China’s ‘Parachute Generation’ Grows Up
Wei Li’s “Welcome to America” moment came in the form of a cold shoulder.
In 2013, the then-16-year-old Wei elected to forgo high school in China — and with it, the crazed competition of the country’s gaokao college entrance exam — to pack up her life and enroll at a private Christian academy in the American South. Christian academies are a popular choice among Chinese families looking to send their kids abroad, partly because they are cheaper than other private schools, but like many of her peers, Wei arrived on campus with almost no knowledge of what life at a religious institution entailed. Instead of the warm embrace she expected, she quickly found herself in tension with her classmates, teachers, even her host family.
The school, which promised students a high-quality education grounded in conservative Christian values, was hostile to those who, like Wei, identified as LGBT. In contrast to the permissive attitudes toward sex and relationships depicted on American TV, Wei had to keep her relationship with her Chinese girlfriend secret or risk expulsion. The attitudes of her classmates and teachers were, in her words, “xenophobic.” At home, she struggled to adapt to living with an American family and did not feel safe around her host father.
Wei’s experience is characteristic of what the New York Times Magazine dubbed China’s “Parachute Generation.” In Chinese, they are known simply as the “American high school students” or, sometimes, the “little study abroad-ers.” Primarily drawn from China’s rising upper-middle class, they have the material means to opt out of their home country’s fiercely competitive educational system and pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition to attend an American high school.
Given the growing wealth and shrinking size of the typical Chinese family, this is not as small a market as you might think. From 2005 to 2015, the number of Chinese nationals attending American secondary institutions jumped by more than 7,000%, according to data obtained from the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement via a Freedom of Information Act request. Chinese students accounted for more than half of all international students seeking secondary education in the U.S. that year.
They are the children of doctors, university professors, business owners, mid-level government officials, and software developers. Born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the China they know is strong, prosperous, and confident. A 2019 report by Tencent, one of China’s largest tech firms, described the generation as sophisticated internet users with stronger feelings of national pride than previous cohorts, deep concerns about global inequality, and aspirations of becoming “global citizens.”
Although the report was designed to provide marketing advice, it nevertheless encapsulated two of the defining — and at first glance, mutually contradictory — traits of China’s parachute kids: Their growing nationalism and their appreciation for cosmopolitanism.
The 41 “parachute kids” I interviewed bore these contradictions out. Some were eager to integrate into a supposedly cosmopolitan American culture; others found their lives in America boring or were actively repulsed by the country’s high school culture. And a few, like Wei, realized that the liberal, open-minded America they were promised, whether in school brochures or on television, was far from guaranteed.
“My goal in going abroad was to become more independent,” Wei, who later went on to attend a highly ranked public university in the American Midwest, told me over Skype. “I knew I would ‘eat bitterness’ (chi ku) and improve my character. But I’ve had to swallow so much more bitterness than I ever imagined. Is it worth spending so much money to learn so little? To be away from my parents?”
When her family praised her for how much she had matured since leaving home, Wei usually responded with a smiling emoji. “But deep down in my heart,” she said, “I am bleeding and crying.”
“I don’t even know whether it’s worth it myself anymore.”
A “fever” for overseas study
China first experimented with overseas education in the late 19th century. In the 1870s, as the ruling Qing dynasty (1644-1912) teetered on the edge of collapse, the government sent a group of 120 boys aged 12 to 15 to study in New England schools.
The majority of candidates hailed from rural Guangdong province along China’s southern coast — long a center of maritime trade. Their parents or guardians were required to sign a paper stating they were willing to let their sons go abroad for 15 years, from the time their studies began until their eventual graduation, and exempt the government from responsibility for any death, injuries, or accidents that may occur. In exchange, their school fees were fully covered by the Qing state. Although the program was abruptly canceled in 1881, it nevertheless produced some of that generation’s leading politicians and industrialists, including Tang Shaoyi, the first Premier of the Republic of China, and Zhan Tianyou, the “Father of China’s railroad system.”
For much of the ensuing 130 years, China’s attitudes toward overseas education would follow a similar pattern. Between sudden, often politically motivated stops and starts, generations of young Chinese left their families behind to learn advanced techniques and theories at the world’s best schools, from Cambridge to Moscow. Many of the brightest students, excited by China’s modernization efforts and facing discrimination in the West, returned after graduation to help rebuild their homeland.
This two-way flow of people skidded to an almost complete halt in the 1950s and ’60s, as China’s relations with both the capitalist West and the Soviet bloc deteriorated. It wasn’t until the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of “reform and opening-up” in the late 1970s that the number of Chinese studying abroad began to recover.
In the early reform years, the vast majority of Chinese international students were enrolled in graduate programs, often on bare-bones scholarships. According to the Institute of International Education’s Annual “Open Doors” report, the number of international students from the Chinese mainland enrolled in American higher educational institutions increased from nearly zero in 1978 to more than 20,000 by 1988. This figure would double between 1989 and 1993 and triple by 2003.
As the number of Chinese international students grew, prospective applicants began heading overseas at younger and younger ages. They were drawn in part by new programs being offered by American schools, which were struggling with funding cuts and saw Chinese students, most of whom paid full tuition, as a lucrative source of income. In the decade after 2005, the number of Chinese enrolled in undergraduate programs abroad rose by more than tenfold, from 9,304 to 135,629. High school enrollment likewise jumped, from 637 in 2005 to 46,125 in 2015.
This influx of new students has upended the traditional image of Chinese international students in the United States as quiet, socially isolated, and academically focused. And arguably no one has challenged these stereotypes quite like the parachute kids. As high-schoolers, they are younger, wealthier, and more diverse than past generations. They may also be the first generation of Chinese who do not see their country as fundamentally lacking in development. Born during a period of rapid economic growth, they perceive China as a strong and wealthy country — and themselves as “global citizens” — on an equal footing with the West.
Their expectations of equal treatment and acceptance are often challenged by their experiences abroad, as their desire to appear cosmopolitan while remaining proud of their homeland devolves into a daily navigation of how “Chinese” they’re willing to act. “I belong to every circle, but I don’t belong to any circle,” said Anastasia Lin, a student at one of New England’s top boarding schools. Jumping back and forth between Chinese and English, she described the feeling of juggling stereotypes: “My nerdy side and good grades make me Chinese, while my ‘playgirl’ side, the fact that I like dancing, painting, and music, makes me closer to Americans.”
I met the then-18-year-old while she was in New York City for a campus tour of Columbia University. Despite her academic and social success, she found life in small-town New England lonely. “I don’t have a friend that truly understands me,” she sighed. New York had become a refuge, a place where she could get boba tea and blend in, and she hoped Columbia’s more diverse student body would be more welcoming.
Anastasia was far from the only interviewee to perceive a split between their “Chinese” — getting good grades and engaging in stereotypically “nerdy” behavior — and “American” pursuits, e.g., partying, going out, and being more socially active.
Others, like Annika, expressed an almost instant sense of comfort in their new homes. Raised in an unusually permissive household, Annika’s father told her from a very young age that he would send her to the United States for college. After a health scare and repeated conflicts with her middle school teachers, the family accelerated their timeline, sending her to a Los Angeles boarding school when she was just 16 years old.
Annika was open about her struggles growing up in China’s educational system, saying she was more adept at languages and the arts than math or science. Indeed, she said she used to be proud of her low math scores, seeing them as a sign of her divergent personality.
By the time we met at a New York City café in 2017, Annika was already in graduate school, but she still remembered the sense of assurance she felt on finally landing in the United States. “I felt like I had been waiting for so long,” she recalled. “I literally did not have any trouble adapting to the new environment. No curiosity. Nothing surprised me.”
Yet her passions drew her back to China and Chinese culture. After majoring in East Asian Studies at university, Annika went to film school before moving back to China in 2021 to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking.
The majority of my interviewees either moved back to China after graduation or expressed an intention to do so after getting their American university degree. Unlike earlier cohorts, who typically planned to work in the U.S. for a couple years before returning, the current generation seems less enchanted with the opportunities on offer in America.
Rising tensions between the U.S. and China haven’t helped, as Chinese living in the U.S. find themselves in an increasingly difficult position, forced to answer questions and account for policies well beyond their control. A side-effect of this pressure is what sociologist Henry Chiu Hail described as “patriotism abroad”: that is, a growing identification on the part of Chinese students with their homeland after repeated brushes with misinformed or prejudiced comments from their American peers.
In my own interviews, my research participants rarely raised the issue of geopolitics. But as members of China’s urban upper-middle class, I observed a more subtle form of patriotism in their attitudes, one that manifested in a lack of interest in the U.S. and a desire to return home as soon as they finished their studies — not from a sense of duty to their homeland, but simply because they preferred life in China.
Nea Wang, a Beijinger who attended secondary school in Seattle beginning in 2016, said she preferred not to engage with her American classmates. When I asked why, she shrugged and attributed it to “cultural differences,” rather than any hostility on the part of her classmates. “I did not get their joy from partying and drinking at all,” she says.
Other interviewees echoed Nea’s distant, at times disgusted attitude toward American teenagers’ drug use, drinking, and party culture. Chen Wanrong, a Shanghainese who studied at an elite American prep school, grimaced when I asked her to summarize her high school life. “What I got is connections,” she said. “I understand what American society is: How to talk to Americans, how to get used to college life, and of course, their ways of thinking. These are all gains. But losses? I am not as happy as I was (at my elite public school in China). I skipped the innocent pleasures of Chinese student life.”
As Chen and I wrapped up our conversation at a café in Shanghai, not far from where she was interning at an investment bank, I noticed how tired she looked — closer to a burned-out adult than a rising college freshman.
These struggles should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the “left-behind” children of China’s migrant families. Indeed, parachute children are a kind of mirror image of their left-behind peers: wealthier and better supported, but still separated from their parents and facing their formative years in an often hostile environment.
Wei, the abovementioned LGBT student, described this experience as a process of “accelerated maturity.” Although a handful of parachute families send a member to watch over their kids abroad, the majority of parachute kids, like Wei, enroll in boarding schools or homestay programs. At most, they see their families during school breaks. During the pandemic, many were unable to travel between the two countries at all.
The insular, often self-governing nature of these communities can cause problems. On Feb. 17, 2016, three Chinese parachute students were sentenced to prison for kidnapping and assaulting one of their classmates. The father of one of the teenagers was later charged with attempted bribery for allegedly trying to pay off a witness.
Incidents like these, though rare, have sparked debate in China over the perils of sending kids abroad to study. But far more common — and much less discussed — are the mental health struggles inherent to growing up on one’s own in a foreign land.
Several Chinese parachute students confessed to me that they or their friends have experienced episodes of depression and eating disorders, adding that they struggled to access care, find trustworthy confidants, or express their feelings accurately. Zhang Lingli, a Guangzhou native who attended a Christian school in Virginia, was sent to a psychiatric hospital after sharing what she called a “slight suicidal thought” with the school nurse. In her account, the forced hospitalization was more traumatic than the depressive episode. After her release, her school required her to return to China immediately to avoid legal responsibility for another incident.
Another commonality with left-behind children is that many members of the parachute generation struggle to balance the sacrifices their families made on their behalf with their own needs and wants. When they asked me, a researcher they only just met, whether their choice to study abroad was worth the pain, I often wondered if they already knew the answer, but were simply reluctant to say it out loud given their parents’ huge financial investment and the personal sacrifices they’ve made.
Rebels with a cause
One area where parachute kids do feel comfortable asserting themselves is in determining their educational path. The 2022 Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education found that Chinese international students attending college in the United States typically enroll in “useful” majors with good job prospects, typically in fields related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics — STEM for short. An additional 14.6% study business and management and 10.3% study social sciences; just 1% enroll in a humanities program.
The parachute students I interviewed bucked this trend. They generally hailed from China’s upper middle-class and evinced educational preferences similar to their well-off American counterparts. When they reached college, they differentiated themselves from their peers who attended high schools in China by opting for degrees in the humanities and social sciences that require stronger English language skills and confer greater cultural capital. Their parents typically accept their preferences, albeit sometimes only reluctantly.
Attributing these attitudes to parachute kids’ time in the United States can be tricky. In the course of my research, I encountered a number of “rebels” — students who challenged the stereotypical image of Chinese as pragmatic and politically disengaged. I met Leslea in 2017, when she was a 17-year-old speaker at a student-organized conference on feminism at Columbia University. Despite being the youngest person in the room, she was confident and assertive in describing her efforts to organize pro-gender equality events in the Chinese community.
Chinese students like Leslea are no longer a rarity in the U.S. But it would be a mistake to attribute their beliefs solely to their experiences in the American educational system. Leslea noted that her parents were quite liberal, and her environment at home growing up was democratic. “I was a liberal before coming to the United States,” she explained.
Other “rebels” opt to check out, following their American peers by taking gap years to better understand what they want out of life. Xiyuan, a graduate of one of the United States’ top boarding schools, deferred her admission to an elite university for a year to travel around Europe and Southeast Asia.
This “Eat, Pray, Love”-style journey of self-discovery would have been unimaginable for the previous generation of Chinese international students. It reflects the socio-economic privilege of the current cohort, their embrace of American-style education, and their parents’ acceptance of more diverse career paths.
But the ability of parachute kids to become cosmopolitan, global citizens is limited by at least one factor outside their control: their passport. The current generation of parachute students came to the United States at a time when international borders seemed to be melting away and global citizenship felt like a real possibility. Those borders snapped back into place over the past three years, and a resurgence of nationalism on both sides of the Pacific left many adrift between the nation of their birth and the place they grew up.
To protect the identities of her research participants, the author has given them pseudonyms.
Editor: Cai Yiwen; visuals: Zhou Zhen and Ding Yining.