You could call California’s San Gabriel Valley a real-life Neverland, east of Los Angeles, where a large number of Chinese teens are living without their parents. They are the latest wave of “parachute kids,” sent by middle- and upper-class Chinese parents to study at American high schools.
Hoping to gain an edge on their U.S. college applications, the teens rent rooms from local families or stay in boardinghouses with other parachute kids. Unfettered by adult supervision or curfews, some drive Mercedes Benz cars to Chinese teahouses or karaoke parlors in town, partying after 2 a.m. on school nights. Others excel while living on their own, leaving for UC Berkeley or UC San Diego after their high-school graduation. Last year, this unique kind of freedom spiraled out of control when a group of high schoolers, all parachute kids, formed a horrifying bullying ring.
It started when a friend refused to pay their bill at a local ice-cream parlor, on March 30, 2015. Three teens argued with the 18-year-old girl and forced her to her knees, making her use her hands to wipe up ice cream smears and cigarette butts on the floor. Other teens joined them. They took the girl to a nearby park in Rowland Heights, where they stripped her naked, burned her nipples with cigarettes, kicked her with high-heeled shoes, and slapped her hundreds of times. They cut off her hair, and then forced her to eat it. One girl paced the torture: “Just slow it down and don’t hit her so hard,” she allegedly told the group, “and we can do it a longer stretch of time.” Three days before the attack, another teenager had been beaten and burned at a nearby strip mall.
After the attacks, the three teens were arrested and charged with torture, kidnapping, and assault. Last February, Yunyao “Helen” Zhai, Xinlei “John” Zhang, and Yuhan “Coco” Yang (all 19 years old) were sentenced to prison for one or both attacks; they’re currently serving six- to 13-year terms. A fourth Chinese student, 20-year-old man Zheng Lu, pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to three years in prison this week, on Tuesday. In juvenile court, two other teens have admitted to assault in one or both attacks. Authorities think others who were involved have left the U.S.
The case sparked widespread media coverage in China, where it’s become more and more fashionable for parents to send even younger children overseas. Parachute kids first arrived in California in the 1980s and ‘90s, when affluent Hong Kong and Taiwanese families sent their children to ritzy L.A. suburbs — the children lived with relatives or alone, in purchased homes.
In this latest wave, Chinese students are studying in California high schools on the F-1 student visa, which is generally used by international college and graduate students. In 2014, more than 80,000 American high-school students had the F-1 visa; that same year in California, 9,200 of 15,000 foreign high-school students were Chinese, and most of them attended private schools. Some students involved in the Rowland Heights assault attended Oxford School, a hub of portable classrooms behind a strip mall, where 140 international students (most of whom are Chinese) pay $13,000 in tuition every year.
At a preliminary hearing, the judge likened the case to William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, about a group of boys stranded on an island with no adults. In court last February, the three defendants urged Chinese parents to reconsider sending their children to the U.S. An attorney read a statement from the attack’s alleged ringleader, who described how she became consumed in a culture of materialism, like buying new iPhones and expensive clothes. Now, she realized she “owes everything” to her parents. “They sent me to the U.S. for a better life and a fuller education,” she wrote. “Along with that came a lot of freedom, in fact too much freedom … Here, I became lonely and lost. I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want them to worry about me.”