Chase Shi left Shanghai as a high school sophomore to continue his education in America - not necessarily because he wanted to, but because his parents asked him to.
“My dad wanted me to move, I didn’t really ask why," Shi said. "I guess I was considered a bad student in China, it was a very intense competitive environment I was in.”
In 2008 he entered The Oxford School in Rowland Heights, California. His parents, however, remained in China, so he stayed with a host family. Since then, he has graduated from Whitworth University and is hoping to become a physician in the U.S.
Shi is part of a growing wave of international students pouring in to escape from the rigorous, numbers-obsessed education system in China and other Asian countries.
Just a decade ago, 80 percent of the Chinese students in the U.S. attended school at the graduate level. There has been a surge of undergraduate students since, as shown in the latest “Open Doors” data from Institute of International Education (IIE).
Now the demographic is getting even younger.
Last year, according to the annual Open Doors report, 73,000 international students enrolled in U.S. high schools. A large percentage of those students reside in Southern California, with Chinese nationals accounting for 32.3 percent of the population.
Tin Chun Cho had a similar experience. She didn’t know she was moving until four months before school started.
Watching Raven Baxter and Miley Stewart hanging around their lockers on the Disney Channel shows “That’s So Raven” and “Hannah Montana” was the only reference she had to American high schools when she moved here in the 9th grade.
“Since we’re more of a traditional family we didn’t do anything, we don’t even hug or anything," Cho recalled. "I think my dad shook my hand when I left and said: ‘Take care.'"
Students like Shi and Cho are dubbed “parachute kids,” referring to young international students who come to the States without their parents to seek a more well-rounded academic environment. Many attend boarding schools, or stay in private homes while going to day schools.
As China’s financial might rises, more and more parents are sending their children abroad. Some experts believe this trend is a growing cause for concern, in light of recent headlines of violent bullying cases and cheating scandal in both high school and college admissions.
Earlier this month, The LA Times reported on an attack that took place in March, where three teenage Chinese girls ganged up one of their peers over an unpaid restaurant bill in Rowland Heights.
The girls, according to reports, “stripped her naked, kicked her with high- heeled shoes and burned her nipples with cigarettes. They cut off her hair and made her eat it, she testified.” The three teenagers have since pleaded not guilty to torture and assault.
Critics believe too much freedom in the absence of adults can lead to unchecked behavior.
However, Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor for the IIE, counters that “bullying isn’t exclusive to international students, it’s a problem for any culture.”
"as an Asian student, I feel like there are extra eyes on you"
With 30 years of work at the IIE, Blumenthal sees the surge of young international students as an asset, enriching perspectives for fellow American students, despite a slew of recent headlines like “How Chinese Students Are ‘Cheating’ To Get Into U.S. Universities” and “Fraud frenzy? Chinese seek U.S. college admission at any price.”
“Cheating cases among international students in the States were ridiculous. Even now in Berkeley people talk about it," Cho said. "So as an Asian student, I feel like there are extra eyes on you… those people are making us look really bad.”
Shi believes that these cases didn’t happen due to the absence of parents. The problem, he says, stems from “the environment they grew up in, when parents over indulge their kids… and they carry that notion to the States.”
Parachute kids, he says, are thrown into a new environment at a young age, wrangling with everything from a foreign language and culture to being away from the families, many for the first time. Some flourish and move on to excel in their respective colleges and jobs, but others have a rougher landing and struggle to fit in.
While Cho thrived and went on to UC Berkeley, her older sister went down a bumpier road.
“She used to be a good, well-behaved kid," Cho recalled. "Maybe it’s because my parents are normally really strict, so the second she got here…they kept giving her money and my sister turned into an ultimate shopaholic.”
Cho said her parents were disappointed, but felt guilty that her sister “was there by herself so they didn’t cut her off.”
“She was famous in our school because she was addicted to all these brands," she said. "I think sophomore year she had over 100 bags from brands like Louie Vuitton and Gucci. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
"maybe you only heard one or two hatred sentences or racist things like ‘Oh those fobs taking over our school’"
As colleges become less affordable, institutions are accepting more international students to fill the tuition gap.
For local students, such a surge in one population can be alarming. Some domestic students have expressed frustration at the trend, worrying that international students are taking their spots. Upon transferring to Berkeley, Cho said she “heard a lot of Americans talk [expletive] about international students” though she noted they were not the majority.
“You feel more shy, you don’t want to talk to them… maybe you only heard one or two hatred sentences or racist things like ‘Oh those fobs taking over our school’" Cho recalled, "and you just feel less eager to talk to them."
Rita Hu, another Berkeley student who moved to California from China in 2009, says those kinds of comments don't bother her - she knows why she's here.
“We are here for a purpose and I don’t want people to think there are two extremes," said Hu, "[that] we only study or we only play and spend money. There are many people in between.”
“I understand where this hatred comes from but you know, we can’t… always take the fault.”
Having worked as a school psychologist since 1998, California-based Rob Coad denounces labels like "parachute kids" as contributing to the type-casting of students.
Coad preaches greater understanding on a student-by-student basis, without dismissing individuals by saying, “this kid is a parachute kid; they don’t have parents present in their life, no wonder they are having all of these problems," he says.
Statistics and high-profile news stories can sometimes lead some to paint the entire spectrum of students with a single brush, says Coad, diverting attention to the students' experiences rather than the school administrations and policies that guide and define their circumstances here.
“If you want to take this many students," Cho said, "I mean, they build programs to help us get used to the environment but you also have to educate other people, too, it’s not a one-way street. Other people have to learn how to...be more understanding."