Chinese mother’s interviews with 90 students studying overseas provide insight

By Li Qian Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/7 19:08:00

Li Ming (right) interviews a Chinese student in the US. Photo: Courtesy of Li Ming

"He suddenly stopped talking and lowered his head, then I saw his shoulders shaking, and I realized he was weeping. It was like his emotions were overflowing slowly but steadily," Li Ming said, describing her interview with a top-ranking Chinese student at Imperial College London.

In 2015, Li interviewed 90 overseas students for her book about student education.

This kind of reaction was a common one among Chinese students in foreign countries when they were asked, "What do you want to say to your parents?" Whether they were successful or struggling, the students unanimously expressed gratitude toward their parents back home for their sacrifices and the support they received both financially and spiritually. Many became emotional and tearful. This became the most memorable part of Li's interviews, which she recorded in her book, Overhear.

After the interviews, which were conducted across the US and the UK, the 42-year-old mother said she had learned from the children and will not force her son, currently attending high school, into making any decision against his own will about his education.

Li Ming. Photo: Courtesy of Li Ming

Concerns for the children

Like most Chinese parents, who are famous for being demanding when it comes to their children's education and willing to make sacrifices for that end, Li used to be anxious about her son's education and future. She went so far into the process that she became something of an education expert by writing books documenting the stories of Chinese students.

She has published two books focusing on middle school and college students. For her latest book, she interviewed 130 outstanding Chinese students, including 90 attending college in the US and the UK, to show the real lives of this group of young academics.

It started in 2012 when her son was admitted to the Nanjing Foreign Language School, a top middle school in Jiangsu Province. The parents of the school's students formed a chat group on the online platform QQ to exchange ideas about their children's studies. The group expanded quickly from 500 members to more than 2,000. They were engaged in various activities, including donating to impoverished and sick students. During the process, Li started a project that involved interviewing ordinary families and recording how each family educated their children. They eventually published the book, which told the true stories of 46 families.

The book became a hit and led to a great deal of discussion among parents in Nanjing. The most talked about topic was young students being sent overseas to study. China is the country with the largest number of students going abroad for their studies. In 2014, nearly 460,000 Chinese students started to attend foreign schools, a number that has seen double-digit year-on-year growth over the past decade.

At that time, Li's son also went to a foreign school. That prompted Li to learn more about Chinese students studying abroad.

How they coped in a foreign culture and what the experience gave them were things she eagerly wanted to learn about, especially when negative news about Chinese students in foreign schools came one after another. She found a company that offered international education in a number of top Chinese high schools, and asked them to recommend students for her to interview.

Beginnings of project

Her project began in March 2015, starting in Nanjing. She went to a number of top US universities including Harvard and Yale as well as to the UK to interview Chinese students there, and eventually published the book in October that year.

As Chinese parents increasingly look to foreign universities, Li's experience has won her large throngs of supporters wherever she goes to meet her readers. She has also been invited to give lectures around the country.

Over the course of several months, she traveled to many cities to meet local parents, and found they focused on different things when it came to overseas studies.

"I was amazed by the parents' questions in different localities," Li told the Global Times. "Parents in Hefei, Anhui Province, asked me whether their children graduating from foreign universities would mean they would make more money than Peking University and Tsinghua University graduates, while many parents in Tianjin, probably because they are close to Beijing, wanted to know if students graduating from foreign universities would become members of the social elite."

Parents in Chengdu, a city in Southwest China famous for its leisurely lifestyle, are eager to send their children overseas to avoid them indulging in an easy life from an early age, despite their relatively low income. Meanwhile, parents in Dalian, in Northeast China, questioned the use of going abroad at all, Li said.

One thing they have in common is the desire to provide a good education to the kids.

"One mother in Nanjing asked me how her kid, who is only 6 years old, could get into Yale," she said. "I couldn't answer that question, so I asked her to think of what her child could contribute to Yale."

One parent in Kunming particularly impressed her. "She said 'we are the middle class, but we are anxious about our children's future.' There are only limited resources, and only a couple of good schools in her city. She said she had struggled to reach the economic and social status she now enjoys, so she wants to push herself even more to attain higher achievements for her child."

The question she is asked most, Li said, is when she will publish a book about how Chinese students can land a good job after graduating from foreign universities, which is eventually what the parents care about most.

Newspaper headline: Journey of learning

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