Yunyao Zhai steps into court for a sentencing hearing earlier this year. Photo:
When Yuhan “Coco” Yang first arrived in America, she wanted to escape from her life in China where schooling would start at dawn and end at last light.
Her life was like most students in her home country of China, where study was constant, competition was tough — and getting into college to further her education was a must.
So, like many parents in China — Yang’s parents felt she would do better if she moved to the US to further her education.
She, like tens of thousands of young Chinese teens, became a ‘parachute kid’.
According to the South China Post, many Chinese parents view sending their young children to a foreign country alone, and without their physical and emotional support, as a chance to learn a new language and culture and to escape the country’s ultracompetitive college-entrance exams.
These students, known as the ‘Parachute kids’, typically travel to the United States to study and stay with host families while their parents remain in China. They are often not much older than 13, but some can be as young as eight.
But being alone in the U.S. can put these students at risk of isolation, depression and increased anxiety — and has even lead to prison.
In March 2015, three high school students from China were sentenced to jail terms in a California court for their roles in the kidnapping and torture of another Chinese teenager.
Yang was one of the students involved in the gruesome attack, which included burning one of the victims with cigarettes and forcing her to eat her own hair.
The sentencing of the ‘parachute kids’, being Yunyao Zhai, 18, Yuhan Yang, 19 and male co-defendant Xinlei Zhang, 19, captured the attention of China at the time — and the growing number of students attending high school in Southern California while their well-off parents remain back home in China.
Zhai was sentenced to 13 years behind bars, while Yang received 10 years and Zhang was handed six, but all three admitted the charges of kidnap and assault and apologised in court for their actions.
At the time, Yang told The Times she was in a strange mindset, and expressed herself “impulsively and stupidly.”
Every year, more and more Chinese students arrive to American schools, without their parents — hoping for a different future than the one China had so far given them.
Once upon a time, the concept of migrating to a new country meant the parents of the child accompanied them during the relocation process to their new home.
But according to studies conducted by Asian American Psychology, tens of thousands of young students, some as young as eight, are moving from China and Taiwan to live and study with strangers in the United States.
The country has increased so much, the number of high school students on study visas increased from about 1,700 in 2009 to 80,000 in 2014, with majority of those moving to California.
Parachute kids first emerged in the 1980s, and are much younger than the adult international students who move abroad to further their education.
While some can be as young as eight-years-old, the majority ranges between 13 and 17-years-old and mostly from Taiwan, followed by Korea, Hong Kong and China.
The allure of a better education, as well as creative freedom they’ve always dreamt of is a big draw card for both parents and their children. The chance of breaking into further education is also a reason for a young Chinese student to become a parachute kid, because in China — every year, 9 million students vie for just 7 million university seats.
But as the number of students moving from China to the US alone increases, so do the problems of alienation and loneliness. But parents are willing to give up everything, including splitting up their family to see their child succeed.
“It’s this mindset of ‘I’m going to do everything and sacrifice for you,’” Yuying Tsong, a professor at Cal State Fullerton who is conducting a study on parachute kids, told the Los Angeles Times.
“Even if it means we must be separated.”
“It costs about US$50,000 a year for the parents, who are mostly middle class, to send their kids here but they consider it an investment,” Mr Joaquin Lim, who runs a company that helps place Chinese students in American schools, told The Straits Times.
“Three years ago, we had about 40 Chinese students enrolled in high schools in Murrieta and today we have more than 300 and the number keeps growing.”
For young students staying in the U.S., most are in homestay arrangements where they live with an acquaintance or friend of the family. But sometimes, the carer is a complete stranger the Chinese parents have found on the internet.
This carer agrees to feed, house and care for the student for around $1300 a week.
“The parents sacrifice a lot, but they may not remember that the child is also sacrificing a lot,” Tsong said.
Many Chinese parents often make the decision to move their child overseas because they are performing below average in their home country, but would be considered ‘above average’ when put up against local American students.
Both parents and students, to an extent, see the value in an overseas education because it may also lead to better job prospects.
But according to local studies, that isn’t always the case, with employment for returning Chinese students from America not matching that of young people who graduate domestically.
“They all expect their children to be the valedictorian. If they’re unable to get that, going to an American university is a way to compensate,” Dennis Yang, a researcher who wrote about why he sent his kids abroad, told the Los Angeles Times.
Bill Zhou, who is a homestay parent and advertises his home online for young students, says he has responded to parents enquiring about his facilities with children as young as six.
“They don’t know if the school is good. They don’t know if the home stay is good. But everyone else is doing it so they do it too,” Zhou said. “It’s reckless.”
Isolation, aggression, anxiety, depression and suicide are all traits parachute kids are more susceptible to, which is only aggravated by the pressures they feel from their parents because of the financial sacrifice they’ve made.
Experts warn that while the concept may be tempting to gain a competitive edge, it also poses great dangers — because the child or teenager is living in a foreign country without proper parental supervision.
Too often, these kids are thrown into a completely foreign environment and are not prepared to fend for themselves,” Dr Lim said.
“You basically have kids who are managing themselves and have no one to answer to,” Police Sergent Steven Perez told Business Insider.
“Or you have kids basically renting a room where they are residents and they are not accountable to those people either.”