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August 16, 2011

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China's young get European experience

CHINESE parents are paying a small fortune to send their children on study tours to Europe to get a taste of Western life. Rahul Venkit finds out exactly what the kids get from a trip to the continent.

Right before 12-year-old Shi Weidong boarded her first ever flight to Europe from her hometown of Chongqing Municipality in southwest China, her parents told her just one thing: "Do not come back without learning Western table manners."

A couple of weeks have since passed and Shi has been trying to make her parents' wish come true along with 250 other Chinese school children aged between 10 and 16.

They are attending a special summer school in Bonn, Germany, where they avoid chopsticks as far as possible.

Instead, they receive lessons in European dining etiquette, knife and fork in hand.

Also on the program menu are crash courses on local culture, mannerisms and the "European way of thinking."

These classes are neither ordinary nor cheap - a three-week module can cost 35,000 yuan (US$5,400) per child. Yet more Chinese parents from the country's burgeoning middle class do not seem to mind paying a small fortune to give their children the opportunity to learn soft skills in Europe.

"Back in the early 1970s when we were teenagers, we could never have dreamed of such a thing. Leaving the country was too expensive and too complicated," says Wu Ying, a banker from Beijing whose son is spending the summer learning English in west London.

"Experiencing Europe will add a touch of class to his personality and give him a headstart in his future career. So even though the program is expensive, it is worth it," he states.

At 60,000 yuan for six weeks, Wu is justified in calling his son's program expensive. However, as China grows, so does demand for European summer schools well beyond first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Li Xing is the co-founder of a consultancy that conducts study tours in Europe. When she approached two schools in Chongqing - Bashu and Shuren - she found she didn't have her work cut out.

"The schools did not need to be convinced. As a matter of fact, they reached out to us saying they want to go to Europe for a study trip," she says, adding that schools in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province and Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, were also showing interest.

"Rapidly growing cities in China have a lot of catching up to do, thus the demand for everything is high," she remarks.

But why is Europe the destination of choice for Chinese school students? Part of the reason is Chinese parents realize the benefits of their children better understanding China's largest trading partner.

According to Eurostat, EU exports to China grew nearly 40 percent to 113.1 billion euros (US$161 billion) last year, while imports from China rose by a third to 281.9 billion euros compared with the previous year.

Moreover, there is a firm belief that European methods of schooling can complement, and in certain aspects compensate for, the Chinese education system.

"In China, given the massive population, the schooling system is fiercely competitive and teaching methods can sometimes be rigid. Every student, supported by his or her family, is expected to diligently do whatever it takes to be on top," says Wang Ding, an education professional who facilitates summer programs for Chinese students in Europe.

"Whereas Europe tends to place emphasis on critical thinking and self-learning. So when Chinese school children come to Europe for the summer, it opens their eyes to a different world," Ding adds.

Dealing with Chinese families' only children or "little emperors," most of who are traveling abroad for the first time, can also be a challenge for organizers. Most Chinese children have six elders fussing over them, their parents and both sets of grandparents, a social phenomenon known as 4:2:1 in China.

"Many students we receive are urban kids used to easily getting what they want," says Rudolf Reiet, CEO of Caerus, a German firm that, among other things, organizes study tours and exchange programs in Europe and China.

"So our focus, and what parents request, is that we design programs to teach them European values such as self-sufficiency and taking initiative," he adds.

Britain, France and Germany remain the top summer school destinations, although it is not uncommon for Chinese groups to visit up to nine European cities in three weeks. To ensure safety, there is usually one adult supervisor for every six children and every child is given a European mobile phone number.

During the program, Chinese children can choose to learn a foreign language, stay with a host family and experience local culture through an array of special activities.

Eleven-year-old Zhu Dexian has dressed up as a knight, stayed in a medieval castle, attended a German bread-making workshop and enjoyed a day out in a real forest - a first for most Chinese kids who tend to grow up in industrial cities.

But what he especially enjoyed, he said, was interacting with European children his age. "Now I want to make friends everywhere around the world. I think it is very important," Zhu said during a field trip to Brussels.

Zhong Wei, 12, says her brush with Europe has inspired her to return here someday to study. "I like the way they teach here. Maybe I will come back to study in England. I have time to decide," she says.

Zhong's intention to come to Europe when she is older will please EU officials who are marking 2011 as the "EU-China Year of Youth." According to the European Commission, EU-China learning mobility flows have significantly expanded in the past 10 years, with six times more Chinese students in the EU today than in 2000.

"I am very happy that an intensive exchange of experiences is taking place between European and Chinese young people because this will contribute to opening up new youth employment opportunities in Europe and China," says Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth.

The EU's eagerness to attract Chinese students to study and work means business is booming for organizers of study tours in Europe. Reiet's firm in Germany, for example, is already booked out until next year. Student numbers from China double, sometimes even triple, with every incoming batch.

But the flow of students is hardly one-way. Across Europe, organizers report that demand from parents for similar study tours in China is also on the rise.

"When European and Chinese children interact in our inter-cultural programs, they ask each other questions about school and life in their countries. In the end, they realize that despite all the differences, they are pretty much the same," says Reiet.

Ultimately though, home is home. Even as more Chinese school children come to get their first taste of Europe, they do miss their homeland, their family and - last but not least - Chinese food a lot.

"We have to serve the kids at least one Chinese meal a day. If they eat Western food all the time, it makes them sick and fed up," says Reiet with a grin.


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