flying solo

Meet the Chinese ‘parachute kids’ who travel to America alone for school

via Tiffany Lew

ARCADIA, California — Ryan Ren loves the soccer fields around his middle school in Arcadia, California. They don’t exist in his hometown of Guangzhou, China, but the 14-year-old student hasn’t been to Guangzhou in a while. Ryan is what’s known as a “parachute kid,” that is, a young person who comes to America alone to study.

“I only knew a few days before coming to America that I was coming,” Ryan, who attends Dana Middle School, said in Mandarin. “My reaction was, ‘That’s weird.’ All my friends are in China, so I didn’t feel good. I didn’t understand.”

Ryan’s situation is unusual both because he’s attending public school and because he arrived here alone. Other parachute kids’ circumstances vary. Some always knew they’d be coming to the U.S. for middle or high school because their parents had been planning for it since before their birth. Most parachute kids attend private institutions, which can range from swanky boarding schools like Phillips Andover, to small private day schools. And a small but growing number of kids attend public schools.  

“All my friends are in China, so I didn’t feel good. I didn’t understand.”

“There’s an increase in wealth in the newly minted [Chinese] middle class, and a lot of parents want [their children] to have the U.S. school experience,” said Yong Zhao, director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at University of Oregon’s College of Education. “They may be good students in China, but not competitive enough in the education system.”

While private schools recruited most of the incoming Chinese students, more public schools are becoming part of the picture now, too. Public school officials in Maine and Michigan, among other states, have attracted students whose parents are eager for their kids to have an American education. These students usually arrive on an F-1 student visa, which allows foreigners to enroll in both private and public American schools. Visa holders can only attend public secondary schools for one year, and must pay tuition to public school districts—fees that normally range from $3,000 to $10,000 a year, according to the U.S. State Department.  

The number of Chinese students on F-1 visas in public K-12 schools rose from six in 2006 to 1,008 students this year, according to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security (the total number of Chinese students in American K-12 schools, including private schools, is currently around 35,627). Meanwhile, the number of Taiwanese students attending public K-12 schools on an F-1 visa rose from four in 2006 to 29 this year (during that same time period, the number of F-1 visas for Taiwanese students at private schools dropped slightly).

Mary Li-Ling Liang, director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles’ education division, attributed this increase in Taiwanese students attending American public schools to parental concerns about Taiwan’s education system and political future.

The Institute for Global and Online Education’s Zhao, who grew up in China and attended college there, called it a “futile mission” to try to determine the number of students currently in the U.S. without their parents.

“The numbers have definitely increased,” Zhao said. “Ten years ago you, wouldn’t hear about parachute kids, especially not as an industry in public schools.”

William Skilling, a retired superintendent of Michigan’s Oxford Community School District, developed the state’s first Chinese student recruitment program in 2008. The district is located in Oakland County, in the Detroit metro area.

We are one of the largest, diverse international business sectors in the U.S.,” Skilling said. “There are over 1,000 international businesses in Oakland County. It led me to Okay, where are these companies coming from? And it was China.’”

Skilling said he hoped the program, which brought 100 Chinese students to Oxford during his tenure as superintendent, gave local students a broader global perspective. The money brought in by foreign students was another benefit, he added.

But not all Chinese or Taiwanese students come bearing a check for the public school in they attend. That’s because some arrive carrying green cards, obtained through a parent or relative who may not reside in the U.S. year-round; this allows them to enroll in public school free of charge. Some of these “foreign” students are U.S. citizens, children who were born here but moved overseas as babies or toddlers and were mostly raised outside the U.S. The number of students who were raised in China, but now attend American schools as U.S. citizens or on a green card, is hard to estimate. There’s no ongoing record of green card holders by occupation or school status, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, another unit of the Department of Homeland Security. There’s also no way of knowing whether children who hold green cards live with their parents or with other, non-related guardians.

Living with little supervision at a young age can be tough.

Some like Ryan, who live here without parents or other relatives to take care of them, find that living with little supervision at a young age can be tough.

Ryan has lived in Arcadia for about two years, and rents a room with a host family. He calls them “loving,” but can’t remember anything they’ve talked about recently. Ryan’s mother found the host family through an ad in the back of a Chinese newspaper.

“Mom called the listing. I was there, listening,” he said. “She asked, ‘Is the house big? How much is it to live there? How big is the room?’ It was about 10 minutes.”

Speaking in Mandarin from China where she still lives, Ryan’s mother, Fiona Liu, described the decision as “too easy.”

Laughing lightly, she added, “From many angles, it’s good. There’s better education for college and work. I came to America once, and I made the decision after that.”

Liu’s American brother helped her and Ryan come to the U.S., carrying green cards (it’s legal to obtain a green card through an American sibling, and then obtain one for a child). Liu was happy to find a room for Ryan that could fit a bed and desk for $1,000 a month. She returned to China several weeks after dropping him off.

They [his homestay parents] cook meals for him every day,” Liu said. “But other than that, he doesn’t really have help.”

Although she doesn’t question the decision to send her son to America, Liu said Ryan seemed to be in better spirits in China.

Most of the 13 parachute kids I interviewed for this story attended school in California’s San Gabriel Valley, home to the one of the largest Asian-American populations in the U.S. They said their parents bet on America to get away from the stultifying, high-pressure school systems of China and Taiwan and from what they see as the precarious economic and political futures of those countries. They hope their kids will receive a better education and eventually, better jobs—ideally in the U.S.

Students on F-1 visas can only attend a public secondary school for one year, so a visa isn’t a viable long-term option for families who can’t afford private school tuition and only have enough money to pay room and board. Parents often spend years saving money just so their child can live in the U.S. to attend middle or high school. Without a green card or a child’s claim to U.S. citizenship, even public school tuition can sometimes be out of reach.

Like many of the other parachute kids I interviewed, Ryan said it was hard to learn English here because so many people in the area speak Mandarin. One of those people is Michael Cho, Ryan’s tutor and one of the few adults in which the teen confides. Cho himself was a parachute kid.

“When I arrived, I was a little upset because I thought I’d be able to embrace the culture of America, but I didn’t see an American town,” Cho said. In many areas of San Gabriel Valley, streets are lined with Chinese supermarkets, restaurants, and bookstores, and the Chinese language is displayed alongside English on signs.

Alice Aguilar, who teaches English as a Second Language at Dana Middle School where Ryan goes, said many of her Chinese students have struggled to adjust.

“Sometimes they need that pressure from me to speak English,” she said. “Over the weekend, I tell them to watch English shows, read newspapers.”

Ryan thinks his teachers aren’t putting enough effort into helping him learn English.

“They know you don’t speak English, so they won’t really specially teach you,” he said in English. “They’re too relaxed.”

Left alone in a foreign country, some parachute kids rebel. This could mean ditching class, running away, bullying others, or even ending up in jail. Last year, a group of Chinese parachute kids on F-1 visas, who were attending a private school in Southern California, kidnapped and assaulted a classmate.

Cho, now 26, never got involved in violence, but he did spend a semester skipping class at Arcadia High School. Cho said he felt he wasn’t accepted at school because the language barrier made it difficult for him to excel in class. Meanwhile, his family in Taiwan didn’t understand him, and thought he wasn’t trying hard enough. So, one Thanksgiving, Cho decided to run away to a friend’s house.

“I turned off my phone and was like, ‘If you’re not going to accept me, then I’ll disappear,’” he said. “That was a big turning point.”

“If you’re not going to accept me, then I’ll disappear.”

After Cho learned his father had passed out and was hospitalized upon hearing he’d gone missing, he became more aware of the sacrifices his parents made to get him an American education.

School officials are often in the dark about the difficulties faced by students whose parents live on the other side of the world. David Vannasdall, superintendent of the Arcadia Unified School District, said it’s almost impossible for officials to know who is or isn’t a parachute kid. By law, U.S. school district representatives can’t ask about immigration status; as long as students have a guardian to sign their papers and a local address, they can register for school. Still, district officials have taken varied approaches to communicating with Chinese parents—such as using the popular Chinese social media site Weibo—which suggests they’re at least aware that many of their students’ parents may not speak English.

Language wasn’t the issue for sisters Jessie and Jamie Lee, now 27 and 25, respectively. Both women were born in Louisiana, where their father attended medical school. After he graduated, the family moved back to Asia, and the sisters spent most of their childhood growing up in Taipei. As teens, however, Jessie and Jamie returned to America, and lived without their parents in a rented apartment while they attended high school in Irvine, California. Their father gave them a “crash course” on how to take care of themselves when he dropped them off a few weeks before they started school. It included a safety lesson: He bought them cheap knives at Target so they wouldn’t cut off their fingers while preparing meals. The school never seemed aware of their situation, Jessie said, adding that she’d pretend to be Jamie’s mother over the phone, calling in sick for her sister. There were also no parent conferences or other meetings to attend.

“It would have been nice to have an adult, like a mentor, who I could go to for questions,” Jamie said, adding that she felt directionless at times.

Despite such obstacles, many of the students I interviewed said they’re grateful for the life skills they had to develop early on—including perseverance, autonomy and critical thinking—which helped them in college and their careers.

For his part, Cho found fulfillment through tutoring and mentoring parachute kids in his community. Although his path didn’t go as planned—Cho didn’t go to medical school or directly to a four-year college—he knows he can help kids who struggle with settling in to America. For students like Ryan, still years away from adulthood, the combination of surviving alone in a strange place far from home and the pressure to succeed at school can be intense.  

“Once they get here, they’re no one,” Cho said. “Here, people don’t care about you; they care about what you do for other people.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about immigrant and refugee students.