merits careful attention. Because youngsters are the future mainstream of society, and because they will become the inheritors of China's cultural traditions, it would be painful to imagine that they were succumbing to thorough Westernization and totally abandoning their native traditions.
Globalization has met a certain resistance in some countries because of what
is seen as its destructive effects upon different cultural traditions, but in
China, this aspect of the phenomenon has not received much attention. From this
point of view, keeping the balance between foreign cultures and Chinese
traditional culture demands that the wider consequences of China's swelling
educational exodus be carefully and promptly addressed.