Dr. Donna Velliaris shares her content expertise on trending topics in education

Soaring Numbers of Parachute Kids: Moving Experiences

By Donna Velliaris on Jun 21, 2017
Emerging Research TrendsDr. Donna Velliaris
Immigration trends over the past decade suggest that greater numbers of children are migrating alone to study abroad. Parachute Kids (PKs) first emerged in the early 1990s and are younger (under 18 years) than the adult international students (over 18 years) who move overseas for tertiary-level studies. PKs are defined as underaged students who venture abroad ‘solo’, primarily to undertake primary and/or secondary-level education. They come from several Asian countries, namely China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, with smaller numbers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam.

There are several terms used to describe this population. ‘Air-dropped children’, ‘child dumping’, ‘parental dumping’, and/or ‘unaccompanied minors’ have been coined due to the perceived lack of parental care while these youngsters attend school in a foreign country. They may reside alone, with a relative, with a family friend, or with an unrelated paid caregiver. In some cases, parents will purchase a home/apartment in the host country for greater comfort and ease. If PKs have a so-called ‘guardian’ in the host country to provide a local address and sign their paperwork, they can register for school. Notably, it is difficult to obtain an accurate number of PKs across the globe as varying visa statuses and a dearth of demographic data make this calculation problematic.

‘In 2005, only 641 Chinese students were enrolled in American high schools. By 2014, that student population approached 40,000 – a 60-fold increase in a single decade – and it [PKs] now accounts for nearly half of all international high-school students in the United States’.
—New York Times Magazine, 2 February 2017

In certain Asian countries, tertiary education is a much desired but out-of-reach goal for high school graduates, due to rigorous unified national examinations. The allure of a Western education is a big draw card. This ‘parachuting’ method is a way for Asian parents to enable their PKs to receive instruction that promotes critical/creative thinking and that prepares them for entrance into Western universities.

‘…to get away from the stultifying, high-pressure school systems of China and Taiwan and from what they see as the precarious economic and political futures of those countries. The parents hope their children will receive a better education — less strict, more open and creative — and eventually, better jobs, ideally in the US’.
—The Hechinger Report, 4 October 2016

For the most part, parents are responsible for the malleable period when children’s fundamental sense-of-self is in development. It is often assumed that youngsters will readily adapt to new surroundings, as they are more context vulnerable than older youth and/or adults. In comparison to their monoethnic and geographically-stable counterparts, however, PKs may lose the reaffirming influence that comes when important cultures in their life—family culture, school culture, and community culture—coincide. And, in acculturating to a foreign environment, PKs may become affected in lasting ways. That is, they do not develop in isolation, but are largely influenced by family, school and community relationships or what may be referred to as dyadic and triadic partnerships.

‘Globalization and rapid wealth creation have put two Chinese traditional values at odds: family and education. Now, more parents are willing to split their families apart and send their children here alone’.
—Los Angeles Times, 21 November 2016

Asian parents worry that their PKs will suffer emotionally in their absence, but they separate to provide for them in ‘other’ ways. Indeed, the stress of both ‘immigration + separation’ from the family unit may lead to disruptive social and educational experiences over varying lengths of time and with varying degrees of intensity. Oftentimes, PKs feel marginalized and overwhelmed by being caught between two countries, two educational systems, and two sets of values.

‘…many of the ‘parachute kids’ whose parents rely on shady intermediaries to help them through the bewildering application process are in for a hard landing…ill-equipped to navigate the cultural transition and their newfound independence’.
—South China Morning Post, 4 April 2016

The degree to which PKs are shaped by changes in their social and educational ecologies, understand those changes, and respond adaptively, will differ. Many experience complexities in their new environment as a result of ‘premature’ independence i.e., hurdles such as a demanding workload at school, a lack of familiarity with the local culture, cooking meals, household chores, managing finances, paying bills, and even perhaps, caring for younger siblings. Moreover, emotions may be aggravated by the pressure they feel due to the financial sacrifice(s) made by parents for their benefit.

In addition, PKs are expected to return ‘home’ after being educated abroad and having gained advantages in the global job market for being able to speak fluent English compared with those peers who were educated in the homeland. In actuality though, such theoretical ideation is unlike the reality that PKs face. For example, irregular parental contact may not reveal much about their everyday lives; the aggression, alienation, anger, anxiety, depression, frustration, homesickness, isolation, loneliness, sadness, struggles with their ‘identity’ and even suicidal tendencies. Relatedly, parents are rarely in town and there is insufficient communication with school staff.

‘Left alone and afloat in a foreign culture, some parachute kids rebel…ditching class, running away, bullying, or even ending up in jail. Last year, a group of Chinese parachute kids here on F-1 visas, attending a private school in Southern California, kidnapped and assaulted [tortured] a classmate. The group was convicted earlier this year and its members were sentenced to three to 13 years in prison, depending on their role in the attack’.
—The Hechinger Report, 4 October 2016

It has been said that PKs challenge mainstream assumptions that the needs of minors are parents’ responsibility. As previously stated, if PKs have a host country person with a local address and who are amenable to signing the necessary paperwork as ‘guardian’, they can register for school out of country. But is that enough? Answer, ‘No!’

Stringent policies pertaining to guardianship and homestay eligibility requirements, and evaluation of such operations are crucial, as this type of study abroad ‘pathway’ can act as a mechanism for an unregulated industry of parental surrogacy. Without delay, the PK phenomena warrants heightened attention to strengthen the parachute fabric and suspension lines, slow descent, and allow for precision-controlling that better enables a smooth glide to the designated target zone. Today, this route has too many flaws that present PKs with the likelihood of spiralling out-of-control and plummeting to the ground at an escalated speed from jumping unaccompanied to an unknown and foreign landscape.
Many thanks to Dr. Donna Velliaris for taking time out of her busy schedule to collaborate with IGI Global and for sharing her thoughts about parachute kids. Please take a moment to view her titles below.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of IGI Global.
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