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ON A SUMMER HOLIDAY

The Asiana plane crash in San Francisco, that claimed the lives of three Chinese teenagers, has thrown up some unexpected reactions. All three who died, two of them on the spot (one was tragically run over by a fire engine) were part of a group of 35 from the same school. After the accident, their province has banned student summer tours abroad. The reaction seems extreme, specially since the school has been sending kids on such tours for the last 10 years. But there is a logic to it.

Summer tours to the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, for students aged 12 to 16, are a rage here. At 30,000 yuan per head, students go on a fortnight’s tour of selected schools and universities, with some schools playing host for a few days. The price sometimes includes teachers’ tickets, but parents pay up for the exposure, the hope that their children will learn to talk in English, and to prepare them for higher studies abroad. Often, schools here simply act like agents for tour operators, giving students brochures and collecting the money, playing no other role. Students have complained that some tours degenerate into photo ops outside university buildings. In spite of that, just last month, an eight-day camp to the UK for four-year-olds accompanied by one parent, promising three days in a school and trips to Cambridge and London, was fully booked.

For this particular tour to California’s famous universities — LA, Berkeley and Stanford — the tour operator chose the cheap Shanghai-Seoul-San Francisco Asiana Airlines route, rather than fly direct. Asiana is popular here because of its low fares; 141 of the 291 passengers on this flight were Chinese, 70 of them students. Obviously, the tour operator turned a blind eye to the Korean Airline’s safety record —two accidents in its 25-year-old existence, the last one just two years back.

The airline put two apology ads in the Chinese press; flew the parents of the deceased girls to San Francisco, and the CEO apologized to them personally in Seoul. Then the embassy apologized for a Korean TV host’s declaration of relief that the victims had been Chinese, not Korean.

As if their loss wasn’t bad enough, the families have also had to deal with unkind comments from a section of Chinese netizens. The papers have been full of glowing descriptions of the two girls who died on the spot. They were best friends, bright, popular and talented, one an accomplished pianist and aerobics champion, the other an accomplished calligraphist and class monitor. That, coupled with the fact that their parents could spend 30,000 yuan —85 per cent of the average annual income — on a two-week fun trip for them, has marked them as “fuerdai’’— second-generation rich. That, along with “guanerdai’’, offspring of elite cadre, is a much-hated category today.

“Good riddance’’ is the unbelievably cruel comment some netizens have passed on the tragic deaths. The fulsome accounts of their accomplishments has made some ask — “Isn’t it still a tragedy if a bad student dies?” Here’s what one student wrote: “Of course a bad student deserves to die; all of us losers are from the countryside. Don’t even ask about level ten piano — the only music I know is that of an iron smelter. Those who are supposed to die are us — the common folks. It’s summer vacation and I’m working; I want to go to America too, but I don’t have money or a sugar daddy, and I still don’t know where the tuition for my next semester is going to come from. You city kids have all the advantages: when we go home after school, we have to put the cows to pasture and carry water; you guys just flirt all day. My god, one piano must cost more than what my family makes from quite a few years of rice harvests.’’