Asiana plane crash

Girls killed in Asiana crash part of annual wave of Chinese to US camps

Girls killed in crash part of annual wave of thousands seeking knowledge of US culture

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 7:27am

For three weeks, they would have seen America through the sunny lens of a southern California summer camp, learning about American customs and English idioms, visiting local theme parks and touring Stanford University and the Google campus.

To see it all, the Chinese teenagers from Zhejiang province had to fly through Seoul, South Korea, and into San Francisco International Airport, where their plane clipped the edge of the runway, skidded and burst into flames. Two of the students were left dead on the tarmac - the only fatalities - as their classmates fled the burning aircraft.

The two 16-year-old victims were identified on Sunday as Ye Mengyuan and Wang Linjia, both girls from the town of Jiangshan, who were among 34 Grade 10 students and chaperones bound for the camp at West Valley Christian School outside Los Angeles.

Online, Wang had posted that she hoped time could dilute "the thick coffee in her cup", perhaps easing some sadness about separating from her classmates for the coming school term back home. Ye had written days ago that she was "gloomy", but other posts hinted at a brighter side - a love of dogs, animation and Japanese, Korean and American television.

The girls and their classmates were part of a wave of thousands of affluent Chinese children who come to the United States each summer for language study and cultural immersion, many passing through California on their way to tour Ivy League campuses, go swimming, eat chilli dogs and practise their English.

"Those two could've easily been girls coming to my camp," said Steve Haines, who runs Horizons USA, an immersion camp for international students near Philadelphia. "I have plenty of girls just like them." He said he had fielded several calls from worried parents in China.

Chinese students have been enrolling in US universities and private high schools in droves for years, with almost 200,000 coming to the US on student visas in the 2011-12 academic year. But it has become more common for well-off families in China to send children to summer camps, which many Chinese parents see as preparation for studying at US universities or high schools.

The programmes can cost as much as US$12,000 for a few weeks on a prestigious campus, though prices from US$2,000 to US$7,000 are more common. Many parents also pay extra fees to agencies who place their children with US programmes.

West Valley Christian School, where the Zhejiang group was scheduled to start yesterday, has hosted groups from Korea every year for the past 12. The Zhejiang group was to be the school's first Chinese group, and church members who had signed up to host them were shocked and "devastated", school administrator Derek Swales said.

Jiangshan Middle School was locally renowned for sending students to China's top universities and some of America's finest, including Harvard and Yale. It had arranged similar summer programmes in previous years, Chinese media reported, with students paying about US$5,000.

"They're trying to learn the English language and understand America," Swales said. "They want to learn how quickly people speak here and listen to all the idioms, like what does it mean to say 'off the wall'."

He believed the group would now return to China.

The students are still in San Francisco, where the consulate is co-ordinating their care, consular spokesman Wang Chuan said.