SAN MARINO, Calif. -- Craig, a high school senior, lives a fantasy most teen-agers only dream. He and his sister Zoe, 14, live in a sprawling San Marino ranch house, their one chaperon an elderly servant who speaks no English.
Their Taiwanese parents run a construction company in Taipei. Dad drops by every few months on business, but Craig has seen his mother only twice in three years.
What they lack in intimacy, Craig said, his parents make up with money: They pay all the bills and shower the youngsters with up to $3,000 each month. Craig, 18, spends his share on friends, late-night restaurant forays and such electronic toys as a home karaoke set. Zoe, whose closets bulge with the latest mall fashions, jokes about "my father, the ATM machine."
That trade-off suits the teen-agers just fine, they said. But in unguarded moments, their words ring with resentment.
"If they're going to dump me here and not take care of me, they owe me something. That's my right," said Craig, who has been on his own for four years.
Craig and Zoe are examples of a phenomenon so familiar in the Chinese community that there is a nickname for it: "parachute kids" -- dropped off to live in the United States while their wealthy parents remain in Asia.
The parents, mostly from Taiwan, want their children in more open, less cutthroat U.S. school systems, in which the chances of getting into college are much greater.
Parents may place their children with distant relatives or paid caretakers, or simply buy a house for them and have them stay alone. Under these scenarios, the youngsters often live much as adults would, deciding when to go to sleep or attend school and whether dinner will consist of leafy greens or potato chips.
A 1990 University of California, Los Angeles study, using numbers from visa applications, estimated that there are 40,000 Taiwanese parachute kids ages 8 to 18 in the United States; smaller numbers come from Hong Kong and South Korea.
Americans remain largely unaware of the youngsters' existence. But the trend has entered the popular culture of Taiwan, where one studio is making an action-adventure movie about a fictional parachute kid who enters a suburban Los Angeles high school, gets involved with an Asian gang and is killed.
The parachute trend also is well-known to educators in areas with large Chinese-American populations, such as Southern California. The school district of San Marino, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, had so much trouble with truancy among parachute kids that it passed a rule in 1991 that said students must live with relatives no more distant than a first cousin or get a family court in the United States to appoint foster parents. Otherwise they can be expelled or reported to social services or immigration authorities.
"We go to verify an absence, an innocent thing, and find junior high school kids living with no adult supervision," said Sally Adams, the district registrar. "It's an enormous problem."
In some ways, the accomplishments of many parachute kids would make most parents envious. They often pull down outstanding grades and run a household, paying bills and sometimes cleaning, cooking or even supervising servants. Craig gets straight A's at San Marino High, and Zoe is a t student-government leader at Huntington Intermediate School. Other students are on tennis teams or school newspapers.
But educators and the UCLA study have found that along with the increased responsibilities can come isolation and pain. Some of the children readily admit to feeling sad and left out.
Don Cooke, a vice principal at Arcadia High School, sees "a terrible problem. The kids we run into are very lonely, almost to a state of depression. They have no love or warmth in their lives."
Living alone is a trial by fire that usually leads to one of two things, Mr. Cooke said.
"They either overcome their situations and become very successful, or they turn to another peer group for acceptance, and that's often Wah Ching or Red Door," he said, ticking off the names of two Asian gangs.
Three of 11 Arcadia High students arrested in February on suspicion of extorting protection money from younger children were parachute kids, police said. The youths, who have been linked to an Asian organized crime ring, partied and crashed at rTC the home of a 15-year-old alleged gang member whose parents in Taiwan bought him a condo near school.
Strictly speaking, parachute arrangements are illegal. Under the terms of their immigration papers, minors must live with parents or legal guardians, often extended family, or they could be deported.