At the start of Kelly Yang’s debut YA novel, Parachutes, she notes the story includes incidents of sexual harassment and rape. Although Yang has been wanting to write this story for almost two decades, this novel about high school students who move alone to the US while their parents stay back in China couldn’t be better timed. While the concept of parachute students isn’t new—it was pioneered by Hong Kong students in the 1990s—mainland Chinese families have adopted the custom and students from China account for the largest group of international high school students in the US (and, indeed, other countries from Australia to Britain).
Parachutes begins in Shanghai as 17-year-old Claire Wang is failing her Chinese class at school. The gaokao, or university entrance exam, is the following year and her parents worry about Claire’s chances to get into a “good” university. Her father, a wealthy businessman, finds a school outside Los Angeles with a large student body from China. Claire wants to stay in Shanghai with her friends, her boyfriend, and her parents, but has no choice.
Dani De La Cruz is a first generation Filipina American at the same school where Claire enrolls. Her mother cleans homes for a living and Dani works at the cleaning service part-time. To earn a little extra money, Dani’s mom rents out a room in their house to Claire. Many of the parachute students live with host families—sometimes consisting of single men or single fathers—while others live alone in grand mansions or lavish condominiums. Dani sees many of these homes as a cleaner.
Claire and Dani get off to a poor start. Dani finds Claire spoiled and self-centered while Claire gravitates toward the queen bee parachutes at school and feels like she has nothing in common with Dani, especially after Claire breaks up with her boyfriend back in Shanghai.
I bet she gets straight As, that Dani. She doesn’t have to deal with idiot boys getting at her if she just wants to talk. She’s going to be so massively successful when she grows up.
A star debater who hopes to attend Yale on a debate scholarship, Dani is the favorite of her debate coach, Mr Connelly. He offers private coaching sessions, sometimes followed by lunch off campus. At the same time, another wealthy parachute, Jay Li, lavishes attention and expensive gifts on Claire. While most YA novels include a misunderstanding between a romantically-involved couple, the conflict in Parachutes is between Dani and Claire. It’s a welcome change in a story that teaches that there are no knights in shining armor, and that one’s greatest strength comes from within, along with solid friendships.
Dani’s unraveling happens first. At a hotel bar at a debate trip in Seattle, Mr Connelly puts his hand on her knee, telling her how to wear her hair and that he would date her if he were seventeen. She tells him no and runs off. After the tournament, she blogs about the harassment, but the school administration punishes her. She’s at risk of losing her chance to attend a prestigious debate tournament in Boston, which could all but cinch her chances at Yale.
Claire’s relationship with Jay becomes more contentious after she finds a list of 129 women in his phone contacts, not listed by name but by physical characteristics. The more Claire protests his behavior, the more he promises to change. She eventually breaks up with him for good. Because Yang has warned about sexual harassment and rape at the beginning of the book, it’s natural to expect that Dani and Claire will each experience one or the other.
When Claire, in tears, calls her parents back in Shanghai, the conversation gives her no solace.
I sit in anticipation of sympathy and advice from my daddy to his only daughter. He’ll come through. I think back to when I first got home from Korea after my eyelid surgery and he sat with me, telling me how brave I was. He’ll know what to say in my time of need. I know he will. Instead, what I get is this, “These things happen. We’re not mad at you.”
In Parachutes, Yang has gone above and beyond. In her concluding author’s note, she writes about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in high schools, and how parachute students are particularly vulnerable without parental guidance in a foreign country. She also tells the story of her first year at Harvard Law School, at the young age of eighteen, and how a fellow student betrayed her. She did everything she was supposed to do: got a rape kit at a hospital, reported him to Harvard, and sat before an administrative tribunal to obtain justice. But she lost her case and had to relive her attack everywhere she went on campus for the next three years. As Yang concludes her author’s note—and her novel: