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Summertime blues

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-07-27 00:36

The increasing flow of Chinese students heading to overseas summer camps is testament to a rising desire to learn about the outside world. But many of the trips on offer are highly disorganized.

On July 6, Asiana flight 214 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport, killing three and injuring many more. The tragedy brought to light, among other things, the phenomenon of "summer study travel" as all three killed were high school students from East China's Zhejiang province. The remaining 31 students and teachers from their group later returned home without embarking on the planned US tour that they had just started while another similar group of 35 students and teachers from Shanxi province continued their journey.

An airplane accident is no reason to discredit such programs. But it could be a good time to scrutinize their history and effectiveness.

Summertime blues

Pang Li / China Daily

Summer camp is nothing new. But before the rise of China's middle class, it had a very limited appeal, mainly to international students. When I was a student in the 1970s and '80s, I never heard of such a thing. Summer was supposed to be a time for going"wild", which meant unsupervised by either teachers or parents. We would spend much of the time frolicking in the river. The days seemed endless and exciting, and we tend to recall them with fondness. In reality, the absence of adult supervision was the cause of many tragedies, especially in rural areas where accidental drowning or electrocution was a frequent occurrence. I even witnessed the death of a teenage boy from poisoning, presumably after he ate melons newly sprayed with insecticide.

There was another, safer way of spending the long summer. You may be ordered to stay home and cram as many books as humanly possible. You could be assigned with a mountain of summer homework, which was designed to not only refresh your memory of what you'd picked up in the past semester but also to help you get ahead of other children your age.

Compared with the above two options, summer camp offers a great alternative. It combines the adventure of outdoor activities with the learning of new things, especially unconventional knowledge not usually available in textbooks.

As I have no first-hand summer camp experience, I asked around but found to my surprise that none of my relatives have been to one either.

“There were indeed summer activities organized by my school," says my niece,"but those were summer classes meant for those who lagged behind."

Well, in China many parents do not appreciate the notion of organized fun or fun-tinged learning. For them, learning means total dedication to books and no distractions whatsoever.

However, things are changing. Many classes are no longer about reciting textbooks. Last summer, I sent my daughter to a summer class on drawing and painting, located in a neighborhood shopping mall. The dozen classes were nothing like I thought they would be in a fine arts school. During one class, the teacher and her five students made a kite; in another, a face mask; and in another, they hand-dyed a T-shirt using the batik technique. The whole learning process was very much hands-on and seemed to complement a formal education rather than replace it.

Even though the word"camp" denotes a relatively stationary activity, travel camp is not really an oxymoron because learning can be achieved on the road. There is an old Chinese saying"Read 10,000 books and travel 10,000 miles," which gives equal emphasis to reading and traveling. Nowadays, many parents spend part of the summer taking their children on journeys. Beijing is such a hot destination that the subway is more crowded during summer vacation than during school time, especially on Line 1 passing through Tian'anmen Square.

Of course it takes a lot more money to travel overseas. But for China's growing middle class, the allure of an overseas summer camp is so much stronger partly because it requires clearing hurdles such as visas or other travel permits. And by"overseas", it usually refers to North America or Europe. It may be another decade before Chinese people realize it's far more"cool" in terms of bragging rights to voyage to Africa or the South Pole.

I don't have any statistics, but I have a feeling that in the early years it was very much a one-way street as Chinese-Americans sent their children to China for intensive Chinese language training. Recent years have broadened it to a two-way avenue of exchange. Two years ago, I was catching a summer flight to Beijing at Los Angeles International Airport and there were so many Chinese adolescents — overflowing from the seats and occupying much of the floor — that it resembled a sit-in. You could tell from the way they were dressed and equipped that they hailed from families of affluence. Had they opened their mouths with non-accented English, it could well have been a group of Chinese-American teenagers bound for China.

If you probe deeper, you'll find that the so-called"summer study travel" programs are often little different from a regular package tour. They spend most of the days at Disneyland and Universal Studios. Depending on how well connected the hosts are, who, by the way, are usually ethnic Chinese, they may be taken to a local business or a community center. Overall, the chances of mingling with native-speaking locals are very limited. Although, in a foreign country, even a street sign could be an object of learning.

From what I understand, most of these programs are badly designed or managed. For the organizers, they are sideline businesses that can turn in some quick money. For the participants, they function as college visits before decisions can be finalized about which campuses offer the best environment. Yes, many of these high-school students will seriously consider going on to college in North America or Europe. And from the spending sprees during their overseas travel, they can certainly afford the American tuition.

Whether one is scouting for the ideal college or just taking in the sights and sounds of a foreign land, safety is always the No 1 priority. The teachers and guardians on such trips, who usually travel for free rather than paying their own expenses, have a huge responsibility. But very often it is beyond their control whether a driver busing them around is a professional or just a friend of the host helping out, or whether the host cuts corners by saving on food and other necessary items.

As the demand for overseas summer camps is so high, formal businesses may be able to offer better quality control as well as a certain cost advantage. Of course there must be a reasonable profit margin. But a streamlined business with expertise in the field may provide the kind of activities most desired by Chinese high-school students. While it will still be in no position to prevent a tragic accident such as the one in San Francisco, it will definitely have better management than most ad hoc hosts.

The best way to spend summer varies with each person. Overseas travel should be one of the choices, but there are other wonderful things a curious teenager can do. The beginnings of exploring the world should start with looking at a rich diversity of summer programs that take into consideration interests, necessities and budgets.