Parachutes, by Kelly Yang

Helicopter parents. Tiger moms. Parachutes. What do all these metaphors have in common?

If you’ve taught in a suburb like Weston—or in an elite private school—you may know the answer. I certainly knew about helicopter parents, having experienced altogether too many of them among the parents of my students. And tiger moms came up most memorably in a conversation I had with one of my ABC (American-born Chinese) students:

Me: I had a long conversation with your mom yesterday. Would you say that she’s a tiger mom?

Her: Oh yes. But the trouble is that I’m not a tiger cub. I’m a kitten.

But “parachutes” were a new concept to me. They turn out to be rich kids, usually from China, who “parachute in” to an American school in order to get into a good (American) university—and then they have a parachute to ensure a soft landing. Yes, I taught some parachutes in Weston.

Usually parachutes stay with a local host family, but occasionally they live on their own. This story features some of each.

Kelly Yang’s powerful book is a YA novel about an elite California private school in which a large number of students are parachutes. Unusually for a YA novel, parents and teachers aren’t invisible; in fact, they play a major role. Not all of the major characters are rich Asians—we also have one low-income Asian family, a middle-class Black teacher, and a few white people of various ages—but mostly we have rich Asians. (No, I haven’t yet read or seen Crazy Rich Asians.) Altogether the story is compelling and realistic. A brief trigger warning for those who need one: the narrative features sexual harassment and even sexual assault. In these cases, although the story is fiction, it is based on real events that actually happened to the author when she was a student at Harvard Law School, where the Administrative Board… But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s just say that no one will be surprised when female complainants aren’t believed.

The gender roles here are rather one-sided. All but one of the male characters are portrayed negatively. Almost all the female characters are portrayed positively. In both cases we’re talking of adults as well as teens. I know, I know, you’re going to tell me that that’s just being realistic, but it still was a bit excessive. On a relevant note, the treatment of Lesbian Asians is remarkably unsensationalistic and convincing.

I know that some people are confused by the multiplicity of points of view. But Yang handles that issue with clarity and purpose, clearly identifying each section with a POV, so it didn’t turn out to be a problem even in the audiobook version that I listened to. My only real complaint—and it’s an arguable point—is that the ending is inconclusive. In a sense it cries out for a sequel, as the reader really wants to know what happens to the various relationships and complaints. But on second thought I came to the conclusion that it might be better (more like real life) this way: maybe speaking truth to power is more important than winning. You don’t have to know the outcome.

So go read the book!

Categories: Books, Life, Weston