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Teens emigrating from China on their own face emotional challenges

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Students of Southwestern School in San Marino, CA.
Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times © 2016 used with permission
Students of Southwestern School in San Marino, CA.

For teens emigrating from China on their own, without the support of family, adjusting to a new culture can bring up unique emotional and developmental challenges.

Each year, thousands of children leave their families in China and move to the U.S. alone to study at American schools. While some find the term offensive, sociologists commonly refer to these children as 'parachute kids'. These days, the kids coming to the U.S. are getting younger— as young as 11-years-old. 

The adolescent years are tough for most kids but without the support and supervision of family, adjusting to a new country and culture can bring up unique emotional and developmental challenges.

Take Two's A Martinez spoke with L.A. Times reporter, Frank Shyong who has written on the subject. They were joined by clinical psychologist Dr. Hsing-Fang Chang who treats kids struggling in the U.S. without their family. 


On why Chinese parents send their kids to study in the U.S. 

Frank Shyong: A lot of them come from families who are dissatisfied with the education that the Chinese system offers them. There's a big conversation about Chinese teaching methods where people worry that their children don't learn creativity and independent thinking and leadership skills— things like that. 

And then there are also students who don't have good grades in middle school and since the system sets students on tracks that are pretty rigid very early, you can kind of see your child's future stretched out before you. And if that matches up with your family's educational ambitions, a lot of the times, they say, well, let's start over in the U.S. There's still the belief that getting an American education is the best in the world. 

On 'Home-Stay' arrangements 

Frank Shyong: Most of the time, they call a huge industry of third-party brokers or educational agencies or consultants— they go by a lot of different names. These are people with people on the ground in the U.S. who have identified host families who can place your student at schools and essentially, handle the whole application process for you for a certain fee. 

Sometimes the agencies, if they're more of a full service agency, will also help you keep tabs on your kids. Other agencies are kind of gone after you get the visa application and get your kid off to school. 

On the psychological impact

Dr. Hsing-Fang Chang: These are the typical teenage years so by itself, it's a very vulnerable stage developmentally. They are in the stage where peer validation is very important. The peer relationship is a lot more important than with their parents. When we're in the teenage years, we hardly want to talk to our parents let alone coming to a new place. It's a totally different country, totally different culture and language. You stay with a home-stay parents. Even though they could be very nice, you don't really have the relationship or the trust... you're sort of forced to talk to them, forced to trust them, forced to share everything, and even need to listen to their guidelines. This is a lot to adjust to for kids of that age. 

On how to help kids through tough times 

Dr. Hsing-Fang Chang: For a caretaker here, either school administrator or teachers or the home-stay parents, watch out for the signs of isolation. If they start to notice that these kids aren't talking too much and they're not really engaged, interact with them. They need to watch out for those signs. 

For the kids who come here, I would say, keep an open mind. Try to open up and try to reach out for help. It's not a shame to ask for help. One Chinese mentality is, if I ask for help, that means I'm not a good student. We're more used to having the teacher come to us and tell us what to do, and we're not used to reaching out to the authorities. 

*Quotes edited for clarity. 

To hear the full interview, click the Blue Arrow above. 

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