Haikou, China by Denny Ryanto

Why I sent my teenager to study abroad…
to China…
on his own

Would you ever consider having your teenager go to an international school? What about sending your young teenager to study abroad on the other side of the world, in a completely foreign culture?

One of my good friends Ryan, had done just that. I came across a photo of his 14 year old son waving goodbye in the airport, headed off to China for a few months to study abroad. Without his parents. There had to be a great underlying story here. He’s a father of 3 boys and a newly adopted little girl. They are a fun-loving family and intentional parents who see value in providing experiences that challenge their kids in healthy ways. Here is their story.


Formative Adventures: You recently sent your young teenager on a one-way flight to the other side of the world by himself? Tell me more about that.

Ryan: Yeah, we sent our oldest son to study abroad in China for a few months. He went with his cousin, but for the first time was without his parents.

We caught wind of this international school out in Eastern China. Students from China, Korea, some from Europe and the US. They have a program where you can live on campus and attend school there. We came across it about a year and a half ago, but at the time we felt like he was a little young still. The school is designed to complete your high school classes in 2 years, then you spend the next 2 years doing college credits. Academically, it’s pretty challenging, not to mention the cultural differences.


In the airport

FA: Yeah, I could imagine. Are the classes in English?

R: It’s all taught in English. They are trying to equip young kids to be global leaders, so English is kind of the language of business globally.

FA: So are most of the kids from other countries, or are there local kids as well?

R: There are some expats that send their kids to the school, but there are also some families in other parts of China that have opted to send their kids away to this school. This is more culturally the norm in China versus the US. The school is Zhongshi International School, which is about a 9 hour drive east of Beijing.

Study abroad classroom in China
Chinese temple while studying abroad

FA: Is this something you encouraged him to do, or something he wanted to do on his own accord?

R: It was actually a combo. We knew about the school from a family friend, and we floated the idea to him. We kept talking about it, and he ended up really thinking “man that’s something I’d love to do”. He really picked up interest and momentum. So as parents, we really needed to start crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s just to make sure we were comfortable with our 14 year old doing a study abroad program across the other side of the world, in a different culture, language, etc. We needed to know what the accommodations looked like, how they spend their time in the evenings, what the kids do over the weekends, etc.

FA: Did you know anyone out there initially?

R: We knew a family that was associated with the school. He went with his cousin to go as roommates. His cousin’s family went to visit the school 3-4 months prior to lay the groundwork, so that was helpful.

FA: What are you hoping he will get out of this experience?

R: One of our main goals for going was to get him out of the world he’s used to, and to recognize early in his life that there’s a whole world out there that’s profoundly different from the world he grew up in. To compare and contrast his experience as a young American boy with a culture that’s pretty unlike a California middle-class culture. At a stage in his life that tends to be pretty self centered, we hope this experience can set a new tone as he heads into high school. Also, it’s a time to test his legs a bit, get out on his own, and figure everything out from having clean socks, to getting his homework done, to managing relationships, managing a budget, etc. We talk to him every couple weeks or so.

FA: Speaking of budget, does he have a regular stipend for living expenses?

R: The way we set it up is that we covered most of the cost, but we asked him to work and cover as much as he could as well, so that he has some skin in the game. He worked really hard and saved up some money. We helped him plan that out, and how much that was going to last, and essentially his weekly stipend is all from what he earned. He’s got an ATM card that he can pull out money locally.

Study abroad China school
Chinese noodle soup
Study abroad in china

FA: What was your thought process that helped you become comfortable with sending him?

R: Because of the legwork and the conversations we had, I felt like it was the right balance of stretching him without hurting him. There were enough boundaries and safeguards in place that we felt confident that it wasn’t going to be a damaging experience. There’s a point when you can push your kids beyond that threshold where it becomes damaging. And it’s no longer that confident adventure, it’s more of an unsettling (and maybe even traumatizing) experience.

There are a lot of great people that have come alongside him in this journey to help.

Cooking while studying abroad in China
Hiking in China
Bug market in China

FA: How long is this program for?

R: You can do this for as little or as long as you want. You could do all of highschool there. We have planned for him to stay a semester. It turns out that parenting over facetime is a bit challenging. So he’ll be away for 4.5 to 5 months.

FA: What was it like as parents to send him off at the airport?

R: It proved to be difficult for my wife, less difficult for me. She has raised and schooled him at home for all of his life, so she’s invested a lot into him over the years. It’s a big change for him to be out of the house, since he’s been a big part of our family and making things worked.

I just felt really excited for what it means for him to do something like this, and the impact it’ll have long term. I remember the first time I went overseas for real, and what it meant, and what it did in me. And I was excited.

People looked at us like we were crazy…
But it was worth it.
It was a great time.

FA: Did you travel a lot with your kids when they were younger?

R: We traveled a fair amount. The biggest trip we took was to Eastern Europe with them as little kids. We visited some friends in Romania for a couple weeks, then went over to Italy for a little tour. We had a couple strollers, and we would do a rotation as we walked through different cities, and the kids would rotate into a stroller to take naps and jump out a keep truckin. People looked at us like we were crazy. But it was worth it, it was a great time. The kids were young, maybe 3 and 6, but they still remember that trip. Our 6 year old was climbing all the stairs in the Duomo in Florence. And he remembers counting every step and standing on the top of it. Also the gelato. When we were in Romania, we took them to Transylvania, where Dracula was from and toured the towns there, and had a great time.

We’ve also taken them to Mexico a couple times to help build houses and serve those in need. So those have always been a really fun experience, but also a great way to teach service and giving back.

FA: Do you remember what your first flight was like with your kids?

R: Yeah it was nerve wracking, we were strategizing and planning. We do all sorts of little things to try and prepare.

The most recent strategy is that we buy a bunch of those tiny lego sets and save them up, and they know they’re coming. Then we hand them out at certain intervals in our travels. So they put down their tray on the plane, then start building. With the little kids, we would get the bulkhead seat with the bassinet, and make sure they have their food packets, and try to make sure we had all the scenarios worked out and that they were comfortable. It’s crazy, but the kids for the most part did pretty well.


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Teenager Studying abroad in China
Teenager Studying abroad in China

We love hearing about these incredible experiences and the thought that the parents put behind it! It is so inspiring to hear of opportunities like this and imagine what kind of impact it can have on my kids.
If you have a story that you’d like to share with this community, please reach out at austin [at] formativeadventures.com

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