Wealthy Chinese send kids to boarding school overseas in a young age
Contacts, prestige and a solid education can be a class act, Luo Wangshu reports in Shanghai.
Tina Shan’s beautifully tanned face glowed with enthusiasm as she talked about her two years at Concord Academy, a private school in Massachusetts in the United States.
“My mom’s idol is Jacqueline Kennedy and she always says she never imagined she would be able to send her daughter to the school Jackie’ daughter attended. The connection makes her feel really great,” said the 17-year-old from Shanghai.
Shan is also thrilled at the people whose paths cross hers. “After taking the exam to enter Concord, I went to the cinema and watched 2012. I didn’t imagine that I would end up as a schoolmate of the daughter of one of the stars.” she said.
Through the exclusive school, Shan also shares connections with Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, Queen Noor of Jordan and other notable alumni.
Those connections come at a price, though. The fee for boarding students at Concord is $48,000 during the 2011-12 school year, but Shan’s parents are unlikely to miss the money. Her father works in a real estate company, and her mother used to work in an international trading business. Originally from Wenzhou in East China’s Zhejing province, a hotbed of private industry in the 1980s, the couple moved to Shanghai, many years ago.
Shan and her peers are part of a growing trend among wealthy Chinese parents to send their children to elite secondary schools. The parents may have worked their way up from the bottom of a developing nation, but want their children to have international skills and gain entry to the global elite.
At Eton College in the UK, which counts Princes William and Harry among its alumni, Chinese students make up the second-largest group among international scholars, after those from the US, according to headmaster Tony Little.
At the Webb School in California, whose motto is “Leaders, not ordinary men”, the number of applications from Chinese students has risen fourfold since 2006, said Leo Marshall, director of admission and financial aid.
These Chinese students mainly come from three distinct family types: they are the children of political leaders, business people – the largest group – and professionals, especially those with academic strengths, such as college professors. They are the new kids on the block, but their numbers are growing, said Eton’s Little.
Moreover, 80 percent of Chinese millionaires plan to send their children to study overseas, according to research conducted earlier this year by the Hurun Research Institute. Among the super-wealthy, such as billionaires, the number rises to more than 90 percent. In the past five years, the super-wealthy have started to send their children abroad at a younger age, sometimes as young as 13, and they are fascinated by elite schools.
Shan said she was only the second student from the Chinese mainland to gain admission to Concord Academy, but the year she entered the school, 2010, three other children from the Chinese mainland arrived and became her schoolmates.
“The largest national group among the international students used to be Korean, there were around 30. But now, Chinese students have taken the top spot. The numbers include those from outside the Chinese mainland, places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as some first-generation children of emigres, who hold American passports but still reside in China,” said Shan.
“The Chinese parents have seen the international opportunities. They are the first generation with global vision and they send their second- and third-generations to study overseas to gain international skills,” said Rupert Hoogewerf, founder of the Hurun Research Institute.
Eton has good academic results and its students regularly gain admission to the top universities, according to Little. However, the school aims to provide a rounded and high-quality education, and not just good exam grades. “Eton is not an exam factory,” said Little. “Instead, we care about whether our students will suit all environments and take all the opportunities open to them.”
The students are expected to spend time on a range of non-exam-related compulsory courses, such as philosophy and music. They study six days a week, but on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, school finishes at lunchtime and the students engage in a range of outside activities and sports. Also, all students have to play a team sport. “That’s how they learn team work,” said Little.
Marshall from the Webb School said that its current crop of Chinese students are top performers, and are set to follow in the footsteps of previous generations who gained admission to elite universities such as John Hopkins and UCLA.
Tina Shan is fascinated by the cultural heritage of Concord Academy and its insistence on humility. “Although Concord is one of the top schools in the world, we never strive to stand out, rather we tend to keep things within the community. I think CA teaches its students to remain low-key whatever their achievements. I believe that’s why many celebrities send their kids to CA,” said Shan.
“The school absolutely forbids any kind of bullying or even displays of seniority. The seniors usually reach out to the underclassmen and are always more than willing to help, even though they have all achieved enough to justify a haughty and intimidating manner,” she said. “I am just a little speck in the bright history of CA.”
Yang Hang, a student at the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, ranked by Forbes as one of the top 20 best US private schools in 2010, said he has learned to think critically and to respect differing opinions.
“I wrote an essay about why Chiang Kai-shek lost the Chinese mainland. To prepare, I researched the topic myself, collected information online and went to libraries all over the city. I think I did it pretty well at the end,” said the 17-year-old, adding that he could never imagine writing such an essay in a Chinese high school. “Students just learn the textbooks to prepare for gaokao (China’s university entrance exam),” he said.
Although Yang’s teacher disagreed with the conclusion of his essay, she still considered it a good piece of work. “I still gained a high grade. There is no right or wrong answer in US schools, only reasonable or unreasonable answers,” said Yang, who finished primary school in China before spending a short period at a middle school, ahead of moving to the US three years ago.
“A Western education will give him more opportunity to think and talk,” said Anna Fang, Yang’s mother. “He started international school early, because we wanted him to be prepared for education overseas,” she added.
As graduates of Peking University and the owners of a Los Angeles design company, Yang’s parents are part of the upwardly mobile professional group, who are sending their children to study abroad in increasing numbers.
Thomas Hudnut, president of Harvard-Westlake, said Yang is one of his top students. “Our school aims to prepare future leaders, and Yang is definitely one of them,” he said.
At Eton, only 10 percent of its students come from international backgrounds, but the school has many successful Chinese pupils, said Little, who recalled a boy from Beijing who attended the school almost five years ago. “He was a house captain in his senior year, and is now studying at a university,” he said. The house captains are selected to be leaders and are considered Eton’s best students.
Little said that Chinese students are hard workers and rarely involved in trouble, but they often experience great difficulty in adapting to Western culture. “It’s a big jump for them,” said Little. “For example, they believe it’s rude to look into the headmaster’s eyes, but in the West, eye contact is very important in establishing trust.”
Little also believes that once Chinese students understand Western social mores, they improve tremendously and are successful. “Sometimes Chinese students are very locked in Eton helps them to broaden their vision and embrace the world,” he said. “Instead of keeping everything locked inside, we want them to be more outward looking.”
Marshall said the Chinese students at Webb are diligent and smart, but sometimes they find it difficult to overcome the language barrier. “At the beginning they usually need some time before they get involved in class discussions,” he said.
That view was echoed by Tina Shan, who initially found it hard to become close friends with her Western classmates. “It was easier for me to be friends with Asians because we share the same culture and values. But things improved when I entered the sophomore year,” she said.
William Vanbergen, managing director of BE Education, a Shanghai-based consultancy that helps to prepare students for overseas study, has noticed an increase in the number of Chinese entrepreneurs sending their children to the world’s top schools.
He said that building language skills and developing mutual trust are the key drivers for the parents. “The younger they (the children) go, the better they adapt to the way of thinking and the language,” Vanbergen said.
“Chinese students will build their international trust through their friends at school, who are also likely to become future leaders in all fields,” he said, adding that Chinese children currently exert a powerful attraction on students from other countries. “China is such a powerful economic entity and people want to know someone there, to make connections.”
Hoogewerf from Hurun spoke about the growing desire for overseas education among wealthy families. “It is like a MBA course providing a communication platform for students, these schools offer a chance to network at an early age,” he said.
A cautious note
However, Xia Xueluan, a retired professor of sociology at Peking University, sounded a cautious note, warning that sending kids overseas when too young could cause problems and present them with extreme challenges.
He believed that some parents, who may have made their fortunes on the back of China’s reform and opening-up policy, are obsessed with the Western world and hold a strong belief in the values it espouses, but he said they are ignoring many of the advantages inherent in Chinese education.
“Although they have the best intentions when they send their children abroad to study, it is better for the children to go at an older age, when they can look after themselves better,” Xia said.
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said that wealthy parents who hope their children will enter the elite, may find that the end result is different from what they’d imagined. “All good education teaches a student to be a rounded citizen, to treat every one equally, and to care about people, instead of assuming privileges. That’s where the elite lies,” he said.
The Webb School maintains a steady number of Chinese students at all times, making life more demanding for those hoping to gain admission. Meanwhile, Eton has only admitted about 10 students from the Chinese mainland in the past decade, according to Vanbergen.
However, money doesn’t always guarantee acceptance at an elite school. Barbara Zhong, a student at the Yew Chung International School of Shanghai, is making her second attempt to gain admission to her dream school. “I received some offers last year, but not from the places at the top of my list.” Instead of accepting what is, for her, second best, she has decided to re-apply in the hope of securing a place at the school of her choice. “It will be worth the wait,” she said.
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