SAN MARINO, CALIF. — 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.
As a result, no one knows the actual number of youngsters involved. And although they acknowledge the existence of the parachute trend, most people are reluctant to talk about it on the record. All attempts to get parents' comments for this story failed. Even though they knew they might be recognized from other details, students interviewed wanted their names changed. "My Dad would kill me if he even knew I was talking to you," Craig said.
Determined parents find ways to get their children into American schools and out of the Taiwanese system, where only 8 percent make it into four-year colleges. And for the boys, parachuting offers an escape from Taiwan's compulsory two-year military service; although the draft begins at age 20, boys are prohibited from leaving the country once they turn 14.
Despite the paucity of hard data, interviews with students, school officials and researchers offer a glimpse into how the parachute world works.
Parents usually fly over with their children, find them a place to stay, enroll them in school and then return home.
Many families buy homes in wealthy enclaves such as San Marino as a hedge against political turmoil in their home countries. Some place their children with extended family. Others pay "paper aunties and uncles" to take care of the children and masquerade as relatives to school officials, but often these caretakers provide little supervision or warmth.
"You'd be amazed at how many set up a 5-year-old with Aunt Suzie," said Ms. Adams at San Marino. "They say it's the aunt, but we don't have any way to prove that."
Some children are allowed almost unlimited spending but others have budgets.
Families have different ways to stay in touch. Some children fly home on vacations, but many live in the United States year-round. Some parents call weekly. Others install fax machines and make their children relay report cards to Asia. David, a high school senior in San Marino, must submit monthly financial reports. Sam, also a San Marino senior, has written his mortgage check since he was 13.