Christiana Lilly is not your typical American girl. As the daughter of a diplomat, her world and life experiences extend far beyond the United States. Between Taiwan, Singapore, Burma, Korea and China, Christiana has been moving between schools and cities her entire life. In each of these overseas locations, however, she has received an education that is on par with top-tier U.S. school districts.
Lilly graduated from Shanghai American School (SAS) in 2004 and currently attends the University of Florida. Her story reflects the life of many expatriate children who have been part of the growth of international schools in China.
With its robust economy and growing presence as a world superpower, China has caught the attention of entrepreneurs from all parts of the globe. Businessmen, however, are not the only investors interested in the country’s growth; schoolteachers are seeking opportunities as well.
Photo courtesy of Concordia International School Shanghai.
"It’s a dynamic place," said Patrick Frerking, a teacher and assistant high school principal at Concordia International School Shanghai (CISS). "It’s a happening place; it’s an exciting time to be there. Teachers, like businesspeople, want to be a part of that. So it’s a pretty aggressive market in some ways right now for the teacher recruitment."
Some of Asia's international schools, such as Singapore American School and Hong Kong International School (HKIS), are now among the most prestigious facilities anywhere for primary and secondary education. China, in particular, hosts several of the largest international schools as well, including the International School of Beijing (ISB) and SAS.
"[At] no time in the history of international schools… has there been such a dynamic and explosive growth of international schools as what’s happening here in China right now," Frerking said.
Students enrolled in these facilities receive educations equivalent to elite private schools in the United States and Europe in part because they are modeled on predominately British and American curriculums, offering both International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs. Students also generally come from affluent families who emphasize the importance of education.
International schools in Asia began mostly as small facilities intended for the children of diplomats or missionaries. However, as economic expansion attracted multinational businesses to Asia, the number of students in international schools rose dramatically. These facilities have now evolved into centers for expatriate communities and are vital tools for attracting foreign direct investment (FDI).
Since China first moved to open its economy in 1979, Western and Japanese companies have sent a steady flow of business managers and project leaders into the country to coordinate their expanding operations. This flow of capital into China has contributed greatly towards the country’s economic growth and is a very crucial source of FDI. Expatriate businessmen, however, generally want to come with their families, and this was initially a challenge in China.
"The family will not make the move to China if schools aren’t in place or quality schools aren’t available," Frerking said.
Municipal governments in China have been well aware of the economic benefits and enormous potential for property development that international schools provide. Since the 1980s, Chinese developers have invited Western educators to open campuses in major cities. SAS, which was founded in 1912 but closed in 1949, reopened on the grounds of the U.S. consulate in 1980 to service the growing number of expatriates. The school continued to expand to newer and larger campuses through the 90s and early 2000s. CISS, which opened in 1998, came to fruition when Chinese developers approached administrators in HKIS to translate their successful model into a Shanghai campus.
The Chinese government is currently looking to enhance international school communities in second- and third-tier cities to expand capital investment opportunities in less-developed parts of the country. Second-tier cities, in particular, are seeing increased attention from foreign business communities that have already developed solid operations in first-tier cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou and are looking to increase their influence in the China market as well as take advantage of lower labor costs. To help promote this growth, second tier cities such as Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan and Chengdu have constructed five-star hotels, new infrastructure projects and telecommunications networks to service the increasing number of foreign businessmen, said Klaus Koehler, the managing director of the China-focused consulting/outsourcing firm, the Klako Group.
The development of schools in these cities becomes part of a natural economic progression that echoes the same kind of development that Shanghai and Beijing saw just a decade ago.
"Schools are a housing magnet," Frerking said. "Land prices have tripled in price in the last five years (within Shanghai’s Jinqiao district, where CISS is located)." Thanks to a wave of luxurious housing villas, shopping centers, restaurants, medical facilities and churches, Jinqiao has become one of the premiere communities for expatriate families in Shanghai.
Minda Ho, the former chairman of the SAS Board of Directors, agrees. "Wherever there is a good international school, it tends to attract good local real estate development," Ho said. This rapid development is as true in Jinqiao as it is in other parts of Shanghai. The Zhudi district around SAS and the Shunyi district around ISB have both shown tremendous increases in land development and expatriate communities since the schools opened.
"The area around SAS has definitely changed a lot," Lilly said. "It was all farmland when I first got there. It was a very rural area." Within the span of a couple years, however, the community has quickly developed all the services that cater to the Western lifestyle.
Photo courtesy of Concordia International School Shanghai.
Despite the Chinese government’s positive outlook towards international schools and their financial benefits, there are still many restrictions on what these schools may do.
International schools in China, for example, are not allowed to enroll Chinese citizens unless special permission is granted by the Municipal Education Commission. Exceptions are typically made for Chinese families where parents previously worked in the West and now want their children to continue to receive a Western-style education. These families, however, are usually among the Chinese elite and often have strong business or political ties.
In terms of physical school development, the construction of an American private school on Chinese state-owned property requires a long list of approvals that must be met before the prospects of a physical school building can be achieved. "It took over 250 chops or approvals to get Concordia started," Frerking said. "If it had been in the United States, it probably would have taken around 35 different approvals…People in the business world face similar challenges."
CISS, in particular, faces another challenge in that it is a Christian school within a country ruled by a party that is officially atheist and where religious freedoms are not uniformly protected. The Chinese government does not permit the establishment of foreign-funded or foreign-linked religious institutions. However, regulations have been relaxed for many schools. "We were actually told, as a Christian school, you may do your religious education program," said Louise Weber, the former head of school for CISS. "You may do your chapel programs, but you may not do church on campus for the community." In fact, the Jinqiao government plans to build two churches to cater to the expatriate community.
Because administrators of these schools understand the importance of avoiding political trouble, they work to ensure that there will not be any misunderstandings. "We are guests in China," Weber said. "We don’t put up the Taiwan flag, for instance. We just don’t create those issues." The Chinese government, in turn, reciprocates by not getting involved in the schools’ curriculum.
Religion and politics, it seems, are not the only factors that distinguish these schools from those in the West. "There certainly is a different culture that revolves around international schools," Ho said.
Being in a foreign environment adds a valuable element to a student’s education. "The exposure (students have in an international school) is something that cannot be matched in a typical school in the United States," Ho said. The student body at SAS, for example, represents nearly 40 different countries.
"It’s taught me to be much more comfortable and open minded," Lilly said.
This experience also generates several challenges.
For most Americans moving to China, the first challenge of many is coping with the language barrier. Most international schools in China address this issue by having a mandatory Mandarin-language program from kindergarten through middle school. "We understand the importance of helping our students learn Chinese and have an understanding of Chinese culture because there is a very strong likelihood that in their adult life, they’re going to be actively involved with China in one of many ways," Frerking said.
Many international school students identify themselves as "third-culture children," seeing themselves primarily as hybrid or global citizens. This term is especially true for children from families who may be citizens of one country, residents of another and yet ethnically tied to another country. Lilly, for example, is half-Chinese and half-Caucasian, an American citizen but also a resident of numerous cities across Asia.
Growing up in an international school environment brings a unique perspective to students "that equips them quite well for the changing and dynamic world that we’re in," Frerking said. "Students coming out of international schools tend to be very adaptable to wherever they’re at; they land on their feet well. That plays out well through college and especially into work."
Frerking said many students take advantage of their diverse backgrounds in making career decisions. "We often see international students choosing to study international studies and fields that would get them engaged with other cultures purposefully, aggressively in their professional lives as well," he said.
Although moving between schools and cultures since an early age had its difficulties, Lilly said she treasures her experiences abroad as an important part of her identity. In fact, settling in the United States for four years of college brought a reverse culture shock as Christiana learned how un-American she truly was. Although she will be staying in the United States for another year to finish a journalism degree, that won’t keep her from pursuing her international lifestyle. "I would love to travel abroad," she said. "It would be weird to stay in the States."
Jonathon Chow is the deputy managing editor of US-China Today. He is a sophomore studying international relations and political science at the University of Southern California.