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2016-11-22 04:12:30 Commentary

Recently, the TV drama “A Love for Separation” provoked  widespread discussion on Chinese social media. The show depicts the struggles of three children from different socio-economic backgrounds as their families prepare to send them off to private high schools in the U.S.

“A Love for Separation” first raised issues back in September about educational equality and social stratification in contemporary China. According to data I requested from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, between 2005 and 2015 the number of Chinese students attending American secondary schools grew dramatically, from 637 to over 46,000. Last year, Chinese accounted for half of all international students in the U.S. secondary education system; in 2005, they accounted for just 2.3 percent.

The marked increase in enrollment is tied to the growing wealth of mainland China’s upper-middle class. A similar trend was observed in the mid-1990s among affluent South Koreans, Taiwanese, and Hong Kongers. People from these places accumulated wealth earlier than mainland Chinese and displayed it by investing heavily in their children’s education. Today, as U.S. visa policy prevents foreign students from studying in American public schools for more than one year, the majority of Chinese students seeking high school diplomas tend to go private.

On average, Chinese parents spend more than $50,000 annually in tuition fees for independent high schools. They also foot the bill for educational consultants, campus visits, and flights between China and the U.S. during school breaks. However, although parents are willing to part with these vast sums of money, the question of whether it is all worth it remains inadequately analyzed.

This summer, as part of my research, I interviewed Chinese parents whose children currently study in the U.S. One common theme that emerged from their answers was the idea of escaping the test-oriented education system in China. One Shanghai-based father of a 16-year-old girl expressed his admiration for the American emphasis on critical thinking: “I know how exactly my daughter would have been educated in China, where every exam question has a single black-and-white answer. I don’t like it.”

Many parents are determined to spend big on a foreign education for their children. Students, meanwhile, worry about their ability to socially integrate.

The father went on to say that he wanted his daughter to be free from the stress brought on by studying long hours for the gaokao. Indeed, avoiding the high-stakes Chinese college entrance exam is another strong influence on Chinese parents who send their kids to be educated abroad.

However, life at a private American high school is hardly a walk in the park. For those who manage to gain acceptance to top prep schools in the U.S., the reality of being surrounded by exceptionally talented peers can prove every bit as stressful as the gaokao. As the mother of one such student told me: “It is a common misunderstanding that studying in a private American high school is easier than school in China. My son is under enormous pressure to compete with accomplished peers. He was very lonely during his first year of high school, and found it hard to assimilate into an unfamiliar environment.”

This woman’s son is by no means an exception. Those who stay with host families and attend day schools are likely to struggle with linguistic and cultural barriers that can be difficult to surmount. Similarly, those who attend boarding schools need time and support to adjust to American high school culture — for instance, speaking up in the classroom, learning how American teenagers act, and participating fully in extracurricular activities.

Some students I spoke with said they thoroughly enjoyed American educational culture and had rapidly developed strong academic and social skills. Others, however, displayed a preference for interacting with their fellow Chinese students and had little communication with their American teachers and peers. In essence, while some children benefitted tremendously from being sent abroad, others suffered from emotional and psychological deprivation.

The same issues troubled the three families in “A Love for Separation.” Not all parents have a clear vision of the disparities between American and Chinese secondary education. Many, however, are nonetheless determined to spend big on a foreign education for their children. Students, meanwhile, worry about their ability to socially integrate.

Parental anxiety was clear throughout my interviews. Although those with the means to pay American private school fees are a privileged social group in contemporary China, they often fret that investing huge sums in an unknown foreign educational system is the only way to ensure that their children can continue to enjoy the wealthy lifestyles they enjoy at present.

The enrollment of large numbers of Chinese students in private American high schools is a relatively new phenomenon. As such, it will take time before the pros and cons of sending them abroad become clear. Certainly, some of these students will have the opportunity to join China’s business and political elite. Many will reach full fluency in both English and Mandarin, and gain a level of biculturalism allowing them to flit effortlessly between the world’s two great superpowers.

However, others may come to resent their parents for not being around to offer support during their formative years. For these children, their high school experiences may morph into a kind of emotional trauma that accompanies them well into adulthood. If “A Love for Separation” has taught us anything, it is that parents and children must discuss these decisions thoroughly, and avoid rash decisions that result in physical — and potentially emotional — separation.

(Header image: Chinese students Tony Lu (Left) and Henry Li connect with people in China via their internet devices at their host family’s home in Murrieta, California, U.S., March 23, 2016. VCG)