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“I Want To Study Abroad In China!” Is Your Teen Ready?

What happens when a teen feels one way about a particular issue or problem and the parent has a very different take? At Your Teen, we understand that sometimes you need to look at a situation from multiple perspectives. It can also be helpful to hear from a neutral third party. That’s when we bring in a parenting expert to provide the practical advice you need to bridge the divide and help restore harmony.

When a high school program took him to China, Austin Cheng and his dad had vastly different points of view on teens studying abroad.

TEEN | Austin J. Cheng

When I heard about the Newton-Beijing Jingshan Exchange Program in my ninth-grade Chinese language class, I recognized it as an adventure and a chance to learn more about myself, and I decided to apply.

Spending four months in Beijing was a pretty big leap, but now that it’s over, I am glad I took advantage of the opportunity. The exchange was one of the best times of my life, as I got to experience a new culture and improve my language skills. Best of all, I made a lot of friends, both students who came with me from the U.S. and new friends from China. We visited many iconic sites, such as the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, but it was even more valuable to learn about people’s day-to-day lives and beliefs.

Exchange programs are without a doubt the best way to learn about a country and culture because you get to immerse yourself in the life of your host family, as opposed to the superficial view a tourist would get.

Before I left home, one of my main concerns was living in a large city. I hadn’t liked them as much as smaller towns. However, as time went on in Beijing, I liked the availability of everything. There were numerous stores and restaurants within a 10-minute walk from school, and there was never a shortage of places to explore and things to do.

I would often wander the streets around the school with a friend, sometimes by myself. I would walk around a neighborhood I hadn’t been to before, just to learn about the city. With its great subway system, Beijing is accessible to everybody. It was refreshing to be able to go wherever I wanted so easily, and it made it convenient to meet friends, hang out, and try all sorts of new things, such as tasting fried scorpions or playing virtual-reality video games.

I wasn’t fully aware of the freedom I had in China until I was back home. In the suburbs, without good public transportation, it’s much harder to meet up with friends or go to new places. I find this especially frustrating after developing a more extroverted and adventurous side of myself in China.

Foreign exchange programs are fantastic opportunities, and I implore anyone who is considering one to jump at the chance.

Austin J. Cheng is an 11th grader in Newton, Massachusetts who says fried scorpions taste all right.

PARENT | Jack Cheng

When my son told me that he went to a high school information session about a semester abroad in China, I felt two distinct emotions: pride that he felt confident to face this challenge and anxiety that he would lose his passport on the Beijing subway and have his identity stolen.

Perhaps my reactions were exaggerated.

After all, I didn’t really think someone else would be coming home with his passport—it’s just that he was a 15-year-old with a 15-year-old’s sense of responsibility. Who knew what could happen to a teen studying abroad?

As we celebrated his acceptance into the program and prepared for his departure, I was made acutely aware of how many milestones he had not yet achieved. We had to open a bank account so that he could withdraw cash from foreign ATM machines.

I requested a credit card in his name to be used for emergencies. We had conversations about scheduling and keeping a calendar. I bought him chinos to wear instead of the athletic pants that he loves—pants that disgorge his wallet and phone every time he sits down.

I worried about the wrong things.

While he was gone, I would check the bank balance and see that he never used the ATM. I reminded him that his time in China was limited and he should buy some souvenirs. He agreed but still didn’t spend much money.

In the time Austin was abroad, I would sometimes buy treats at the grocery store that I knew he liked, even though he was months away from eating them. Meanwhile, I had a more ordered house, more freedom to go out with my wife, and—with our vegetarian out of the house—easier meal planning.

My pleasure was tinged with guilt—and maybe a little sadness.

My real worries centered around how quickly he was growing up, how many milestones he had yet to reach, and what I was going to do in an empty nest.

Once he came back, as a 16-year-old, everything was back to normal. I had to shop for groceries more often because I had forgotten how much a teenage boy eats. He sat down and once again his phone fell out of his pocket.

One day we were planning the week ahead and he interrupted me, pointing out conflicts in his schedule. He did his chores without complaint and then asked what else he could do to help.

I think it might be months or years before I fully understand what sort of transformative effect the exchange program had on him, but it turns out I was right about one thing: Someone different came home with his passport.

Jack Cheng is a writer, teacher, archaeologist, and avid grocery shopper.

EXPERT | Laura Kastner

Austin and his father Jack illustrate the classic combo. The teen wants to embrace adventure and the parent worries about safety.

Ten years ago, Austin probably wanted to hang upside down on the jungle gym, and Jack worried about a possible fall and head injury.

Foreign schooling isn’t a fit for everyone, but for many, it is the most growth-enhancing experience they’ll ever have. Teens mature with challenge. A new environment, language, and culture will present plenty of trials for new competency-building. Like any call for courage, the goal is to balance the challenge with support so that the teen won’t be overwhelmed and fail to reap the benefits of this adventure.

Parents will naturally wrestle with the decision of whether to send a teen to study abroad. If crime is a concern, consider examining the U.S. State Department website and comparing the stats in your home locale to those of the school program’s country.

Still, logic may not sway you. Emotions can overrule all the reassurances people give you about the benefits of independent teen travel.

The most endorsed and vetted programs supply plenty of orientation and in-country supervision and coordination. When problems arise with illness or inevitable bumps, they are there to help you and your teenager. Perfect safety and happiness can’t be guaranteed, so expectations have to be realistic. Problems with culture shock and adjustment naturally occur.

Does your teen like novelty? Can they handle life’s hassles without becoming unglued? Are they comfortable asking questions when confused and getting help when sick? Does your teenager reach out to make friends even when others are very different from them?

If your teen has balked at even going to day camp because they are the anxious and avoidant type, this big stretch is probably not the place to start in your agenda to build confidence. While the reflections of Austin and Jack demonstrate the usual trepidations of parents and enthusiasm of teens, the roles can sometimes be reversed. Parents should collaborate with their teens, step by step, in researching study abroad programs and making a final decision.

Ways your teen can go abroad:

Adventure involves a mix of excitement, danger, and unique opportunities to discover what you’re made of. Whether your motto as a parent is “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “Better safe than sorry,” we all have to balance our competing appetites for safety and growth when it comes to teen travel—just as we always do when we’re parenting teens.

Laura Kastner, Ph.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and author of Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Raising Tweens + Teens and Wise-Minded Parenting: 7 Essentials for Raising Tweens + Teens.

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