Away alone in America: Unsupervised Chinese teens fall off the fast track

LOS ANGELES–Among young Chinese nothing inspires fear more than the gaokao, an unforgiving two-day test that literally determines how a student probably will spend the rest of his or her life.

Chinese 'parachute kids" can lose their way after hitting ground in US.

Chinese “parachute kids” can lose their way after hitting ground in US.

Spread over 10 agonizing hours, the exam is more a test of will than intelligence. Those who do well are invited to universities that educate the children of communist party officials (guan er dai) and determine who will be fast tracked for executive positions at state enterprises. There is no consolation prize for failure.

For affluent parents with academically challenged children, there is one way around the gaokao:  send their teenagers to school in the US. An entire industry has evolved over the past three years to help the fuerdai – a term for the children of China’s new wealthy class — obtain student visas, local sponsors and admission to college preparatory schools.

Not even wealth, however, can guarantee a smooth transition for “parachute kids” dropped into a strange country without parental supervision. Some of the American sponsors who in theory are supposed to function as surrogate parents providing room, board and transportation often turn out to be Mexican American families with limited English.

Several of the schools where Chinese scholars study and try to learn English lack facilities normally associated with expensive private schools. Both the Stanford High School in Hacienda Heights and the Oxford School in Rowland Heights northeast of Los Angeles consist of temporary structures and offer many of their courses only online despite charging tuitions around $13,000.

“A student who comes here, learns English and graduates from a University of California campus can return home to China and compete for the top jobs,” explains Guangren Bao, a Los Angeles writer from Anhui Province who graduated from the University of Southern California. “But teenagers with too much money and freedom can get into trouble if they’re not careful.”

‘Lord of the Flies’ incident 

Certainly that was the case last year when a gang of parachute kids with fashion model good looks took an 18-year old Chinese companion to a Los Angeles area ice cream parlor, stripped her naked, kicked her with high-heeled shoes and then burned her with cigarettes.

At the preliminary hearing for the teens, who were charged with torture, kidnapping and assault, the presiding judge said the case reminded him of “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s 1954 novel about boys stranded on a deserted island without grownups.

Chinese teens sentenced in kidnapping and assault of fellow 'parachute kid.'

Chinese teens sentenced in kidnapping and assault of fellow “parachute kid.”

Last week, three Chinese teenagers were sentenced to a total of 29 years in prison. Accused of being the gang’s ringleader by her co-defendants, Yunyao Zhai, 19, blamed her behavior on America’s culture of materialism and begged for her parents’ forgiveness. “They sent me to the US for a better life and a fuller education,” Zhai said before being led away. “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.”

Accredited high schools issuing diplomas must offer a required number of math, science, literature and language courses depending on the state where they are located. But the monitoring of private academies favored by Chinese is minimal and unlikely to change since there is no desire at any level of government to hinder the number of foreign students coming to the US to study. There are almost one million foreign students studying in the US and in 2015 they contributed $30.5 billion to the US economy. Only this year was the University of California Board of Regents forced under pressure from California parents to cap the number of out-of-state and international students at UCLA and Berkeley at their current level of 30%.

Chinese families seeking an alternative to an overcrowded and unforgiving Chinese educational system should look to America’s affordable community colleges. Two-year institutions that provide a transition between high school and major research universities, community colleges have real appeal for low income or under performing Chinese, who typically enroll at age 18. In 2007, just 2,500 Chinese were enrolled at US community colleges. Today, more than 16,200, or 13% of all Chinese undergraduates in the US, are studying at community colleges.

In China, a huge industry of intermediary agencies guarantees acceptance for a few thousand dollars to these smaller colleges at serve as an affordable step to a degree from a four-year university.

To UCLA via community colleges

UCLA campus

UCLA campus

The community college backdoor into many of America’s most prestigious universities results from affirmative action policies that mandate preferential admission of minority students to four-year universities. Unfortunately, many disadvantaged students are unprepared to make the leap and end up leaving school or transferring to a less academically rigorous school. The resulting vacancies are filled with community college graduates who have had two years to adjust to America in a school with less pressure.

Community colleges in Pasadena and Santa Monica are the leading feeder schools for UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. The tuition at both schools is around $8,000 – less that half of what is required at a UC campus – but all the course credits count toward a UC degree.

“It used to be that all Chinese kids wanted to go to Harvard, but now there are Chinese at every level and type of US college and university,” says Peggy Blumenthal, a senior advisor at the Institute for International Education. By waiting longer to come to the US and enrolling in less stressful colleges when they do, more Chinese than ever before are earning degrees at allow them to return home and compete for many of China’s top jobs.

Asia Times contributor David DeVoss lives in Los Angeles where he manages the East-West News Service (www.eastwestnewsservice.com)

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