Why Chinese Teens are Coming to Wisconsin for High School

Apr 21, 2014

A growing number of teenagers from China are living in the Milwaukee area, while they attend all four years of high school here.

More than 100 reside on the top two floors of the Glendale Days Inn on N. Port Washington Rd.

On weekdays, a yellow bus pulls up to take them to one of five area parochial schools. On nights and weekends, the kids do homework, extracurricular activities and relax.

A sophomore at Pius XI High School on Milwaukee’s west side, who calls herself Kathy, says she stays busy by participating in sports. In the winter, it was swimming and now, it’s track.

A Pius junior, whose nickname is Star, goes to the gym and takes walks with his friends and watches movies on his computer. He also plays the accordion.

The students have adopted American names – usually the ones they picked when they began studying English.

A bus picks up WIA students from their dorm, a hotel in Glendale, and takes them to school.

Star wanted to come to Wisconsin because he "heard that here the education is better than my school in China, and here is a lot of activities I liked.”

Another junior, Logan, says he was lured by additional aspects of a U.S. education, such as learning another country’s culture and history, close-up.

The organization Wisconsin International Academy coordinates the students’ stay and provides adult supervision. Brookfield resident Jian Sun is WIA’s founder and president.

Sun says schools in China aren’t necessarily bad, but they have limitations. For instance, Sun says all students prepare for one big test that determines where they’ll be able to attend college. As a result, other interests – such as art and sports – fall by the wayside.

“When you’re in high school, you pretty much quit everything, because you have to focus on your test,” Sun says.

Sun says the biggest reason parents send their kids here is that being fluent in English and having a Western education will give them a leg up.

“The end goal is for college, and high school is kind of like a bridge program,” Sun says.

The parents view high school here as so important that they’re willing to spend up to $40,000 a year for the program.

The teenagers say it can take a bit of time to adjust to their new school life. Star, the accordion player, says he was struck by a few differences, right away.

“We talk in English, not Chinese anymore, and when we’re in class, teacher ask questions and we are not stand up and ask questions, we just sit here,” Star says.

And because the students attend religious schools, they encounter other surprises: theology classes and church services. Pius freshman Wendy says when her new classmates learned she’s not religious, they had questions. Wendy says she explained to them that most Chinese people don’t have a religion.

The Chinese students also are tasked with carving out a social life. Logan – who’s interested in other cultures – struggled trying to ask out an American girl.

“I can talk to Chinese girl, like teasing them or make a joke or something, it’s really easy. But when I use English and I don’t know which movie you guys talk about and which TV shows you guys talk about, and I just feel stupid,” Logan says.

Logan says he asked a teacher for pointers. The effort was a success – Logan took his date to the Winterlude dance, where he hit only a minor snag.

“We don’t have party like Winterlude in China, so I never danced and I just followed the step and asking my partner, how do you dance with this song? Teach me! Teach me! That’s really fun,” Logan says with a laugh.

Some teens struggle with something more serious than learning dance moves. There’s the potential for homesickness, being so far from parents. Wisconsin International Academy staff say most teens adjust within a few weeks.

And Pius freshman Wendy – who surprised classmates by not having a religion – says the program suits her, but it might not be a good fit for kids who aren’t independent.

“Your parents can’t come here with you and take care of you, so you must have the ability to take care of yourself,” Wendy says.