Education, Entertainment

High school lows

A TV drama about Chinese students studying in the US gets mixed response


Xin Zhilei co-stars in Over the Sea I Come to You

A survey published in 2013 by Yale researchers found that 45% of Chinese students in the US reported symptoms of depression on campus, and 29% were suffering from anxiety. The rates were startling, compared with the roughly 13% reporting depression and anxiety among the general population in American universities.

Apart from homesickness and cultural and language barriers, a big worry for many students is the price of failure. Chinese international students overwhelmingly pay full tuition. An annual cost of, say, $50,000 to $60,000 is a major bill for Chinese middle-class families. Some parents even need to mortgage their homes in order to finance their children’s education abroad. Students have admitted that the weight of expectation can feel akin to an avalanche bearing down on them.

No surprise then that a new TV drama has picked up on the theme of studying in the US – albeit at preparatory schools rather than college. Over the Sea I Come to You, which has been airing on Dragon Satellite TV and Zhejiang Satellite TV since mid-June, primarily tells the story of a protective father named Huang Chengdong (played by seasoned actor Sun Honglei) who follows his teenage son Xiaodong (Zeng Shunxi) to the US while he studies abroad. The show also examines the stressful relationship between a stepmother and her teenage stepchild (played by actresses Xin Zhilei and Jiang Yiyi) when they are forced to live together abroad.

The drama was originally scheduled for release in May but it was pushed back until June without explanation. At the time, industry observers believed that the delay had something to do to with the trade row with the US, as the programme showcases the US education sector (see WiC453).

This interpretation may have been wide of the mark, since the show portrays life in the US in far from glittering terms. For instance, there is a dramatic sequence about gun violence. In one episode, a gunman appears in the high school where Xiaodong is studying with what looks like a machine gun, taking the lives of several students. Even though police arrive quickly at the scene, they are largely incapable at stopping the gunman. But no matter, Huang senior comes to the rescue. The fearless father, with just his fists, tackles the killer into submission.

In another episode, the father-and-son duo are stopped at immigration because the officer is worried that Huang will overextend his stay. The father, unable to speak any English, resorts to hand gestures and facial expressions to plead with the immigration officer to let him stay in the country. Miraculously, the smiling officer, amused by his performance, allows him to remain in the country for six months (evidently he didn’t get the memo from Trump).

“I have never seen anything so outright ridiculous,” one netizen exclaimed of that episode.

On Douban, the series has a rating of just 3.5 out of 10. Word of mouth has also been overwhelmingly negative. “I made myself watch the first 14 episodes and I couldn’t do it anymore,” one TV reviewer lambasted. “What the show wants to express, it appears, is that if you have bad grades and you are immature, it’s fine, you can go overseas and be garbage elsewhere. Middlemen can help you arrange a house and a bus to take you from the airport. This is a show you don’t want to show your children.”

“It really makes me wonder where the screenwriters get their inspiration. I have friends that work until midnight to make ends meet. They are civilised and they are hardworking. But I have never seen anybody so immature, lazy and spoiled as the characters on the show,” another complained.

Nevertheless, the series has struck a chord with some parents – albeit because they’ve learned from the characters what not to do when raising their children. For instance, Huang spends most of his time worrying about his son instead of encouraging his independence. And a single-mum character in the show gives up her career to be a stay-at-home mother, but her overly strict parenting style drives away her only child.

Perhaps the overarching message of the show is that educating your son or daughter in the US is not without pitfalls. (For more on this topic and the backlash against studying at US colleges on visa concerns, see this week’s “Essay”)

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