汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2016年3期

BYjames Wilkinson

Lifes not so simple for the parachute generation


In January of this year, three students from Californias San Gabriel Valley accepted a plea deal that saw them going to prison for the kidnap and assault of a fellow teenager in 2015, a crime in which the girl was burned with cigarettes and made to eat her own hair. A third charge of torture was dropped by prosecutors. The salacious details alone would have earned the case front page coverage, but what really excited the press were two words: “parachute kids.”

Coined in the 1980s, the term refers to young children and teenagers below 18 years old who move to the US to study alone, while their parents stay in their home countries. Naturally, the thought of children—foreign children, at that—running wild was like catnip to the US press.

But the reality is that parachute children face unique difficulties because of their position, and as a consequence some of them do act out—if not in the numbers to qualify for a full-on moral panic.

Zhou Qian (not her real name), now an undergraduate design student in New York City, came to the US from Taiwan when she was 16, attending high school first in Texas and then in New York. And while she says most parachute kids she encountered get on with their schooling, she has come across some who went off the rails.

One such kid was a mainland Chinese boy who went on to attend her boyfriends university in Philadelphia. “His parents gave him money for living expenses and tuition,” she says. “It was a lot of money. But then he went and spent it on a Maserati, so he had no money for the next semesters tuition, or even food. He didnt even buy insurance for the car! He just wanted to show off and take girls out.”

She continued: “One of my friends from [my New York] high school went to university in Seattle, but she got pregnant while visiting home in China and decided to return and have the baby in America. She felt lonely here, and she couldnt go back because her parents didnt want her, so she wanted to build a family.” The babys father, also Chinese, wanted nothing to do with the child. Nevertheless, Zhou says, her friend is happier now.

Loneliness is something that Zhou herself experienced when she first moved to the US to attend high school in Texas. With initially weak English skills, a student body that was mostly white and disinterested in her, and few Asian classmates, she found herself alone for most of her time there. And not having friends led to other problems. “It was a Catholic military school,” she says, “so for me it was like a jail. I couldnt go out without their permission, and there was no way to get anywhere except by car.”

“They were terrified international students would get lost,” she added. “So we could only go somewhere if we could get the ‘dorm parents to take us. They would only take groups of three or four and because I had no friends, I couldnt go anywhere.”

Dr. TsongYuying is an assistant professor specializing in Asian-American psychology at California State University and is particularly focused on the parachute kid phenomenon. She says that loneliness is a common theme among the parachute kids that she has interviewed, and one of the primary causes of distress that can lead to negative effects such as depression, seclusion or acting out.

But even if parachute kids do make friends at school, they arent always able to be fully open about their situation. Many are in the country effectively undocumented. Others have visas that demand they live with their parents but are in fact living with family friends or even strangers who are paid to give them a bed.

“If thats the case then there is often pressure not to tell anyone why youre here,” explains Dr. Tsong. “One of the people I interviewed, hes Korean, he was told by his parents and guardians he couldnt say anything, even to other Asians or Koreans. He was also told to walk away from police officers. So he developed a fear of authority.”

“So there was an earthquake, and the police were checking door-to-door to see whether everyone was okay. When he opened the door on police officers, he literally fainted,” Dr. Tsongadded.“If you live with those fears in your daily life, thats a lot of psychological distress.”

Thats far from the only source of distress for parachute kids, says Dr. Tsong. If their parents arent wealthy, the knowledge of how much they are costing them—and how much of a return is expected on that expense—can be upsetting. If their guardians are just in it for the money there can be little emotional support. And, if they didnt want to come to the US in the first place, tensions are exacerbated.

These kinds of issues are not unique to any one race, of course, but Dr. Tsong believes Asian cultures can bring with them extra complications, such as a heavy focus on academic achievement and a tendency for self-blame stemming from “cultural values like collectivism, achievement focus, humility, and filial piety.”

She stresses that this doesnt apply to all Asian kids, but says it is very common for them to believe that their teachers, being figures of authority, are infallible, and to consider what their parents sacrificed before they think of their own emotional needs.