Peggy Wang has lived in China her entire life. A successful, English-speaking executive, she frequently travels abroad for work, but never imagined that her most recent itinerary would include dropping off her 15-year-old daughter at a prestigious boarding school outside Washington.
While there is a long history of Chinese students pursuing advanced degrees abroad, especially in the United States, Ms. Wang's daughter, Susan Li, is part of a rapidly growing trend in which Chinese students are choosing to seek their education overseas as early as middle school or high school.
In the 2010-11 school year alone, nearly 24,000 high school-age Chinese were studying in the US, more than 15 percent of the total number of Chinese students in the US overall, up from virtually none five years ago. US middle schools hosted 6,725 Chinese middle schoolers in 2011, up from just 65 in 2006, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
This phenomenon, known as students "growing younger" in Chinese, is seen as resulting from two key interrelated factors: the rigidity of the Chinese education system, and a desire to avoid the gaokao, the country's rigorous college-entrance exam, for which six-day-a-week preparation begins in 9th grade.
Not surprisingly, officials at schools with a significant number of Chinese students say the students have heightened the sense of competition and achievement. But they also say the students have helped others see a more nuanced and human view of China. For many of the Chinese students themselves, it is most likely the beginning of lives lived abroad, given that the core of their education will have come in English – and without the gaokao.
The most commonly cited reason for "growing younger" is "the general sense that education in China is very rigid, too conservative, and doesn't encourage creative thinking," says Tian Fangmeng, a professor at Beijing Normal University's School of Social Development and Public Policy.
Wang's daughter, Susan, points to the lack of flexibility in the Chinese education system as the main motivation behind her decision to study at a US high school. "In China, everything you learn is in preparation for a test or entrance exam. There were no opportunities for me to choose my own classes and to learn things I was really interested in. In the US, I can do things my own way."
According to Wang, Susan has not expressed any negativity about school since arriving in the US. In China, "when she complained about her teachers and their 'stupid requirements' or how the students 'never expressed dissent,' I wouldn't listen to her because I felt that if I did, I would only be encouraging her to voice her nonconformist opinions at school, which is a death-knell in the Chinese education system."
Shirley Zhou, whose son attends a public high school in Chicago, encouraged him to attend a US high school so that he could "learn to speak really beautiful English – almost like a native speaker," but is just as pleased with how much more "talkative and open" her 16-year-old has become. Ms. Zhou also notes that "he is becoming more and more independent with each passing day," and while that is sometimes challenging for her as a mother, she has never regretted her decision to send him abroad at such a young age.
"In China, it was clear what academic road he was on and what kind of university he could have attended," she says. "Studying abroad opens up other possibilities and I'm hopeful he'll get accepted to a better university as a result."
For Wang and Zhou and the tens of thousands of other Chinese parents whose children are enrolled in US high schools, there is little choice but to have their kids apply to US colleges. Entrance to Chinese universities is based solely on one's gaokao score.
Many students currently enrolled in US high schools left China precisely to get out of taking the gaokao. According to most recent statistics available from the Chinese Ministry of Education, more than 200,000 students cited "gaokao avoidance" as their primary motivation for seeking their high school education abroad.
Given the dismal job prospects for new college graduates in China, most feel fortunate to be preparing for university in the US. Nearly 7 million students graduated from Chinese institutions of higher learning this year, according to China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, resulting in what netizens have dubbed the "hardest job-hunting season" in the country's history.
In spite of a tough job market for new grads, Susan says she is not opposed to returning home in a few years, but thinks "it would be hard to go back to China after eight years in the US. At that point, all my connections will be here and all my advanced academic and professional vocabulary will be in English, not Chinese." Still, she says, "it will really depend on where the best work opportunities are."
At least for now, the Chinese government is not worried about top middle school graduates like Susan leaving China, says Professor Tian.
"They may be very smart, but they weren't trained in China and China didn't invest in them, so the government doesn't feel the same sense of loss that they do when a graduate from a top university like Beijing or Qinghua goes abroad and doesn't come back."
Regardless of where these Chinese teenagers ultimately end up, they are currently making their presence felt at US middle and high schools.
At Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, where 25 percent of the school is either Asian or Asian-American, students from China are the fastest-growing segment of that population.
"It's a 180-degree change from when I started here eight years ago, when the majority of our Asian students were Korean," says Susanne Torabi, Andover's international student coordinator. "Back then, we had two mainland Chinese students, both of whom were on financial aid." Andover enrolled seven Chinese students last fall and is expecting 14 at the start of this school year.
In terms of their impact on campus, Ms. Torabi notes that "many of them are very driven, making an already competitive place even more so. They're raising the bar."
Torabi also points out that there are many differences even within Andover's Chinese community itself, making for a richer, more interesting campus on the whole.
"We have students from both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some students are second- or third-generation Chinese-Americans, some have dual citizenship, others had never left China before coming here, some attended private schools and others public."
Max Borowitz, who studies Mandarin at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., says his high school experience was "significantly different" than it would have been without so many Chinese students on campus.
"They taught me things about conversational Chinese that I never would have seen in textbooks," he says. "Almost every conversation I had was much more interesting, because it added a rare new perspective on the day's issues and showed me China is not a monolith, which wouldn't have been so apparent had I not gone to school with them."