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On the Wisdom of Higher Learning
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"Daddy, buy me a Mercedes-Benz," 22-year-old Lily Zheng demands, in front of her father's friends at the restaurant where they have gathered to celebrate her return home.


"I sent you to London to learn about their culture or something useful. You came back only with crap. You dress like trash," Lily's father, Mr Zheng, replies.


"This is the latest fashion. You don't understand." Lily says of her low-cut jeans, funky hairstyle, heavy makeup and oversized hoop earrings.


"You've been there for years, but you still speak broken English. Do you know how much I've spent on you? Over a million yuan. A million!" Mr Zheng raises his voice, dropping his chopsticks on the table.


"So?" Lily shrugs, without knowing her father, once the owner of a profitable soap operation production company in Beijing, became broke a year ago.


"You are my nightmare! When will you get your degree?" says Zheng, who picks up a chopstick, trying to rap Lily on the head.


Zheng, now 55, wasn't expecting anything like this when he decided to put Lily through college overseas in 2001. He says, "I just wanted her to brush up on her English and then earn a university degree in accounting. Then she would have useful skills, skills she could use to stand on her own if something happens to me."


The divorced Zheng, who has raised Lily since she was 10, sold an expensive car and luxurious house in order to provide financial support for Lily. He now lives in a small rental apartment.


While this drama was unfolding, Shen Zhong, one of Zheng's friends, wondered if she had made a mistake with her daughter.


Shen, an accountant for a private company in Beijing, deposited 400,000 yuan (US$51,300) in a bank account so her daughter could study communications at a graduate school in Canada.


"I cannot imagine two years from now, when my daughter comes home, talking and dressing like Lily," the 55-year-old mother said.


"For god's sake, that money is my life savings. It's all I have for my retirement," Shen added.


Since 2002, more than 100,000 Chinese students per year chose to study abroad despite high tuition fees and living expenses, according to the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange of the Education Ministry.


During the period of 2000 to 2005, the total number of Chinese studying overseas totaled 590,820, over 90 percent of whom are self-financed.


Liu Dawei, an official with the education ministry, attributes this to "increasingly severe pressure of employment" at home.


In 2006, the country had 4.13 million college and university graduates, 750,000 more than in 2005.


Yu Gu, who graduated two years ago with a bachelor's in application mathematics, says "in today's employment market, a bachelor's degree is no longer sufficient. Many jobs are only available for masters and doctorates."


"I'd like to teach in a high school. But all schools that need math teachers require a master's degree."


The daughter of a working-class family in Chongqing explains, "My parents say they will support me financially if I get accepted by a university in America, even if it means they have to sell our house."


Mr Sun, a 55-year-old father in Shanghai, thinks that the most talented children are those studying abroad on fellowships, while "the least talented are those who study abroad on their parents' money.”


Sun's daughter, Joe, finished graduate school in Britain in 2004, going through 300,000 yuan (US$38,460) of his money in the process.


A PhD student on a fellowship at a Hong Kong University, Joe says that the graduate schools in China are behind those in the West.


She says "the facilities, teaching facilities, methods, and research capacities of graduate schools in the West are far more advanced."


"A masters or doctorate granted by a Western university offers better opportunities."


Figures released by the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange, show that 71.3 percent of graduates returning from overseas have found jobs within six months of returning home.  Figures show 32.7 percent serve in foreign companies, while the majority of the rest work for domestic private companies.


Regardless of the opportunities, for many ordinary families the choice of putting children through universities in the West means parents have to endure hardship in order to earn enough money to pay for their children's education.


Shen Zhong, like many other mothers and fathers, admits that sending her daughter abroad is risky.


"I won't regret it so long as my daughter earns her degree and lands a decent job with it."


Shen is from the generation that grew up during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and missed the opportunity to receive a college education.


"I always wanted to be a medical professor. But how can I without the academic training? So we transfer our dreams to our children, hoping they can make our dreams come true."


A new documentary, To Live with Tears in Eyes by Zhang Liling, examines this phenomenon.


The documentary focuses on the life of Ding Shangbiao, a man from Shanghai, who worked illegally in Japan for 15 years in order to send his daughter to a university in America. With only a grade-school education, Ding, 35, went to Japan in 1989 hoping to pass himself off as a well-educated man.


To his astonishment, the Japanese language school he was supposed to attend in Hokkaido was really a mine that had closed down in 1970. The local people set up the school in a bid to stimulate their sagging economy.


Ding then sought work in Tokyo, giving up his own ambitions to embrace a new dream of making money so his daughter could study in America. "This man of Shanghai reminds me of my mother, who has gone through all kinds of tough times so she can use me as a trophy, and brag about me in front of her friends," complains Marry Cheng, a British university masters graduate who now works as a communication officer in a foreign company in Beijing.


Marry didn't want to study abroad but her mother insisted she had to go. "My mother said she didn't want her child to be inferior to anyone. She just doesn't want anyone to look down on her."


Ling Fei, the father of a daughter in college, says the sacrifice of one or even two generations is necessary, either for an individual family or for the nation. "The memory of our difficult days will fade when our children return from overseas with open minds and fresh ideas."


(China Daily February 28, 2007)

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