Parents fork out small fortunes to give their children a taste of the world
A growing number of affluent parents are sending their children overseas to improve their English and develop critical thinking skills
There is a Chinese saying that those who seek wisdom should "read 10,000 books and travel 10,000 miles".
While one could easily spend a lifetime accomplishing the first task, many affluent mainland parents are increasingly choosing to put their children on the path to scholarship by sending them overseas for a season.
Agencies who organise overseas summer camps for primary- and secondary-school pupils report an explosion in the number of parents willing to shell out up to 40,000 yuan (HK$49,000) - twice the annual per capita disposal income of the average urban mainlander - to introduce their children to the world beyond China.
Parents say that spending a few weeks in Australia, Britain or the US - often staying in the home of a foreign host family - has helped their children improve their English while gaining a wider view of the world and a better understanding of the West.
Terence Yang, of Shenzhen, has sent his 15-year-old son to Britain, France and the US over the last three years, hoping that the experience will prepare the boy for a likely university education abroad.
"I hope my son can become a person able to survive by himself and think independently. This is what's absent in the mainland's education," Yang said.
"My son said his foreign counterparts were generally more capable of doing manual labour and willing to form teams to solve problems."
In an ideal programme, pupils spend about half their time studying English from textbooks grounded in the host country's history and culture. They also try their hand at sports they might not see at home, such as sailing or surfing, and take part in community activities, like visiting local churches.
The youngsters often get a chance to visit universities and see famous tourist locations.
Jane Jiang, who oversees international language programmes for the China branch of Education First (EF), said the company had seen a three-fold increase in the number of mainland customers in the last five years. Some call months in advance to book slots.
There are two factors behind the rush for overseas study trips: the traditional Chinese focus on education, and the fast-growing affluence of many households, Jiang said. The focus on English education in urban schools - which prepare many pupils for a trip to an English-speaking country by the time they are 12 years old - has also helped to spur interest.
"Some families will buy our programme for their children as a gift to celebrate their graduation from primary school," she said.
Most EF pupils are between the ages of 12 and 15, although the company has sent children as young as eight overseas.
Sending a child halfway across the globe is not cheap. EF charges 30,000 yuan for a two-week trip to Australia, while a two- to three-week summer camp in Britain or the US costs about 40,000 yuan per child.
The trips can be worthy investments, said Professor Teng Jimeng , who teaches American studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, if they provide pupils with meaningful exposure to a foreign culture and help broaden their horizons.
"For most young pupils, [an overseas study trip] only boosts their desire to attend foreign universities, because they have seen the best education in the world - and the mainland's education is far from that," Teng said.
But finding a responsible programme is key, as some mainland parents have found to their horror.
One Shanghai mother recently told the Shanghai Evening News that her 10-year-old went five days without receiving treatment for a fever during a three-week stay at a summer camp in the US last month.
Another father, from Wuxi , Jiangsu province, accused a camp organiser of poor management after his 14-year-old was beaten up by an elder pupil in London last month in a row over pictures his son took, according the Wuxi Daily.
Mainland media have also carried reports suggesting that trips to destinations of questionable education value, such as shopping centres or Las Vegas, take up a disproportionate share of some "study" trips.
"Some companies are organising a de facto tour group with the pretext of travel-and-study abroad, charging far higher prices," said education Professor Fan Xianzuo , from the Central China Normal University in Wuhan , Hubei province. Fan called on mainland authorities to do a better job regulating the industry.
But one mother from Ningbo , Zhejiang province, feels she got her money's worth when she paid 45,000 yuan to send her 16-year-old daughter on a 21-day study trip to California. The girl returned more determined to study at a US university.
"She likes America thanks to the clean air there and the atmosphere in schools where teachers encourage students to think out of box," said the mother, a civil servant who did not want to be named. "My daughter has often been told by teachers here to nip her fancy ideas."
The mother said her daughter's English improved during the trip. It changed her perceptions about Americans, who she once believed were racist and indifferent towards each other.
The girl also made lasting personal relationships.
"Her host family treated her very well and my daughter got to know their relatives and friends," she said. "When my daughter bid them farewell, they were all in tears and my daughter hugged them tightly."