Parachute kids, alone and far from home

Parachute kids, alone and far from home

Three Chinese students sentenced for bullying one of their colleagues are referred to as "parachute kids".

John Zhang Xinlei, Coco Yang Yuhan and Helen Zhai Yunyao were recently sentenced to prison terms over their involvement of a brutal attack on a fellow student.

The "parachute kid" phenomenon dates back to the 1980s, according to psychologists Yuying Tsong and Yuli Liu. They are defined as "underaged foreign students who are sent to live and study in the United States without their parents. . . They can be as young as eight years old, but the majority are between the ages of 13 and 17 years old."

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Tsong and Liu wrote in a 2009 journal article called “Parachute Kids and Astronaut Families” that while affluent Asian parents often sent their adolescent kids abroad in the hopes of bolstering their education, these good intentions could backfire as the teenagers struggled in unfamiliar surroundings.

Many parachute kids succeed academically, but they are also more likely to experience depression and experiment with alcohol and drugs. Meanwhile, their parents may be wracked with guilt over the separation, and attempt to compensate by showering the children with expensive gifts.

Living situations vary: some stay with relatives, others in group houses with other international students, others with "homestays" (surrogate guardians who provide room and board, for a price). As Tsong and Liu learned, however, the kids still felt overwhelmingly alone.

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Perhaps most daunting of all, they are responsible for managing their own free time, a perilous task for any teenager.

"Three to ten is a long time to be on one’s own," one former parachute kid told psychologist Min Zhou in 1998. "I didn't like it at all. I got bored, turned on the TV, played video games, ate junk food. . . Good thing that none of my friends were in gangs."

The Rowland Heights case has invited scrutiny of this solitary existence, prompting communities in California and China to reconsider the ideal of the parachute kid.

"I'm sure they suffer from loneliness," Rayford Fountain, Yang’s attorney, said, according to the LA Times. "So they bond with other kids in the small Chinese circles with no supervision, no one to turn to for assistance. So these things can get out of control."

Some of the attackers were students at Oxford School, a private high school comprised of nothing more than a handful of portable classrooms behind a strip mall, according to the LA Times.

The school has 140 international students, mostly from China, who pay around US$12,000 in tuition annually.


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