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July 15, 2011

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Summer camp's no fun

THE latest vogue in Chinese children's summer camping is sending students to the US and other Western countries where parents want them to attend high school. Wang Jie reports.

For better-off Chinese families, the two-month-long summer vacation is time to send their children to see the outside world at pricey Western summer camps preparing them for high school abroad.

Sending children to Western "camps" - where they practice their English, visit universities and see the sights - is getting to be popular among families that can afford it. They believe overseas experience will give their children an academic, economic and social advantage. Other ambitious parents send their children to local summer training programs (there's almost no more traditional camp) where they drill in English, math, Chinese composition and get-ahead enrichment courses like calligraphy that look good on their resumes.

"I am sending my daughter to Washington, DC, this summer," says Zhang Lixin, a 51-year-old dad. "I've done quite a lot of research on overseas summer camps in the past few months and I could even be an agent."

Zhang, a journalist, has chosen a one-month-long camp that costs around US$6,100, plus around US$1,500 air fare. He found the camp himself and didn't use an agent, though there are many Chinese agents who help parents select and apply for the most appropriate camps.

"Many agents recommend one or two weeks of overseas camp, but I think that's too short a time and a waste of time and money. Schedules usually include visits to several top universities in North America and English training class, but how much can these teenagers absorb in just two weeks?"

This is a warm up trip for the girl, since Zhang plans to send her to an American high school next fall.

"This trip will be an unforgettable experience for her, since she has never spent a month outside China without her parents," he adds. "It will open an independent chapter in her life."

Obviously Zhang has a clear vision of what he wants for his daughter and what summer camp should be and he can pay for it.

Other parents are not so clear or well-off.

"It is really a headache for me when the two-month-long summer vacation starts, because I don't know where to put my son," says Ronnie Xu, a forty-something white collar worker with a 12-year-old son. "My husband and I are so busy with our jobs, but it would concern me to see him spending all his days in an air-conditioned room, watching TV or playing online games."

But Xu decided immediately to send him to an overseas camp after she visited a local camp near Jiao Tong University.

"I was so disappointed because one class was crowded with almost 40 students, it's just like every-day schooling," she says.

"I know the cost overseas is rather high, but when I think how busy and hardworking my son is at school I decided this would be a relaxing trip for him, a reward," she says.

The camp in Australia costs her a month of salary.

English First, a English training center, operates summer camps in America, Canada, England and Australia. A three-week camp in America costs 35,000 yuan (US$5,407) to 40,000 yuan. A similar Australian camp costs around 30,000 yuan.

The three-week summer camp in the United States provides half a day of English training classes from Monday to Friday, plus visits to universities, museums, companies and nearby cities. There's also entertainment.

There's no agent's fee since the company has branches overseas.

Some parents say the cost is too high.

"Ten years ago, my brother spent around US$30,000 to get an MBA degree," says Rebecca Wu, a 37-year-old professional. "Today US$5,000 for just three weeks? I would rather travel with my son and visit tourist sights that interest us."

But overseas summer camp appears to be a trend.

"This definitely will be a big market in the future," father Zhang says. "You know why? Because more and more Chinese parents are considering sending their kids to study abroad."

Many ambitious parents see an advantage in a Western education and credentials when their children return to China.

In the past, parent sent children to study abroad when they were more mature, as university or graduate students. But now they want to immerse their children even earlier, as high school students.

"I want my son to receive the best education. Yale and Harvard are his targets," says Pan Zheng, a forty-something employee of a media company. "It's better for him to melt with Western culture and the education system as early as possible. The earlier he begins, the better he will handle it."

Other Chinese parents are disappointed with what they calls China's rigid education system that doesn't encourage independence and creative thinking. It's also relentlessly competitive and test-oriented; students are under enormous pressure to excel.

"Do you know what the education system is like today? There's one word for it - 'terrible'," says Li Siwen, a mother of a fifth-grade primary school student. "The competition is ferocious. There are no weekends for my daughter, she does her homework late into the night every night since she is studying in one of the city's top schools."

"Every morning when I drive her to school, she makes use of every minute, reciting English and Chinese lessons in the car. This causes a lot of suffering for everyone, so I am considering sending her to America for high school. It would be a release for both of us."

Psychologists say there's nothing wrong with early overseas study, but warn that many children lead very sheltered lives, protected by their parents, and may have difficulty adjusting to life overseas.

"The only problem is whether the child is able to lead an independent life all by himself or herself," says Feng Yalan, a psychologist at East China Normal University. "If the child has been too dependent on parents, this could cause psychological problems later. These Chinese parents who want to send their children overseas for study should have a better understanding of their children's minds. I always say a caring and understanding heart on a spiritual level is more important than material advantage for children."


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