A growing number of China's upper class are investing in a foreign education for their children. There are costs and benefits, debates about teaching styles -- and always some surprises.
BEIJING — At Beijing International Airport Nora is saying goodbye to her parents. She's a tall and slender girl, and her fashionable clothing disguises her tender age. This will be Nora's last year studying in an American high school.
She travels back and forth between China and the United States three times a year for winter, spring and summer vacations, sometimes with her friends and sometimes on her own. Since the age of 15, she has been travelling alone and dealing with everyday life by herself.
"It takes only a dozen hours to get there. There will be a taxi to get me when I arrive, which will take me straight to school. It's really easy," she says in an understated way.
According to a recent report, America issued 31,889 student visas last year to Chinese students who go there to study in the country's junior and senior high schools. The number of teenage Chinese studying in the U.S. has soared 50 times over the past eight years.
Go west, young people
The exponential growth of "high-end" overseas study is reflected in the registration hall of the headquarters of New Oriental — an education services company offering overseas study consulting where the vending machines offer French mineral water instead of local brands. It is clear that the pampered teenagers of the upper class have overtaken the top academic students as the firm's top target.
Nora originally planned to go abroad after finishing her high school in China, but she realized that there is great disadvantage in this. She says is that it's hard to mingle with American students without understanding what they are talking about or having the same kinds of interests that develop in high school.
"Both socially and academically, the American education system is very different from the Chinese," Nora says. "Take the history homework as an example. It's basically one essay after another. For English literature, we took two months to read Macbeth. In China, we would have been finished within one week maximum, using excerpts."
For these Chinese children, studying abroad is obviously not just opening up their academic perspectives but also a full immersion into globalization. Their thinking, emotional experiences, as well as behavior will become more independent and cosmopolitan.
Song Pingping had the experience of teaching Chinese in a private American high school. She noted that the U.S. educational system attaches greater importance to pupils' overall development and teaches students how to learn and research. Open-ended questions are posed, and pupils often have a week to conduct research and discussion. "Right from the outset the study of history is based on a humanities and natural science-based point of view," Song says. "In China only in the history department of a university can one learn this kind of viewpoint. Critical thinking is completely missing in China's education system."
After the initial challenge of adapting to the new culture, most often these Chinese teenagers report very positive experiences studying in America. They mostly go to private schools where learning and discipline are much stricter. Vivian recalls her first day of school in America: "I almost burst into tears when I saw those hardback textbooks in history, math and geography, each one more than a thousand pages."
Beyond the different academic approaches, American secondary schools also attach great importance to sports. Students are typically expected to join after-school sports clubs and teams, which include competitions on the weekend. All of this leads to plenty of studying late into the night for hardworking Chinese pupils.
What is particularly eye-opening for these teens is the role of civic education and charity, which is quite rare in China. For parents who send their kids abroad for more practical reasons, this brings unexpected but generally positive results.
However there are risks in sending teenagers away from home before their value system is properly formed.
Andy and Sandra are a couple, from Taiwan and China respectively, who buck the trend and took their children back to China for their elementary study there instead. They are convinced that China’s public schools offer a much better pre-university level education than those in America. They adore Chinese schools’ much-maligned ugly uniforms, especially compared to American teenage girls’ habit of wearing makeup right from junior high school.
Andy and Sandra are hardly alone. Jim’s parents, both originally from Hong Kong, are another example. Jim’s father works for an American investment bank in Beijing. Though his job offers a subsidy to send his children to the costly international schools, he chose to send them to a local high school in the capital.
"We negotiated with the schools. As long as they don’t have to take political lessons the other courses are fine and, in particular, the mathematics," the father stated. In his view, China provides an unmatched foundation for subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry that will enable his children to continue further study anywhere they like later.
Proof in PISA
The thinking of Jim’s father is confirmed in the results of the OECD's recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), where Shanghai pupils came out on top in mathematics, reading and science. Their American peers ranked 26th.
"We have probably overlooked our own strengths," teacher Song Pingping notes. "I never doubt the good points of the Chinese education. Compared with American teachers, Chinese teachers are certainly much more serious in preparing and teaching their courses."
There is also the cost to consider, since sending a child to study in American high schools will run up to $70,000 per year, plus travel expenses. And finally, deciding to send kids abroad raise even more sensitive questions of family ties and social education.
"Parents are always the first teacher of their offspring," notes Nora’s father, an international commercial law attorney. He personally also regrets missing out on part of his daughter’s upbringing. "All I used to want was for Nora to grow up like an American, with perfect English."