The Phenomena of 'Parachute' Kids

The Los Angeles Times—which I still faithfully read—ran a story last week on the phenomena of so called "parachute" kids, in a somewhat sensational headline, "Teens' attack on Chinese girl draws comparison to 'Lord of the Flies' from judge".

For those of you who do not know, the concept of "parachute" kids (I find the term particularly derogatory, thus I will continue to use it in quotations) is not a new phenomenon. Beginning in the early 80s and 90s, Taiwanese families, in particular, who could afford it would send their kids to the United States for any part of a K-12 education—usually the later years. This is in an effort to provide their kids what they deemed a better education, one away from the stressful and overbearing environment of Taiwanese schools.

Although I was born and grew up in the United States, my parents, for example, would continue to remind me throughout my K-12 education how lucky I was that I could go to American schools, and how difficult growing up in Taiwan was for them. Seeing depictions of Taiwanese classrooms in popular Taiwanese culture—TV shows, movies, etc.—I believed them.

Many parents of these "parachute" kids would—and continue to—send their children to the United States in or before high school so their kids would have a better chance of getting into an American college.

These kids are in the headlines again, thanks to the horrific crimes of three teens in particular that tortured and assaulted a fellow student, Yiran Camellia Liu. Below is a quote from the LA Times, and I would warn you with a trigger warning of assault and torture before you read on:

...they took her to a nearby park, where they stripped her naked, kicked her with high-heeled shoes, slapped her hundreds of times and burned her nipples with cigarettes. They cut off her hair and made her eat it...

It is indeed horrifying and tragic.

Yet part of the angle of the LA Times article and subsequent commentary seemed not to be on the horrifying incident, but instead the presence of "parachute" kids in the United States, particularly in the Los Angeles region.

The rationale behind sending children from China or Taiwan to the United States for school hasn't changed—to "escape China's ultra-competitive college entrance exams." According to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel via the article, the number of American high school students on F-1 student visas have increased from 1,700 in 2009 to over 80,000 in 2014. Currently, more than half of foreign high school students in California are from China.

The article blames the lack of "steadying influence of parents and other family members" for students that "spiral out of control," which quite frustrates me. While I agree that without parents, students may have a more difficult time in their adolescence, the lack of empathy in this article for these students and their families shocks me.

How is this different, then, from students sent to boarding schools away from their families, to college across the country, and the like? Parallels may be drawn here that we would not take as much offense to.

Yet the real reason behind me writing this post is not from the original article itself, but from a reader's response to it, posted online at the LA Times.

This "Readers React" piece published yesterday demonstrates gross xenophobia and ignorance.

The writer claims, "Any parent who would send his or her child off alone to a foreign country—even if the intent is to obtain a better education or a better life for the child—has missed a few vital chapters in the book of parenting."

If the intent is to "obtain a better education or a better life," I'd say the parents are already trying pretty damn hard. It's extremely expensive to send your kids overseas for such a prolonged period of time—the class privilege required to do so is another conversation to have—and many families scrape together that cost to allow their kids to be in the U.S.

The reader in question wants "this absurd program of unsupervised children must be brought to an immediate end."

But while it may be frustrating for some that this practice exists, and I understand the possible extra burden this places on the shoulders of teachers (some of my past teachers have expressed this to me on Facebook), I do not think this should be brought to an end.

It's not at all easy for these students. I grew up with peers that were in the U.S. alone or with distant relatives, and I've seen many of them struggle with their limited English proficiency, bullying, and social exclusion.

What we need to do is to provide better support for these students—not just in the classroom but also outside of the classroom, from improving their English proficiency to ensuring they have guidance from trusted individuals, including teachers or school counselors.

We cannot begin to have this conversation blaming the families, the parents, or the kids themselves. Pointing fingers is not useful. It is critical to keep in mind the well-being of these students, the challenges they face, and the struggle they go through in being in a foreign country to them.

If we are to be a country that will live up to our purported ideals of being a "land of immigrants," a "melting pot," or "land of opportunity," shutting out students from legally residing in our communities to obtain an education is wrong.

This conversation cannot end here. These kids, growing up in American schools and culture, cannot be tossed aside and forgotten—or worse, deported.

(Photo Credit: Brian van der Brug via Los Angeles Times)