For Chinese Families, a Journey Cut Short, and With It Their Dreams
By Vivian Yee, NY Times, July 7, 2013
For three weeks, they would have seen America through the sunny lens of a Southern California summer camp: learning about American customs and English idioms in the mornings, visiting local theme parks in the afternoons and touring Stanford University and the Google campus on the weekends.
To see it all, the Chinese teenagers from Zhejiang Province had to fly through Seoul, South Korea, and into San Francisco International Airport, where their plane clipped the edge of the runway, skidded and burst into flames. Two of the students were left dead on the tarmac—the only fatalities—as their classmates fled the burning aircraft.
The two 16-year-old victims were identified on Sunday as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, both girls from the town of Jiangshan, who were among 34 10th-grade students and chaperones bound for the camp at West Valley Christian School outside Los Angeles.
The girls and their classmates were part of a wave of thousands of affluent Chinese children who come to the United States each summer for language study and cultural immersion, many passing through California on their way to tour Ivy League campuses, go swimming, eat chili dogs and practice their English.
"Those two could’ve easily been girls coming to my camp," said Steve Haines, who runs Horizons USA, an immersion camp for international students near Philadelphia. "I have plenty of girls just like them."
He said he had already fielded several calls from worried parents in China, where about three-quarters of his international campers come from, some as young as 8.
Chinese students have been enrolling in American universities and even private high schools in droves for years, with almost 200,000 coming to the United States on student visas in the 2011-12 academic year. But it has become more and more common for well-off families in China to send children to summer camps throughout America, which many Chinese parents see as preparation for studying at American universities or, increasingly, private high schools.
Directors of these summer programs say it has become a competitive industry, buoyed by China’s economic ascent, a favorable exchange rate and parents willing to pay to give their children an edge in admission at American high schools and colleges.
The programs can cost as much as $12,000 for a few weeks at a prestigious campus, though prices in the range of $2,000 to $7,000 are more common. Many parents also pay extra fees to agencies that place their children with the American programs.
"Many of them are thinking about university," said David Lin, the director of the Chinese Culture Association, whose camp is in San Bernardino, Calif. "But their parents also want them to experience American life."
Mr. Lin’s program hosts as many as 500 Chinese students a year, who come for two weeks at a time. Most are the children of real estate moguls, engineers and doctors. Between English classes and sports at the Y.M.C.A., they explore local landmarks and go on to visit Washington, Disneyland and the campuses of Harvard, Yale and M.I.T.
Some camps include SAT preparation and consultations on applying to selective high schools and colleges. Others offer specialized classes in science, journalism or American etiquette. Still others promise full immersion, like Horizons USA, where students stay with host families and spend their days playing sports and games alongside American children.
West Valley Christian School, where the Zhejiang group was scheduled to start on Monday, has hosted groups from Korea every year for the past 12 years. The group from Zhejiang was to be the school’s first Chinese group, and several church members who had signed up to host the schoolchildren were shocked and “devastated,” said Derek Swales, the school’s administrator.