From Shenyang to Michigan, in search of the American dream

Chinese students and their parents at an education expo in Beijing. In 2005, only 641 Chinese students were enrolled in US high schools. By 2014, that student population was close to 40,000 - a sixty-fold increase in a single decade - and it now acco
Chinese students and their parents at an education expo in Beijing. In 2005, only 641 Chinese students were enrolled in US high schools. By 2014, that student population was close to 40,000 - a sixty-fold increase in a single decade - and it now accounts for nearly half of all international high-school students in the United States.PHOTO: NYTIMES

In Oxford, Michigan, a programme to bring students from China to its high school is welcomed, before it meets with resistance

When I first met Yang Jinkai, two days before he boarded a plane for America, the smog hanging over his industrial home city, Shenyang, had turned the sun into a ghostly orb. The 16-year-old paced around the family apartment as his mother labelled his suitcases and packed them with the comforts of home: quilted pyjamas, chopsticks, instant noodles.

Yang had never travelled outside China. But he had already chosen a new first name for his life in America, Korbin ("That sounds American, right?"), and was daydreaming about the adventure ahead. "It will be magical," he said. "I'll make lots of American friends. I'd like to have an American girlfriend. Maybe" - he shot a glance at his father - "I'll even get a gun." Over the summer, Korbin had been working on his English by watching, perhaps too zealously, the American television series Criminal Minds.

To help Korbin escape the competitive straitjacket of the Chinese education system, his father had paid nearly US$40,000 (S$56,500) to an education consultancy to get him enrolled in a public high school in Michigan. The Yang family's ultimate goal was for Korbin to attend a top university in the United States, and the name of his new high school, Oxford, only added to the allure. It didn't matter that the place had no connection to the British university or that this Oxford was a small town north of Detroit.

Even as US-China relations have slipped towards mutual antagonism, the flood of Chinese students coming to the US has kept rising. About 370,000 students from the mainland are enrolled in US high schools and universities, six times more than a decade ago. Their financial impact - US$11.4 billion in contributions to the US economy in 2015, according to the Department of Commerce - has turned education into one of America's top "exports" to China.

It is a strange historical moment when the elites of a rising power send their only sons and daughters, products of China's former one-child policy, to the schools of a geopolitical rival. Yet the idea of a liberal Western education exerts an almost talismanic hold over China's ruling classes. Even President Xi Jinping, who is presiding over a crackdown on Western influences in China's schools, allowed his daughter to attend Harvard.

Even as US-China relations have slipped towards mutual antagonism, the flood of Chinese students coming to the US kept rising. Roughly 370,000 students from the mainland are enrolled in American high schools and universities, six times more than a decade ago.

In 2005, only 641 Chinese students were enrolled in US high schools. By 2014, that student population had approached 40,000 - a sixty-fold increase in a single decade - and it now accounts for nearly half of all international high-school students in the US.

As a new administration vowing "America First" settles into the White House, there is uncertainty about how long this phenomenon can last. But the exodus of Chinese students continues for now, driven not just by a push from China but also by a pull from the US. For each rich Chinese kid who enters an American school - whether public or private, college or high school - the multiplier effect means that entire communities can be buoyed by the buying power of the world's second-largest economy.

OXFORD DREAMS

Few public school districts in the US have deeper ties to China than Oxford, Michigan.

In 2010, the town tried to create the first pipeline of Chinese students into a public high school, one embodying its high school's motto - "Where the globe is our classroom" - even as it brought tuition money to the school.

But when a Beijing education company proposed building a multimillion-dollar dormitory for Chinese students on the Oxford campus, a community battle ensued.

Chance put Korbin's family at the starting point of Oxford's experiment, in Shenyang. His parents grew up without proper education in rural villages haunted by the memories of famine. His father, Mr Yang Huaiguo, migrated to Shenyang and scavenged for scrap metal before finding success in the boiler- repair business and real estate. But he worried about Korbin's education and the unrelenting pressure to study for the two exams that determine a Chinese student's future: the high school entrance exam, the zhongkao, and the university entrance exam, the gaokao. There seemed to be no way out, until Korbin's school opened a global wing in partnership with Oxford.

During his first days in Oxford, Korbin marvelled at the blue skies, so different from north-eastern China, and the absence of skyscrapers. All of America, in his TV-fuelled imagination, was supposed to look like New York. Beyond its main street and century-old storefronts, Oxford (population 3,500) is a patchwork of gravel pits and horse stables, wooded sub-divisions and a strip mall containing a single Chinese restaurant.

Korbin's host family lived in a house on a leafy cul-de-sac, with two basketball hoops in the driveway and a trampoline out back. Suddenly Korbin had four blond American siblings and a host mother he called "Mum". His host father was as an engineer in an automobile industry that blamed the loss of thousands of jobs in the last recession on a single culprit: China.

Korbin immersed himself in Americana: football games, big-box stores, even a Christian megachurch with its own rock band. He was hardly alone in his American adventure.

Michigan has become a particularly popular destination for Chinese public high school students in the US, and more than a dozen kids from Shenyang lived nearby. Even at Oxford, where Korbin and 23 other students ended up because their academic programme in China and its agent, the BCC International Education Group, had partnered with the school, there were 19 other Chinese kids brought in by a Beijing- based company, Weiming Education Group.

The two crowds didn't mix much, in part because most of the Weiming students lived in a dormitory at Rochester College, a liberal arts Christian school half an hour away. Korbin felt lucky with his American homestay.

Chinese students tend to be far richer than their American counterparts, particularly in public high schools. Even among the middle- class students at Oxford, the Chinese kids stirred up envy, and some resentment, by flaunting multiple versions of just-released iPhones. (Korbin had only one.)

Korbin's Chinese housemate, Oscar Kou, who liked to talk about his father's fleet of luxury cars, spent several thousand dollars on a laptop so powerful it blew out the fuses in their host family's house.

Making American friends wasn't as simple as Korbin had imagined. In the hallways at Oxford High School, whose student body numbers 1,845, the Chinese kids clustered together, chattering in Mandarin. Korbin longed to interact with his American classmates, but every time he tried, the conversations fizzled when he couldn't understand their cultural references or slang. Still, Korbin made no secret of his mission. "I'm a Chinese boy," he told his classes, "but I really, really want to make American friends. It's the most important thing to me."

Perhaps his best chance came at the homecoming dance that autumn. As he walked across the floor under the spinning lights of a disco ball, Korbin worked up his nerve and asked an American girl to dance. She just laughed. Another girl, another rejection.

Finally, the third entreaty succeeded - just as a slow song started up and the dancers turned into a tangle of embracing couples. Korbin's feet stopped, and his arms locked at his sides. "I totally froze," he said.

The girl drifted off to rejoin her friends, leaving Korbin alone, wondering if a Chinese boy could ever find his footing in America.

CHINESE AMBITIONS IN U.S. HIGH SCHOOLS

If your initial encounter with Mr William Skilling took place in the Beijing Capital International Airport, as mine did, it would be easy to take the man in crisp khakis and a button-down shirt for a missionary. As superintendent of Oxford Community Schools, Mr Skilling did see himself as a sort of evangelist for global education. On this trip to China, his 19th, he was reviewing plans for Weiming to build its multimillion-dollar dorm on land bordering Oxford High School.

For Mr Skilling, the dorm project was the culmination of years of networking with Chinese officials, educators and businessmen. His first foray into the China market was in 2008, when with the Chinese government's help he started what would become one of the largest Mandarin-language programmes in US schools. Today, more than 2,300 students in Oxford schools, K to 12, take daily classes in Chinese. The Mandarin classes were also part of a local government plan to lure Chinese investment to south-eastern Michigan.

The Chinese government lauded Oxford's programme, and Mr Skilling parlayed that recognition into sister-school arrangements with 20 Chinese schools. One major deal was struck with Korbin's public school in Shenyang, which opened an international school for Chinese students aiming to go to a US high school with a famous name.

With that deal, Mr Skilling had lined up his first supply of Chinese students for Oxford. He also devised a way around the US regulations that restricted international students to just one year in public high schools, by having a local college sponsor the second year. The second year was important: Chinese families want their children to have enough time to prepare for the American college process.

Soon, Oxford was attracting Chinese companies with even bigger ambitions. On a trip to Michigan in late 2012, Weiming's president, Lin Hao, laid out a vision in which 10,000 Chinese students would enrol in high schools in the US. If the number of Chinese students hit a certain threshold - from 80 to 100 students - Weiming promised to build a multimillion-dollar student centre and dormitory, at no cost to the school.

Korbin's campaign for American friends succeeded at one point, but the group of jocks and slackers that adopted him wanted him to join them in hazing other kids, including the few African-Americans at the school. "I tried so hard to make American friends, but I lost all of my own Chinese style and character," he told me.

Stung by the experience, Korbin buried himself in his studies - and emerged as a patriot. In September 2015, he posted a picture on social media of the Chinese flag with the words "Great China!" At school, he nearly came to blows with a student who was badmouthing the Chinese "dictatorship".

Korbin and Oscar left their host family and moved in with four other Chinese students under the care of a local grandmother. His interactions with American students dwindled anyway, because everyone in his college-level classes - the requirement to maintain his visa during his second year - was Chinese.

Still, Korbin remembers his senior year fondly. His grade-point average rose to near the top of his class - a 3.96 - and his standardised-test scores climbed just in time for his college applications.

'CHINESE INVASION'

"Are you here for the meeting about the Chinese invasion?"

I had just pulled into the Oxford school parking lot when a bearded man in a baseball cap, an auto engineer, appeared at my car window and grumbled about the subject of that night's public forum: Weiming's plan to build its Oxford High School dorm. Until October 2014, Oxford's move into China's orbit - the Mandarin-language programme, the influx of Chinese students - had met with little resistance. But the proposed dorm for Chinese students hit a nerve. And now, as the engineer and 60 other residents gathered in the school atrium, Mr Skilling found himself on the defensive.

After touting the benefits of cultural exchange, Mr Skilling outlined the finances. When the school reached its goal of 200 tuition paying Chinese students, he said, an estimated US$1.3 million in annual net revenue would flow into its coffers. The bigger incentive, he argued, was the multimillion-dollar dorm, which would include eight classrooms for use by all students.

Behind the scenes, a group of Oxford citizens known as Team 20 had begun looking into the international programme. In the spring of 2015, Team 20, which sent the district a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests, found, among other things, that the school board had agreed to a 20-year deal based on Mr Skilling's recommendation.

Federal agents questioned Mr Skilling about his consulting work for Weiming. (Mr Skilling says he ceased consulting before the Oxford deal went through.) One of them also wanted to know more about the visa manoeuvre by which Chinese students were staying for two years instead of one. Mr Skilling retired months later, and Weiming, without giving any explanation, put the dorm project on hold.

Weiming still has roughly 100 of its students at Oxford. And with thousands more students in its Chinese schools expecting to come to the US, the search for a flagship location continues. In 2015, the company bid US$12.6 million for a 24ha property in West Hartford, Connecticut. Local officials supported the plan, but last May, the City Council, responding to vocal opposition to a little-known Chinese company taking control of land in the city centre, voted against it.

Hovering in the background of the West Hartford debate was the suspension of the Weiming dorm in Oxford - and the government's unresolved investigation into its international programme. By November, the Department of Homeland Security offered a verdict. The visa manoeuvre would not be permitted in the future, a blow to the model Oxford pioneered.

DEEP IMPRESSION

The alphabetical seating at Oxford High School's graduation ceremony last June put Korbin Yang in one of the last rows, surrounded by a clutch of Chinese classmates whose surnames begin with the letters X, Y or Z. They formed a sort of school-within-a-school, watching the parade of American graduates they barely knew.

In the autumn, Korbin headed to Pennsylvania State University. His parents were proud he had gotten into a Top 50 university where almost 2,500 Chinese students were already enrolled.

When I visited Korbin last summer in Shenyang, he took me to a US-style craft-beer pub his father partly owns. Over a game of pool, he spoke positively about his experience at Oxford. Still, he admitted, he left Michigan after two years without a single American friend. That surprised him. "Weirdly, I think the experience made me appreciate Chinese culture even more," he said.

Now halfway through his first year at Penn State, Korbin can spend entire days without speaking a word of English. The current political climate may only isolate him further. Korbin is in the US legally, studying hard and leaning towards a major in electrical engineering. But how welcoming is a country that increasingly regards his homeland as an economic and security threat?

An even bigger threat may lie within China. Late last year, Mr Xi's ideological campaign against foreign influences targeted the kind of schools that prepared Korbin for America.

For Korbin, the lack of American buddies and reawakened sense of national identity notwithstanding, high school in the US still left a deep impression on him. Last Christmas, after exams, he went back not to Shenyang, but to Oxford. His second host mother gave him two hoodies and some of his favourite chocolate, and cooked a Christmas meal. Korbin presented her with a mug and played with the dogs he had helped care for as puppies.

"I definitely wish I was still there," he told me, and he sounded like just another first-year college kid, missing home.

NYTIMES

•Brook Larmer, based in Shanghai, is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 05, 2017, with the headline 'From Shenyang to Michigan, in search of the American dream'. Print Edition | Subscribe