This article is part of a new column on cross-border migration and travel.
The summer Zhang Lingli turned 14, she left her family in the southern city of Guangzhou behind and began a new life at a private high school in Virginia.
It didn’t go according to plan. Zhang — to protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms — quickly found that making friends with Americans was not as easy as she’d hoped, and that she had no interest in the parties or American football games enjoyed by her classmates. The scope of her social life soon shrunk to the classroom, dorm, and canteen, broken up by the occasional jailbreak-like trip with her Chinese friends to New York City for bubble tea and manicures.
From 2005 to 2015, the number of Chinese teens attending American high schools soared, from 637 to over 46,000 a year. In the United States, they’re sometimes referred to as “parachute kids,” separated from their parents, and dropped by plane onto unfamiliar territory.
Born into China’s urban upper middle class, most parachute kids grew up in an international milieu. They’re used to international travel and globalized consumption. However, that doesn’t mean they’re what we’d think of as “global citizens,” capable of adapting easily to different cultures. Arriving at high schools in the U.S., they’re immediately confronted with a dating and party scene, including underage drinking and drug use, they are not familiar with and which in itself is not exactly globalized. Meanwhile, the economic privileges and academic advantages they’re accustomed to are not easily transferrable in a transnational school setting, and they constantly struggle with their new identity as “minorities.”
For their part, American private high schools typically make scant efforts to include parachute students in school life. Although this is especially true of resource-strapped institutions seeking to profit by boosting their international student numbers, it can also be seen at traditionally selective institutions that claim to celebrate “diversity.” In particular, efforts to break down ethnic or racial barriers, such as by banning the use of non-English languages in classrooms or the cafeteria, often fail to achieve the intended result.
Dylan Fang, a junior at a high school in downtown Seattle, can relate. “Although the school keeps talking about diversity this, diversity that, deep down and maybe subconsciously, there are still huge splits in the school,” he said. “If you observe us during class time, it’s quite balanced. We do projects and sit together and may even mess around with each other a bit. It looks really great. But once you’re outside of the classroom, you realize that Americans will not hang out with you.”
When he arrived in the U.S., Fang tried hard to blend in, including by joining the varsity soccer team. After a full week of tryouts, he made the squad. He was the first Chinese student and first international student in seven years to do so.
Yet his excitement soon turned to frustration. As the only non-white player, he felt unwelcome and excluded by his teammates. No one spoke to him or sat with him on the team bus, while as the only Chinese on the team he felt pressured to “represent” China and even the whole international student body.
“You are representing international students, representing China. It’s like playing in the World Cup!” he said. “And those kids, they’ve known each other since primary school and are on the same team outside of school … Even though some may not have top-notch skills, they have a bond and are allowed to make mistakes. I’m different.”
“Every Chinese student thinks they will make a lot of American friends and they try hard, even shamelessly to run in those social circles,” he concluded. “But after a year, most fail.”
At the same time, when parachute students are siloed by their schools and classmates into the “international student,” “Chinese student,” or “Asian” categories, they get an abrupt lesson in what it’s like to live as a minority.
Some adapt by consciously trying to Americanize themselves. Frank Wu, a 16-year-old who attends a boarding school in Maryland, actually gave up soccer, which at his school is mostly popular among Asian students, and took up American football instead.
Wu repeatedly stressed to me the importance of making friends with people outside his own ethnicity — his best friend at school is Mexican-American — and stepping outside his comfort zone. He proudly showed me the contact information for his friends from various countries. But his idea of the “global village,” or even American society, seemed shaped by the microcosm of it that he found at his elite school.
Other parachute kids quickly retreat to their “Chinese” side. Chen Shuang, an 18-year-old from Beijing, is straightforward about her lack of interest in integrating into American society: “It’s a different culture, and I don’t think I have anything much to talk to you (Americans) about,” she said. “I don’t live the same life as you — you go home every day, and then your family talks about American things. I didn’t grow up in America.”
This retreat into “Chinese-ness” sometimes even manifests as a surge in nationalistic sentiments, though most young parachute students lean toward a more subtle form of patriotism. As members of the the “post-2000 generation” and socioeconomic elites in their own country, they want international experiences and cachet, but not necessarily at the expense of their national pride or identification with Chinese culture. To many of these well-off students, the global economic and cultural status of China and the U.S. is so evenly matched that some feel no incentive to integrate into American society.
The coronavirus pandemic may widen these fault lines even further. In the spring, American high schools and universities closed their dorms and asked students to leave as soon as possible — even as transnational travel was complicated by travel bans and flight cancellations. Zhang has been in China since returning home for the Lunar New Year in January, before the outbreak was underway. Wu stayed in the United States and quarantined himself at home in Maryland.
Now tensions are rising between China and the United States, and since the pandemic’s outbreak earlier this year, xenophobia and discrimination against Asians in the U.S. is on the rise. As borders become less permeable, the idea of “global citizenship” promised by international education seems increasingly like a quaint aspiration of a bygone era.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Cai Yiwen, Shu Chang, and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Students attend a team meeting prior to a basketball game at a school in La Canada, California, U.S., Jan. 28, 2020. MediaNews Group via People Visual)