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How to get into Harvard... from Beijing

The long march from China to the Ivies

Brook Larmer discovers what Chinese students go through to get into top American universities

Brook Larmer discovers what Chinese students go through to get into top American universities

Brook Larmer | April/May 2016

As the daughter of a senior colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army, Ren Futong has lived all 17 years of her life in a high-walled military compound in northern Beijing. No foreigners are allowed inside the gates; the vast encampment, with its own bank, grocery store and laundromat, is patrolled by armed guards and goose-stepping soldiers.

Growing up in this enclave, Ren – also known as Monica, the English name she has adopted – imbibed the lessons of conformity and obedience, loyalty and patriotism, in their purest form. At her school, independent thought that deviated from the reams of right answers the students needed to memorise for the next exam was suppressed. The purpose of it all, Monica told me, was “to make everybody the same”.

For most of her childhood, Monica did as she was expected to. She gave up painting and calligraphy, and rose to the top of her class. Praised as a “study god”, she aced the national high-school entrance exam, but inside she was beginning to rebel. The agony and monotony of studying for that test made her dread the prospect of three more years cramming for the gaokao, the pressure-packed national exam whose result – a single number – is the sole criterion for admissions into Chinese universities.

One spring evening two years ago, Monica, then 15, came home to the compound and made what, for an acquiescent military daughter, was a startling pronouncement. “I told my parents that I was tired of preparing for tests like a machine,” she recalls. “I wanted to go to university in America.” She had hinted at this desire before, talking once over dinner about the freedom offered by an American liberal-arts education, but her parents had dismissed it as idle chatter. This time, they could see that she was dead serious. “My parents were kinda shocked,” she says. “They remained silent for a long period.”

Several days passed before they broke their silence. Her father, a taciturn career officer educated at a military academy, told her that “it would be much easier if you stayed in China where your future is guaranteed.” Her mother, an IT engineer, said Monica would very likely get into China’s most prestigious institution, Peking University, a training ground for the country’s future leaders. “Why give that up?” she asked. “We know the system here, but we know nothing about America, so we can’t help you there. You’d be totally on your own.” Then, after cycling through all the counter-arguments, her mother finally said: “If your heart is really set on going to the US, we will support your decision.”

The Ren family was taking a considerable risk. If Monica, their only child, wanted to study abroad, she would have to abandon the gaokao track, the only route available to universities within China, to have time to prepare for a completely different set of standardised tests and a confounding university application process. If she changed her mind – or, worse, failed to make the transition – she could not resume her studies within the Chinese system. And if that happened, she would miss the chance of going to an elite university and, therefore, of getting a top job within the system. For the Rens, this was the point of no return.

It is one of China’s curious contradictions that, even as the government tries to eradicate foreign influences from the country’s universities, the flood of Chinese students leaving for the West continues to rise. Over the past decade, the number of mainland Chinese students enrolled in American colleges and universities has nearly quintupled, from 62,523 in 2005 to 304,040 last year, according to the Institute of International Education. Many of these students are the sons and daughters of China’s rising elite, establishment families who can afford tuition fees of $60,000 a year for America’s top universities – and the tens of thousands of dollars needed to prepare for the transition. Even the daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s president and the man driving the campaign against foreign ideas, recently studied – under a pseudonym – at Harvard University.

Among Western educators, the Chinese system is famous for producing an elite corps of high-school students who regularly finish at the top of global test rankings, far ahead of their American and British counterparts. Yet so many Chinese families are now opting out of this system that selling education to Chinese students has become a profitable business for the West. They now account for nearly a third of all foreign students in America, contributing $9.8 billion a year to the United States’ economy. In Britain, too, Chinese students top the international lists. And the outflow shows no sign of subsiding: according to a recent Hurun Report, an annual survey of China’s elite, 80% of the country’s wealthy families plan to send their children abroad for education.

Not every Chinese student is driven, as Monica is, by the desire to escape the grind of the gaokao and get a more liberal education. For many Chinese families, sending a child to a Western university is a way of signalling status – yet “another luxury brand purchase,” as Jiang Xueqin, an educational consultant, puts it. For students faring poorly in the gaokao system, moreover, foreign universities offer an escape valve, and a way to gain an edge in the increasingly competitive job and marriage market back home. And for wealthy families seeking a safe haven for their assets – by one estimate more than $1 trillion in capital left China in 2015 – a foreign education for a child can serve as a first step towards capital flight, foreign investment, even eventual emigration.

CHINESE BOOKSTORES ARE LINED WITH MEMOIRS AND HOW-TO GUIDES WITH TITLES SUCH AS “STANFORD SILVER BULLET” OR “OUR DUMB LITTLE BOY GOES TO CAMBRIDGE”

The vast majority of Chinese applicants end up in large state universities, many in the American Midwest, where populations of more than 4,000 Chinese students (out of student bodies of more than 30,000) can segregate into miniature Chinatowns on campus. But name-brand universities have a cult-like allure. Every aspiring overseas student in China can rattle off the names of the top ten or twenty American universities. Chinese bookstores are lined with memoirs and how-to guides with titles such as “Stanford Silver Bullet” or “Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge”. The original bible of this motivational genre, “Harvard Girl Liu Yiting”, describes the “scientifically proven methods” that a couple used to turn their daughter into an academic star. In one of the tests they devised, she held ice in her bare hands for long periods to toughen herself up.

Competition for entrance into these schools is ferocious. Of the roughly 40,000 Chinese students applying to universities in the United States last year, around 200 were accepted into Ivy League schools. As a Beijing-based consultant puts it drily: “Harvard only accepts seven or eight Chinese students a year, and one of them is bound to be the offspring of a tycoon or a leader.” American applicants have it easy by comparison. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, accepted 9.7% of domestic applicants in 2015 – and a mere 3% of international applicants.

The application process can seem bafflingly complex. On top of the battery of standardised exams – the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL (measuring English proficiency) – American universities require transcripts, teacher recommendations, personal statements and supplemental essays. These are unknown in China, where university entrance hinges on a single gaokao score. Trickiest of all, American colleges want students who shine through their extracurricular activities and unique life experiences – anything that will make them singular. Applying to British universities is simpler: they base admission largely on A-level scores. Although these exams require students to master a greater range of materials and intellectual techniques than the Chinese gaokao, they at least offer a single metric.

Chinese students are products of an educational system that, for all of its high achievers, is built to suppress intellectual curiosity, creativity and individuality – the very qualities that American admissions officers value most. How do students construct a unique persona that appeals to American universities? And what kind of person do they think the admissions officers will find appealing? For some students, the process can be a painful journey of self-discovery. But for others, the sudden pressure to define and differentiate themselves can also drive them – and their parents – to do almost anything to succeed.

Before Monica’s father gave a final blessing to her American dream, he made her promise she would return to China after she graduated. The PLA’s strict rules would make it almost impossible for him to visit his daughter freely in America. He wanted to make sure that he, and China, wouldn’t lose her. When Monica introduced me to her father, a diminutive, sharp-eyed man in a leather cap and running shoes, he seemed wary of interacting with a foreigner, but confided: “I’m reluctant to let her go, but she has a mind of her own.”

Just days after the decision was final, Monica began plotting her future. First, she applied to transfer, in the 11th grade, from the gaokao track to the international wing of her elite public high school, Experimental High School of Beijing Normal University. Over the past few years, dozens of international wings have popped up in public schools across China, offering Western-style curricula and looser restrictions to wealthy students wanting to prepare for university abroad. It’s a profitable business. The nearly 400 students in Monica’s international wing each pay an annual tuition of roughly $15,000 per year – giving the public school a multi-million-dollar revenue stream.

Monica’s tuition was waived because she was in the top 10% of her class. The scholarship came with the expectation that she would get into an elite American university, an achievement that the school could use as a recruiting tool for new students. School officials prize brand-name universities just as much as the families do, and they try to create the conditions for students to succeed. After taking “mid-term” exams in early September, Monica – now in 12th grade – was suddenly free of any class obligations. She could devote the entire fall semester to honing her college applications.

This school-within-a-school phenomenon hints at China’s ambivalence toward the student exodus. The government seems torn between the elite’s desire to send its children to the West and the nationalistic pursuit of the “Chinese Dream”. Even as Xi’s daughter took seminars at Harvard, his government cracked down on university faculty and curricula “corrupted” by foreign influences – with the exception of a thickly bearded German philosopher.

As part of this campaign, Beijing decreed last year that international wings in public high schools should be shut down, or at least moved away from their host schools. But the municipalities required to implement this order will struggle to deal with places like Beijing Normal’s international wing, which is packed with the children of important officials. Like many of central government’s commands, it will be enforced slowly and unevenly.

Christina, her grandfather and those books

Monica got her first taste of the frenzy – and the fraud – surrounding the push to study abroad when she started preparing for the SAT and TOEFL. In her jam-packed test-prep classes, she heard rumours about agents selling answers and buying high scores. But it hit home only in late 2014, when suspected cheating caused a months-long delay in the release of SAT results – including hers – across East Asia. A bigger scandal erupted in May 2015, when 15 “ghost testers”, all Chinese nationals, were indicted in America for an alleged conspiracy in which they used fake passports to take standardised tests on behalf of mainland students. Their Chinese clients received near-perfect scores without lifting a pencil. The indictments didn’t solve the problem: in January 2016, tip-offs about widespread cheating led to an SAT test being cancelled in several Asian test centres two days before it was due to take place.

More than 40,000 mainland students now take the SAT each year. There are no SAT testing sites in China for mainland students, so Monica joined the hordes flooding into Singapore and Hong Kong on test weekends. One of the other students in Hong Kong with Monica, sitting in the hangar-sized hall with 10,000 other test-takers, was Lu Xuanqi, a shy, working-class girl from the north-eastern city of Harbin. Lu, who has adopted the name Christina for the application process, was poised to become the first member of her family ever to attend university. Her dream of studying abroad had been inspired, in part, by the collection of Western novels that her grandfather had hidden in the attic during the Cultural Revolution – and bequeathed to her when she was seven. Looking around at the sophisticated students from Shanghai and Beijing, Christina felt a bit intimidated. But her score was one of the best in the hall that day – 2,390, just points off a perfect mark.

Unlike Monica, Christina remained in her high school’s gaokao track, making her leap to an American university even longer and more perilous. Her family couldn’t afford to place her in an international wing or send her to boarding school abroad. To prepare for the SAT and TOEFL exams, Christina worked double shifts, slogging through mountains of gaokao school work while taking test-prep classes late into the evening. (She fell asleep at night watching episodes of “Friends”. Her mother didn’t like it, but Christina, who has studied English since kindergarten, says the show was “my best study tool”.) The breaking point came last autumn, at the start of 12th grade, when Christina had to choose between doing her American college applications and cramming for the gaokao.

Most gaokao programmes accommodate aspiring overseas students like Christina with a sleight-of-hand known as tuochan, a Mao-era word meaning “to be relieved of productive duty”. In this practice, students either drop out or, as in Christina’s case, are asked to leave school to focus on their American tests and applications. Most students tuochan in 12th grade, but the practice is spreading to earlier grades. Even some 6th-graders now ask for a leave of absence from classes to prepare for the earliest standardised test (the SSAT) in the autumn – what one consultant calls “tuochan season”.

For Christina, this decision would be irreversible. Once a 12th- grader leaves the gaokao track, there’s no way back. From the moment in September when she and five classmates felt compelled to tuochan, their high-school careers were effectively over. Christina would not return to class again, and she would turn all of her attention to cracking the code of the American application process. So Monica and Christina, in their desire to get a liberal-arts education, spent their final year in high school being educated in little more than the art of getting into college in America.

On a winter afternoon in Shanghai, six young students – the oldest is 14 – stand awkwardly in the living room of a renovated townhouse, nibbling on muffins and attempting to engage in small talk with their counterparts. The exercise is part of an “interview prep” class run by Shang Learning, a small consulting firm that caters to middle-schoolers aiming to enrol in American boarding schools as a stepping-stone to university. Several well-coiffed mothers stand in the background, monitoring their children’s performances. One woman cloaked in a white designer wrap positions herself behind her 12-year-old son. During a lull in the small talk, she whispers a bit too loudly into his ear: “Ask her questions, too!”

The competition to get into elite American universities has become so fierce that wealthy Chinese families prepare their children at ever younger ages. Shang Learning, which trains 9- to 15-year-olds, charges about $23,000 to guide students through the year of their applications to boarding schools. Most of the students also choose from a series of à la carte courses in topics such as “reading and writing” or “interview prep”, with each two-hour session costing nearly $400. That might seem like some expensive small talk, but Nini Suet, the effervescent founder of Shang Learning, says that a student’s poise and presentation during an admissions interview can make all the difference in getting accepted into a top boarding school – and, ultimately, into an elite university. According to admissions experts, Ivy League universities are taking a higher percentage of mainland Chinese students from elite boarding schools than from Chinese schools.

“Let’s face it, it’s easier for admissions officers to trust Chinese applicants who have already thrived in a boarding-school environment,” says Suet. “Those students won’t have trouble adjusting to campus life, and their applications can be trusted.” Prep schools, in turn, feel more comfortable with Chinese students who have gone through junior boarding schools or even American primary schools, meaning that the pressure is on to head to America at an ever earlier age. One wealthy Shanghai family recently flew Suet to San Francisco to try to help their third-grade son get placed into a top primary school in Silicon Valley.

Every family is seeking an edge. One young student told me her parents took her to see Harvard when she was in fourth grade; a 12-year-old was the youngest to attend summer camp at UCLA. The mother of one Shang Learning student introduced Suet to a good friend who was keen to sign up her own son. It was a cheerful exchange, but afterwards, Suet received a tweet from the first mother: “Don’t take her son!” Then: “If you do, then don’t let her son apply to the same schools as my son.” Suet laughs: “The parents are all ‘frenemies’.”

The most polished student in the room that day is Celina So, a pony-tailed 14-year-old who has just returned from a ten-day, ten-school admissions tour in America with an independent consultant, and without her parents. The tour costs $1,250 a day and the consultant can be brutally direct about the kids’ shortcomings. But Celina, once too shy to look an adult in the eye, has returned with new-found confidence and a hooded sweatshirt with the name of her first-choice school, the Hotchkiss School, emblazoned on the sleeve. During her small-talk session, Celina – who is still finishing up her applications – sits up straight, chats with a consultant about “The Great Gatsby”, and then asks: “What other books would you recommend to a student in my position?”

Navigating the transition to an American school can seem so daunting that nearly every Chinese family hires an agent or admissions consultant, fuelling a sort of educational arms race. “Once parents hear that their child’s classmates have consultants”, says Jiang, “they feel guilty if they don’t hire one, too.”

Educational consulting in China is not only a booming industry – bringing in, by some estimates, more than half a billion dollars a year. In a highly competitive environment where families are often flying blind, admissions consultants exert an outsized influence over the application process. Many agents take money both from families seeking admission and from universities trying to recruit full-tuition-paying students. The agents, in turn, pay high schools to funnel students toward their services.

When Monica’s and Christina’s parents began to search for agencies, they found that most offered baogan, or “full service”. The phrase confused Christina’s parents at first, but the agencies explained that it meant they would handle the entire application – manufacturing transcripts, recommendations, extra-curriculars, even personal essays. Their daughter, the agents reassured them, wouldn’t need to do a thing. According to Zinch China, a consulting firm that assists American schools handling Chinese students, up to three-quarters of all Chinese students have other people, usually agents, write their application essays. Christina’s father was dismissive. “I didn’t trust those agents,” he told me later. “I thought my daughter should write the essays herself.”

American universities, too, have learned to mistrust applications coming from China. Their suspicions are often grounded in unpleasant experience, most commonly with Chinese students whose high TOEFL scores or eloquent personal essays are betrayed by an inability to form coherent sentences in English. Few universities have the resources to check up on each of their applicants’ claims – and indeed, with the amount of cash full-tuition-paying Chinese students are bringing in, some don’t have much incentive either. “American universities know the problem persists but it’s really hard to devise a cost-effective solution,” says Dennis Yang, author of a new book about the student exodus called “The Pursuit of the Chinese Dream in America”.

The documentation from schools may not be trustworthy. A student who felt compelled to tuochan told me that Chinese teachers “simply make up grades at random” for the classes they have skipped. Chinese teachers as a rule don’t write recommendations, so students must conjure them up themselves, treating it, according to a consultant, “as a creative writing sample in which you have to write in another person’s voice”.

Mistrust of Chinese applications has spawned a small “verification” industry in China. No company can prove whether a perfect SAT score came from hard work or fraud – or whether a singular personal experience described in an essay is real or imagined. But several firms, such as the Beijing-based Vericant, now conduct video-taped interviews with applicants, in English, and post them online so that colleges and universities can evaluate whether their ability matches their test scores. Another measure of confidence comes from the emergence of high-end agencies that have a track record of sending reliable students to top universities.

After sifting through the options, Monica and Christina both gravitated to Elite Scholars of China (ESC), a boutique consultancy based in Beijing. Run by Tomer Rothschild and Stacy Palestrant, an expatriate American couple, the agency guides a small group of top students (100 this year) through the application process. Most students pay more than $15,000, and Rothschild insists that students write their own essays and push beyond “the gaokao mentality”. “Students always start out trying to find the formula to copy, but that’s precisely the wrong approach to use in the application process,” he says. “They need to stand out, find something unique, but they’ve never tried to analyse themselves before.”

Christina remembers the first “disorientation” session with her ESC counsellor. “All my life my test scores and grades were my identity,” she says. “But then my counsellor said, ‘Okay, I know you have good grades. What else?’ And I had nothing to say. Nothing. When grades are taken away from us, we think we have nothing else to compare.” Gripped by doubt, Christina wondered why she had chosen this path. Her revered grandfather had always disapproved – he wanted her to go to the prestigious Peking University – and her parents had gone into debt to pay even the discounted ESC fee. Her college choices, moreover, would be constrained by her need for financial aid. Still, she stuck with it, leaving home at 5am every Wednesday to board a train for an 18-hour round-trip to the city of Shenyang, where she met her counsellor.

Monica, by contrast, felt exhilarated by an early brainstorming session. She already knew what to expect. Several former schoolmates had gone through ESC (and on to the Ivy League), and a posse of current classmates, including her best friend, Brittney Cui, were also working with the consultancy. Still, she was surprised by how liberating it felt to reflect on her life and to think that in this world, at least, “there is no ‘formula’ to solve everything, it’s not like a test.” One idea she tossed out that day – a possible theme for an essay – was her own ambivalence about the compound where she grew up and the culture of conformity that shaped her.

Heads down at a practice test session at ESC

The summer before her final year in high school, Monica learned, was the most crucial time to do something noble or creative to impress American college admissions officers – to, as she says, “add sparkle to your résumé”.

The obsession among top colleges with extra-curriculars has created a strange ritual in America. In the summer preceding application, students devise heart-warming experiences that will demonstrate how they embody the ideals of empathy, leadership or resilience: they volunteer at soup kitchens for homeless people, they start a sports league for disadvantaged youths, or – if their families are wealthy – they fly off to Haiti, Guatemala or Ghana to build houses for the poor.

Even for Americans, who are used to the idea and who, one supposes, have an innate sense of what admissions officers are looking for, this is an odd process. But in China, it is surreal. Most students have had little chance to develop outside interests, so are trying to create rounded personalities from a standing start. Many have extremely wealthy families that are willing to spend whatever it takes to make them stand out.

American admissions officers say they are now inundated with videos, photo albums and even hardback books from Chinese applicants trying to impress them with their exploits and expeditions. A Beijing school official told me about a boy from north-eastern China whose father flew him in a private plane to Tibet – for just a day – to make a video of him aiding poor minorities. Last year, one of my friends in Beijing tutored a girl whose full-time academic co-ordinator helped her score a trifecta: directing a feature film; volunteering in an earthquake-hit village; and orchestrating, via mobile phone, a “flash mob” for malaria awareness.

It’s not just families, either. A couple of years ago, the international wing of Peking University High School organised a student trip to a poor village in Botswana. The expensive excursion was unashamedly designed to give the students something exotic and humane to insert into their college essays. At least the Botswana trip was a credential that school administrators could vouch for. Some of the outlandish experiences Chinese applicants claim to have had are so hard to verify that they become a source of amusement rather than assessment.

Monica found this charade faintly ridiculous, but she had to play the game. The previous summer, she had joined a herd of Chinese classmates participating in a Model United Nations programme at Harvard. “Everybody did it, so I did, too,” she says. Tomer Rothschild uses this as an example of Chinese students’ susceptibility to genfeng, or following the crowd – the opposite of the impression they are trying to create. “All of these Chinese students do the Model UN, but they have no idea why. In trying to make sense of the process, they become worse applicants.”

Monica tried a different tack. Coached by her ESC counsellors, she devised a research project on African art, focusing on scarification and body piercings in sub-Saharan cultures. “I used to think scarification was just a way to torture yourself,” she says, “But African people use it as a way to show social status” – rather like the college application process. She insists that her interest in African art is not designed only to impress admissions officers. But she does see the subject’s exoticism as a sign of how far she has come from her army upbringing. “People living in the military compounds don’t consider things like African art.”

Even more liberating for Monica was a two-week liberal-arts seminar she attended last summer in southern China. The classes in philosophy and political identity, taught by Amherst College professors, did not come with college credits or certificates, and her pragmatic mother fretted about the utility of studying such “soft” subjects. Still, Monica was fully engaged. In the political identity seminar, she debated gender and nationalism and read “The Communist Manifesto” for the first time. “It’s quite funny,” she says. “In school we have all these political classes about communism, but we’ve never read the original works of Marx or Mao. Instead of indoctrinating, I think it’s important to let students read the original work and interpret from their own experience.”

“I AM DROWNING IN SAMENESS...I FORESEE YEARS FROM NOW THAT MY LIFE WILL BE IDENTICAL WITH THOSE IN THE COMPOUND. THAT IS NOT WHAT I WANT”

When Monica returned home, she began provoking gentle arguments with her father, the colonel. “He thinks obedience to authority is necessary, and that conformity should be encouraged, but I sometimes disagree,” she says. “It is stressful to live as a military daughter without the right to express a unique thought.” This was almost sacrilege, but the colonel didn’t immediately shut her down. (Later, he told me: “I respect her thinking.”) This, Monica decided, would be the topic of her application essay to the University of Chicago. Her reflections on obedience and individuality capture a broader tension in Chinese society – and in the students heading abroad. “I am drowning in sameness,” she wrote in the essay. “In an environment in which individualism is not valued, I foresee years from now that my life will be identical with those of the compound. That is not what I want.”

As the application deadline loomed last fall, Christina began to panic. She had spent three summer weeks in America at Amherst’s Great Books Programme, reading Nietzsche, Homer and J.K. Rowling. Back in China, though, she struggled to focus on an essay topic. When she finally settled on her fourth idea – an impressionistic piece about swimming – it took 19 drafts to finish. After mailing the “early decision” application to Smith College, in Massachusetts, she began working on supplemental essays for 18 other colleges, because she needed to get into one that would give her financial aid. “The essay process can be painful, but it’s pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to examine my life,” she says. “The students who get agents to do everything may get into good universities, but they miss a very precious journey.”

The subjectivity of the American admissions process can make the wait between application and result seem excruciatingly long, especially for Chinese students used to the certainty of the gaokao system.

In December, the night before Smith College announced its decisions, I chatted with Christina online. “God, I’m so nervous,” she said. “I might not be able to talk to you tomorrow because I’ll be too depressed.” The next morning, she texted: “I got in!” Smith had accepted her with almost a full scholarship, justifying her parents’ sacrifice. Christina went to school to tell her gaokao teachers. Her SAT test-prep agency hired her that very day to teach younger students – and serve as the face of success to sell to prospective clients. But she did not tell her grandfather, whose books had started her on this journey a decade before. “It’s hard to explain to him,” she says, “because Smith is not Harvard.”

Monica was still awaiting her results when she heard about two friends who had applied to the same Ivy League school. One got in, the other did not. The next day, her friend Brittney learned she was one of just a handful of mainland Chinese students to be accepted by Yale on early decision. Monica had to agonise for another three days before the University of Chicago told her she had been accepted. She will make a final decision later this spring, when she finds out the result of her “regular decision” applications to five other top-ranked schools, including Yale.

On a frigid, blustery January day, Monica, Christina and 33 other ESC students made their way to a hotel on the north side of Beijing. Several hundred people were waiting for them in the hotel ballroom. Many in the crowd were young high-school students and their parents, coming to learn about a possible path to American universities. On stage, Rothschild stood behind the podium, getting ready to present the most persuasive pitch for ESC: 35 of his early-decision success stories. (Overall, 52 out of ESC’s 100 students were accepted in this round.)

The ballroom went dark, a spotlight shone in the corner, and the soaring strains of the “Star Wars” theme music played over the loudspeakers. One by one, the students stepped out into the noise and light and waved to the crowd. Rothschild introduced them in Mandarin, emphasising the names of the famous institutions to which they had been admitted: Yale, Duke, Pennsylvania. Christina smiled nervously into the light, her face flushed. Below her, clapping loudly, was the couple from Harbin who had sacrificed their savings for their daughter’s dream.

Monica, elegant in a black skirt and red blouse, stepped up next and gave a modest wave. She couldn’t see through the blinding light but, in the front row, a man of military posture stood next to his cherry-cheeked wife, nodding with quiet pride. After years of conversations and arguments, the PLA colonel had given in to the reality that his strong-willed daughter would be moving out of the army compound – and heading to America.

12 Readers' comments

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Budi 11520 - December 29th 2016

A very insightful article. I can testify that this phenomenon is real. How their children are doing is the new status for (especially east) asian parents. Of course children with western-oriented upbringing are able to integrate easier (thanks capitalism and pop culture) while their conventional counterparts mostly stay with their like-minded cluster. Hence why some students still can't converse in their place of study's language. Which is regretful since one of the goal of studying abroad is to broaden one's mind. I definitely agree with @pottyfrodo. A follow-up article on how these kids are doing would be surely interesting.

Chinese President - December 29th 2016

Very good article. I am watching this exodus closely. World is one family.

sfcalling - October 10th 2016

The Three Cuts have not even begun to stop bleeding. CHINA: Excellent Hardware, No Software

pottyfrodo - August 14th 2016

it would be really interesting and insightful if in a couple of years' time, there is a follow up write-up to the girls featured here to update on how they've fared, what they've learned now that they have gone and lived in the US and what are their next plans. I'm really curious to see how the two very different education routes they have been on will merge and what their contributions back to society be it in China or not look like.

Charlesfund - May 28th 2016

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agingerrail - May 12th 2016

I have the exact same thermostat as in Christina's home

Pavel - April 24th 2016

A former Starbucks HR once told me that 1/3 of all barristas are business school grads

Gantal - March 30th 2016

"When you’ve learned by rote all your life"?? Rote learning is more a Western thing. Chinese kids are among the least likely to use it as it's not a winning long-term strategy, and Chinese think long term about their education as they do about everything. See 'Memorization in Schools', OECD. Or try your hand at some gaokao test questions yourself (available on the web) and see how well rote learning would have prepared you to answer them. Here's one: "Based on the three given uses of ‘road’, below, write an essay. 1. “The Earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men passed one way, a road was made.” —Lu Hsun (Lu Xun) 2. There is no such thing as a road that dare not to be walked, only people who dare not to walk it. 3. You may take the wrong road sometimes, but if you keep walking, it will become a brand new road. The average Chinese kid is better educated than the average American kid, and the best-educated public school Chinese kid is much better educated than kids from the best public school system in America. The OECD's PISA scores and commentary bear this out. For more read "Learning from Shanghai", by Charlene Tan (Springer).

Audrey Reneau - March 20th 2016

A wonderfully written and engaging piece. One comment would be that although it is easier for British universities in general, Oxbridge has quite a different admissions process involving personal essays, tests, interviews etc. Additionally, the figures regarding MIT stated that "9.7% of domestic applicants in 2015" whilst "a mere 3% of international applicants". Does this refer to Chinese-American students? It seems awfully low to be depicting domestic applicants in general.

elin - March 18th 2016

Getting into an elite school is a privilege. Some may consider the greatest challenge is about how to "get in", yet the hardest part is about how we are going to make a difference as we "get out". Today, the young generation across the world are facing an increasingly divided education system that is leading to a divided society. The aspiration is that together - especially with those who have had the privilege of receiving higher education - we can change the status quo and turn this into an undivided world.

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