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China 2.0

Striving Chinese Kids Head West For Sleepaway Camp, Teen Tours And Summer School

Buyer beware: both prestigious boarding schools and summer tours have major drawbacks.

Not all "study tours" go this well...
Not all "study tours" go this well...
Zhang Jing

BEIJING - This summer, the topic of sending school-age children to sleep-away camp has suddenly gotten hot in China. Three Chinese teenagers died in the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco last month. Also, photos posted on the Internet recently showed young Chinese children sitting outside some American outlet shop, sadly eating hamburgers while their teachers shopped inside. This created a huge uproar.

The number of teenagers attending summer camp this year is overwhelming. Almost all of the graduation trips of Beijing's prestigious high schools were spent abroad. In the waiting rooms of Beijing airport, one can see that nearly half the passengers of each plane destined for an English-speaking country are school children going to summer camps.

Still, in the eyes of certain Chinese parents, summer camps, also called study tours, are off the menu. They believe they are too loose and cursory, and children spend too much time sightseeing. It may be OK for younger children as a sort of eye-opener. But for older children, striving Chinese parents are more interested in getting their children into bona fide schools for the summer.

While a summer camp or tour is always organized by an intermediary Chinese agency or school, it is the students themselves who must apply to the foreign summer schools. This is a proof, to some Chinese parents, that summer schools have better academic standards and take in better students.

The most popular summer programs for these Chinese families include top boarding schools Exeter, Choate Rosemary Hall and St. Pauls, which offer a chance for the students to experience the style of elite education and can help when applying for American colleges later.

These summer schools offer very rich and varied summer courses such as film-making, public management, fashion design as well as mathematics, physics and chemistry. Not only do the Chinese children receive leadership training — they also get to learn English by working on real subjects.

Naturally, such summer schools do not come cheap. While a whole year of tuition for international students costs up to $50,000, a four-week summer school fee can be as high as $7,000. “Most American families can’t afford to send their children to these summer schools," said one Chinese girl who attended the summer school of Choate Rosemary Hall. "Last year I was in a language course. There were four Chinese students. This year there are 11." The student added that were it not for certain entry requirements, like teachers’ recommendation letters, he is sure there would have been a lot more Chinese students.”

The main reason why her parents spent so much money to go to this summer school was ultimately to be admitted afterwards into the high school, a Kennedy alma mater. “Unfortunately that’s just about every Chinese student’s wish. The Americans are really cunning. The admission of summer school has nothing to do with the real high school. The high school will take in two or three summer school students so as to lure people with a slim hope," said the girl. "I got a fantastic recommendation letter from the summer camp teacher who encourages me to compete in the entry exam. However, I didn’t even get on their waiting list.”

Overpriced, understaffed

Summer camps are a somewhat different system, with its own pros and cons. Thanks to the Internet, reading novels and watching films, Chinese children today are not so unfamiliar with the West. But a summer camp can offer actual contact with life and learning in the West. However, these summer study tours tend to be both expensive and inconsistent in terms of quality. To give some idea, a 15-day organized trip to Turkey or Greece in five-star hotels would cost around $4,050 per person. Organized study tours abroad charge around $4,855 for much more ordinary lodging and meals for the students.

We have also found that many of the Chinese children are actually staying with American families who welcome them voluntarily while the Chinese agencies charge rates as if they were staying in hotels. And then there is the question raised in those infamous photos: the Chinese chaperons who spend their time shopping!

Because of the economic downturn, European and American summer camps have had difficulty finding enough children locally. Someone once said the easiest way to make money is from women and children. A summer camp is another good example, and people find the richest mine for digging these days is apparently in China.

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