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Chiang Mai’s Chinese Transfer Students

In search of an affordable alternative to Chinese education, a growing number of Chinese parents are moving their children to international schools in Thailand

  • After school, Du Xuan drives her daughter Anni home in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, January 23, 2019. Frustrated by what she sees as Chinese education’s overemphasis on academic achievement and insufficient attention to the arts and sports, Du and her husband moved to Chiang Mai in late 2016 and enrolled their two daughters in an international school.
    After school, Du Xuan drives her daughter Anni home in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, January 23, 2019. Frustrated by what she sees as Chinese education’s overemphasis on academic achievement and insufficient attention to the arts and sports, Du and her husband moved to Chiang Mai in late 2016 and enrolled their two daughters in an international school.
  • Students and teachers at the American Pacific International School (APIS) gather on the school playground to watch a flag-raising ceremony before their morning classes begin, January 24, 2019. Although schools in Chiang Mai don’t release enrollment data on students’ nationalities, Chinese parents there estimate that in the past few years several hundred Chinese families have migrated to the Thai city to pursue international education.
    Students and teachers at the American Pacific International School (APIS) gather on the school playground to watch a flag-raising ceremony before their morning classes begin, January 24, 2019. Although schools in Chiang Mai don’t release enrollment data on students’ nationalities, Chinese parents there estimate that in the past few years several hundred Chinese families have migrated to the Thai city to pursue international education.
  • Du Xuan chats with her daughter Anni’s teacher Peggy about Anni’s performance, January 24, 2019.
    Du Xuan chats with her daughter Anni’s teacher Peggy about Anni’s performance, January 24, 2019.
  • Chinese tourists swim at a hotel-style apartment complex in Chiang Mai, January 18, 2019. Besides pursuing an education in the country, a growing number of Chinese are going to Thailand for travel and to purchase real estate. Thai law limits foreign ownership to 49 percent of the units in a given condominium complex. 30 percent of the apartments in the complex pictured are owned by Chinese citizens, according to An Lan, who owns three units in it.
    Chinese tourists swim at a hotel-style apartment complex in Chiang Mai, January 18, 2019. Besides pursuing an education in the country, a growing number of Chinese are going to Thailand for travel and to purchase real estate. Thai law limits foreign ownership to 49 percent of the units in a given condominium complex. 30 percent of the apartments in the complex pictured are owned by Chinese citizens, according to An Lan, who owns three units in it.
  • An Lan tours the condos she purchased in Chiang Mai, January 18, 2019. An’s condos are rented out as hotel-style apartments by a management company. She receives more than 1 million baht (U.S.$30,000) a year in dividends, enough to cover her son’s U.S.$9,700 yearly tuition at Nakornpayap International School (NIS) and the rent for a house they live in near the school.
    An Lan tours the condos she purchased in Chiang Mai, January 18, 2019. An’s condos are rented out as hotel-style apartments by a management company. She receives more than 1 million baht (U.S.$30,000) a year in dividends, enough to cover her son’s U.S.$9,700 yearly tuition at Nakornpayap International School (NIS) and the rent for a house they live in near the school.
  • At NIS’ International Day celebration, 12-year-old Zou Yanhu and his classmates prepare for a parade in a local approximation of Mexican costumes, January 26, 2019. NIS enrolls students from preschool to high school and offers Advanced Program (AP) courses to prepare them to go to American and Canadian universities.
    At NIS’ International Day celebration, 12-year-old Zou Yanhu and his classmates prepare for a parade in a local approximation of Mexican costumes, January 26, 2019. NIS enrolls students from preschool to high school and offers Advanced Program (AP) courses to prepare them to go to American and Canadian universities.
  • Chinese parents watch as their children participate in NIS’ International Day celebration, January 26, 2019. Parents were invited to participate in the events, and they prepared snacks.
    Chinese parents watch as their children participate in NIS’ International Day celebration, January 26, 2019. Parents were invited to participate in the events, and they prepared snacks.
  • Zou Yanhu’s father, Zou Peng, gives him a haircut, January 19, 2019. Zou teaches product design at a university in Chengdu and visits the family in Chiang Mai whenever he has a vacation.
    Zou Yanhu’s father, Zou Peng, gives him a haircut, January 19, 2019. Zou teaches product design at a university in Chengdu and visits the family in Chiang Mai whenever he has a vacation.
  • Before heading to school in the morning, Zou Yanhu listens to birds chirping outside his window, something he says he couldn’t experience back home in Chengdu, January 18, 2019.
    Before heading to school in the morning, Zou Yanhu listens to birds chirping outside his window, something he says he couldn’t experience back home in Chengdu, January 18, 2019.
  • Students play soccer at Prem Tinsulanonda International School in Chiang Mai, January 17, 2019. The school’s students hail from 31 countries.
    Students play soccer at Prem Tinsulanonda International School in Chiang Mai, January 17, 2019. The school’s students hail from 31 countries.
  • Guo Ming displays the medals his son, whose nickname is “Little Potato,” has won in school sports events, January 17, 2019. Guo says that in China his son was introverted, but that in Chiang Mai he has grown more outgoing, a change Guo says comes from the boy’s participation in sports such as tennis and golf, which are taught at his school.
    Guo Ming displays the medals his son, whose nickname is “Little Potato,” has won in school sports events, January 17, 2019. Guo says that in China his son was introverted, but that in Chiang Mai he has grown more outgoing, a change Guo says comes from the boy’s participation in sports such as tennis and golf, which are taught at his school.
  • Wang Yixuan watches her eldest daughter, Nina, practice guitar at home, January 22, 2019.
    Wang Yixuan watches her eldest daughter, Nina, practice guitar at home, January 22, 2019.
  • After dinner, eight-year-old Anni lies on the floor of her living room, January 23, 2019.
    After dinner, eight-year-old Anni lies on the floor of her living room, January 23, 2019.
  • Echo and her family walk home after closing their restaurant for the day in Chiang Mai, January 18, 2019. After Echo’s marriage failed in China in 2014, she moved to Chiang Mai with her son, Billy, who was only four. She believes Billy’s education in Thailand has made him more brave and outgoing. On January 5 this year, Echo married her boyfriend, Philip, a Thai man of Chinese ancestry.
    Echo and her family walk home after closing their restaurant for the day in Chiang Mai, January 18, 2019. After Echo’s marriage failed in China in 2014, she moved to Chiang Mai with her son, Billy, who was only four. She believes Billy’s education in Thailand has made him more brave and outgoing. On January 5 this year, Echo married her boyfriend, Philip, a Thai man of Chinese ancestry.
  • Ding Dian, from Huizhou, Guangdong province, sends her two children off to school, January 16, 2019. Both of them attend Prem Tinsulanonda International School, whose campus features a golf center and a tennis center.
    Ding Dian, from Huizhou, Guangdong province, sends her two children off to school, January 16, 2019. Both of them attend Prem Tinsulanonda International School, whose campus features a golf center and a tennis center.
  • Six-year-old Diandian (in purple) and a group of her classmates study Mandarin at the Huizhong Chinese Language Center in Chiang Mai, January 16, 2019. English is the main language in most international schools. A number of Chiang Mai international schools offer early education to children as young as two. Many Chinese children in these programs left China before achieving fluency in their mother tongue, so parents arrange for them to study Mandarin after school.
    Six-year-old Diandian (in purple) and a group of her classmates study Mandarin at the Huizhong Chinese Language Center in Chiang Mai, January 16, 2019. English is the main language in most international schools. A number of Chiang Mai international schools offer early education to children as young as two. Many Chinese children in these programs left China before achieving fluency in their mother tongue, so parents arrange for them to study Mandarin after school.
  • Ding Dian meets up with two other Chinese mothers for breakfast after sending her children to school, January 16, 2019. Chinese parents rarely socialize with locals or other foreigners in Chiang Mai because of their limited English or Thai.
    Ding Dian meets up with two other Chinese mothers for breakfast after sending her children to school, January 16, 2019. Chinese parents rarely socialize with locals or other foreigners in Chiang Mai because of their limited English or Thai.
  • Parents who accompany their children to study in Thailand can receive a non-immigrant visa, which does not allow them to work, so 33-year-old Ding has a lot of spare time. She practices Thai boxing twice a week to stay motivated, after leaving her job as a yoga teacher in China.
    Parents who accompany their children to study in Thailand can receive a non-immigrant visa, which does not allow them to work, so 33-year-old Ding has a lot of spare time. She practices Thai boxing twice a week to stay motivated, after leaving her job as a yoga teacher in China.
  • Guo Ming, from Beijing, picks up his son at the library of Prem Tinsulanonda International School, January 17, 2019. Guo, who calls himself an “environmental refugee,” worked as a senior engineer at Microsoft in Beijing, but as the city’s air pollution worsened, he decided to quit his job and relocate the family to Chiang Mai to provide his son a better living environment and education.
    Guo Ming, from Beijing, picks up his son at the library of Prem Tinsulanonda International School, January 17, 2019. Guo, who calls himself an “environmental refugee,” worked as a senior engineer at Microsoft in Beijing, but as the city’s air pollution worsened, he decided to quit his job and relocate the family to Chiang Mai to provide his son a better living environment and education.
  • A little after 7:00 a.m., six-year-old Diandian lies on her living room couch before her mother Ding brings her and her 11-year-old brother to school, January 16, 2019.
    A little after 7:00 a.m., six-year-old Diandian lies on her living room couch before her mother Ding brings her and her 11-year-old brother to school, January 16, 2019.

On a chilly winter Friday in early 2013, seven-year-old Zou Yanhu came home from school, looking dejected. Yanhu was a first-grader attending a public primary school in Chengdu, Sichuan’s sprawling capital city. His weekend homework was to write eight textbook essays from memory and complete two exam papers. As he listed the assignments to his mother, An Lan, tears began pouring down his cheeks.

That moment became a catalyst for An, who was already distressed about her only child’s workload at school. “He was so skinny,” she says. “There was so much pressure on him in China.” So the following summer, An sent Yanhu to a camp organized by Nakornpayap International School (NIS), in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, and in 2014, she enrolled him in second grade at the school.

In recent years, a growing number of wealthy Chinese parents disillusioned with China’s rigid public education system have begun sending their children to international schools. China has had a handful of international schools for decades, most established to educate the children of expatriates and which the Chinese government does not allow to admit children of Chinese nationality. But Chinese-owned international private schools, which the government permits to enroll Chinese children, have grown more abundant over the past decade. During compulsory education (grades one through nine), these schools mix international coursework with the government-required Chinese curriculum. After that they can teach a full Western curriculum, including Advanced Placement or A Levels, according to ISC Research, an education consultancy group that provides market information and data on international schools.

There are 857 international schools in China currently, 563 of which are Chinese-owned international private schools. “What is significant is that new international schools generally grow slowly and organically (year on year) as they build a reputation. However, for international Chinese private schools, many already have long waiting lists within one or two years of opening. This reflects the huge demand for this type of schooling by families,” says Richard Gaskell, Schools Director at ISC Research.

Still, they are expensive and admission can be competitive. In Beijing, for example, the average tuition fees at international schools that accept Chinese children are U.S.$20,488 per year. In Shanghai, the average fees are U.S.$17,844, according to data provided by ISC Research. That daunting price tag has pushed less affluent families to look elsewhere, particularly in countries such as Thailand, an increasingly popular destination for Chinese travel and real estate acquisition. In 2018, over 10 million Chinese travelers visited Thailand, compared to 777,000 visitors in 2009. According to estimates from Thai developer Risland, Chinese have contributed U.S.$10 billion into condos since 2015, becoming the top foreign homebuyers in the Southeast Asian nation.

In Chiang Mai, An Lan pays 308,600 Thai baht (U.S.$9,700) for her son’s sixth-grade tuition at NIS. An, who worked as a fashion designer and had her own clothing factory in China, visited Chiang Mai on vacation in 2012. Awed by its lush landscape and tranquil lifestyle, she purchased three condos there as investments, which a management company runs as part of a hotel. After moving to Chiang Mai, she bought another three. (According to Thai law, foreigners are allowed to own condos, but not land.) The profits she makes from these real estate investments, totaling some U.S.$30,000 per year after tax, cover Yanhu’s education and their living expenses in Thailand generously, she says. The visas Chinese parents can get to accompany their children to study do not permit employment. An and many other parents have turned to running e-commerce businesses on platforms such as WeChat and Taobao, she says.

An and Yanhu, who she now calls Zac, a name chosen by his summer camp counselor, live in a rented villa near NIS with their Burmese maid. An’s husband, Zou Peng, a college professor in Chengdu, remains at his job and visits whenever he can take vacations. After school, An takes Zac to play badminton or practice horseback riding, activities, An says, that Zac chose himself. “The dread he felt about homework in China was harmful,” she says. “As long as he doesn’t fail his classes, I’m okay with that.”

“In the context of China’s prosperity and improved living standards, parents are investing more in education and have more choices,” says Chinese photographer Wu Hao, who in January documented six Chinese families pursuing international education in Chiang Mai. The families Wu encountered there hold liberal views about what makes quality education. “Most of these parents were born in the ’70s and ’80s. Their thoughts [on education] differ a lot from the previous generation,” Wu explains. “They want their kids to study in a more global and diverse environment, develop holistically, and at the same time have a happy childhood.”

Parents pleased with Chiang Mai’s international schools have been promoting them in China through word of mouth, in blog posts and WeChat groups. Their efforts seem to be attracting a growing number of Chinese applicants to the city. Though schools in Chiang Mai don’t release information on enrollment by country of origin, three parents Wu interviewed say they see more and more Chinese faces on their children’s campuses. An remembers when Zac started at NIS five years ago, there were only a dozen Chinese children enrolled. She estimates that there are now about 100.

Cross-border schooling is not without its drawbacks. Parents who accompany their children to Thailand suffer from career stagnation and the loss of social connections in China. In some families, one parent chooses to keep his or her job in China, leading to long periods of family separation, Wu says.

Most Chinese families in Chiang Mai live a reclusive life and do not try to integrate into Thai society, Wu adds. “Chinese parents only socialize within the Chinese community, partly because their English is not good enough to participate in events organized by other foreigners,” he says. Another reason is that most Chinese parents see Thai international schools as a “springboard for European and American universities, and they don’t plan to live long-term in Thailand,” he says.

But An says not speaking Thai has not hindered her life there. Her confidence is boosted by her own financial security—and her home country’s powerful economy, despite the irony that she still needed to leave China for her son to have what she considers a better education. “Thai people want to learn Chinese and communicate with Chinese people because the Chinese market is big and they want to do business with us,” An says. “Their desire to learn Chinese is stronger than our desire to learn Thai.”