Learning to Soar

I was gifted a copy of Parachutes by Kelly Yang a few months ago. It sounded like it would be a good read, so it moved to the top of tbr pile. I finished it last week. Despite the tough content, I read this in two sittings (if it had been 200 pages shorter, it would have been a one-sitting book).

Kelly Yang and Parachutes

There was so much about this book that was eye opening to me. First, I had no idea that high school students from other countries–mostly Asian countries–were sent to the US to go to high school. Their families remained in Asia while they were attending high school in the US. To separate fact from fiction, I took a quick Research on the Run break fairly early into the book, googling Parachute children.

What I found shocked me.

According to Brook Lamar, in 2005, 641 Chinese students were enrolled in US high schools; by 2014, almost 40,000 Chinese students were enrolled in US high schools. These are Parachute Kids, not children of families immigrating to the US. Schools–both public and private–had turned parachute students into an industry. Families spend about $40,000 to get their children into a US high school for a year. The students either live with host families or in dorms (some do live on their own). They have minimal supervision, and oftentimes, too much money.

In 2016, four Chinese students  in California were convicted of kidnapping and assaulting another Chinese student “They stripped her, burned her with cigarettes, cut off her hair and made her eat it” (Li, 2016) because she didn’t have money to split the tab at a restaurant. The judge for this case compared the students’ actions to Lord of the Flies.  This is the extreme. Most Asian students end up isolated and clinging to other Asian students out of loneliness. A social hierarachy emerges that creates further isolation.

Parachutes definitely explores what happens to Chinese students in the US on their own. Since the novel is told from two points of view–Claire from Shanghai, China and Dani from East Covina, CA–the book is able to tackle the darker underbelly of schooling including bias, racism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Because I’m a literacy person, I read a lot of books through the lens of agency. And this book really focuses on agency–who has it and who doesn’t.

Dani and Claire don’t have agency for a lot of different reasons: they are girls, they are Asian, Dani’s on scholarship, Claire is not a native speaker of English, etc. Usually a lack of agency is a lack of voice. However, what stood out to me the most were the ways that Dani and Claire were ignored and even punished for trying to speak out to protect themselves. In one scene, an  English teacher sent an email to the student body with the subject line “INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS–PLEASE READ.” The email told the students to speak English in school and told them it was rude “to use a language others cannot understand” (Yang, 2020, p. 213). Claire was upset by the email because she knew it was about her. After class–a class the school begrudgingly let her take after she tested into it–the teacher heard Claire and another student speaking Mandarin. Her host sister, Dani, tells Claire she has to fight. Both girls go to the head’s office. After making their case, the teacher is suspended. Just like that. Dani and Claire are surprised and happy by the result. They feel like they have agency.

Later, Dani goes to the head to tell her about the debate coach sexually harassing her. Dani is dismissed from the office, and the coach retaliates, pulling her from an important debate competition. Being pulled from the debate competition will have a negative impact on Dani’s future. This competition is scouted by colleges. Dani is hoping this competition will be her chance to earn a scholarship to college. Without the scholarship, college is all but out of reach for her.

It’s initially a bit strange that Claire is heard and Dani isn’t. Later, it’s revealed that another Chinese student at the school’s, Jay, father–a man who is a sizable donor to the school–complained to the head about the email the teacher sent. Claire’s voice wasn’t heard. Mr. Li’s voice was. In a different way from Dani, Claire was also silenced.

Later when Claire goes to the head to make a formal complaint of sexual assault against Jay, the head dismisses the complaint. Claire is at a loss of what to do. Her mother, in China, tells her not to make a big thing about it. She’s responding to this as if Claire were still in school in China, not fully understanding American education. Claire decides to go through with the complaint and goes to the Administrative Board. Ultimately, Jay’s father has too much power over the school, and only one person on the AdBoard sides with Claire.

Claire and Dani’s experiences really explain why victims don’t come forward. At one point Dani overhears her coach complaining that he got “Me Too’d” as if speaking about about sexual harassment and assault is something to dismiss as being made up by the victim. 

Luckily, Dani continues to fight. She has a lot to lose if she shuts up and lets the school win. Because Dani speaks out another one of the coach’s victims comes forward, and suddenly, they do find that law enforcement (not the school) wants to hear their story. They are heard and believed. Dani speaking out gives Claire the courage to tell her story too. And luckily the girls do find someone who will hear them. Someone who allows them to have a voice again.

The author discusses the genesis of this book in the author’s note. She talks about the case of the four Chinese students’ arrest and conviction of the violent bullying of another Chinese student as part of the story. The other part of the story was her own sexual assault by a classmate while she was at Harvard Law. The university treated her much the way American Prep treats Claire in the novel. Hopefully through her writing, Yang has also found people who allow her to have a voice again. 

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