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A cautionary tale for would-be absentee parents
By Doug Young

THIS week’s Street View takes us back to my other adopted hometown of Los Angles, where a case of extreme bullying is shining a spotlight on what sometimes happens to the growing number of Chinese kids who get shipped abroad by their parents to study in US high schools.

Back when I first came to China in the 1980s, only the hardest working and brightest young people could go to study abroad, almost always on full scholarships that they applied for and received by themselves for graduate studies.

The difficulty of that early process weeded out all but the brightest and most motivated students, who were usually in their early 20s or older and savvy enough to take care of themselves in a strange and unfamiliar environment.

Fast forward to the present, a new generation of young kids from big cities like Shanghai are being sent abroad to study in US high schools with little or no adult supervision and even less experience of living on their own.

The case that’s been in the headlines this past week centers on three such “parachute kids,” all of whom were sent to high schools in the San Gabriel Valley, a part of Los Angeles known for its high concentration of Chinese.

Absent any major adult supervision, the trio apparently decided to spend their time outside school bullying other parachute kids, in behavior that ultimately spiraled out of control.

The bottom line saw the trio plead guilty to a wide range of crimes, as they were accused of kidnapping, beating, spitting on and stripping their victims, and even burning one with cigarettes and forcing her to eat her own hair.

Some observers said the tale read like something from “Lord of the Flies,” the famous novel where a group of young British school boys fall into similar types of behavior after becoming isolated on an island without adult supervision.

But the results of the case of these three kids was hardly something from a novel. The worst offender, a 19-year-old named Zhai Yunyao, was sentenced to 13 years in prison, while her two co-defendants received sentences of 10 and six years. Apparently the trio could have faced even longer jail terms, but the prosecutor agreed not to file potential torture charges due to their lack of any previous criminal record.

If all this is making your head spin, it also came as quite a surprise to me. But after some thought, it really shouldn’t be that surprising when one considers this growing trend by Chinese parents to send their kids abroad unsupervised.

I know quite a few people who’ve done this, including one of my regular gym friends who recently disappeared for a couple of months. When he returned, he told me he and his wife had taken their son to a school in Canada, and had stayed for two months to let him acclimatize before returning home to their own lives in China.

A number of other friends have done similar things with their teen-aged children. Many think their children are highly intelligent people who can take care of themselves and behave responsibly, even though they seldom give their kids a chance to show such maturity here in China. My sister teaches some of these kids in her job at a university in Boston, and often comments the huge pressure they feel to live up to that kind of expectation.

While many might find the jail time for these three Chinese kids extreme, I expect the prosecutors insisted on such long sentences to send a strong message to the thousands of parents in China considering sending their kids abroad to study without supervision. I certainly have quite a bit of sympathy for those kids, who must feel a certain sense of abandonment when being sent abroad at such a young age.

In many ways it’s really the parents who are equally to blame in cases like this, since many might argue they are shirking their responsibility by shipping their kids off to live alone overseas. But for now at least, those parents remain innocent in the eyes of the law, and instead it’s their badly behaving kids like Zhai who are taking all the blame.

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