Kelly Yang’s YA debut novel PARACHUTES is about to hit stores soon, and Epic Reads just released the first few chapters for you to check it out.
The book centers on two high school girls who have unique new challenges ahead of them. There’s Claire, who suddenly finds herself in a private California high school living with a host family, away from her parents and privileged lifestyle in China. And then there’s Dani, Claire’s host sister, who is too busy trying to work hard to get into Yale to be bothered with dealing with a stranger in her house.
This story definitely sounds unique and engaging and sure to draw the attention of readers needing something new to read. Read the excerpt and then pre-order the book afterwards so you can finish the story when it comes out May 26th.
I lie in bed listening for the shuffle of my father’s slippers. It’s 7:30 a.m. My father, if he was home, would be in the kitchen, sitting down to his breakfast—three egg whites, scrambled, with oatmeal—doctor’s orders—which he would remark to Tressy, our maid, were either overcooked or undercooked, just so he could get up and go rummaging around the kitchen for one of the taro buns he’s not supposed to eat but that my mother secretly buys for him anyway. She buys them for him because she hopes the sweet gooey taro will somehow lure him away from his mistress, providing the kind of warmth and stickiness that will make him want to come home.
Except that his mistress also knows to buy him taro buns.
I’ve never met her but the other week, she tried to add me on WeChat. I stared at her picture for almost an hour, trying to decide if she was prettier than my mom. She looked about twenty-five—half my father’s age—with long flowing hair, styled curly and tinted red at the tips. Her hand was running casually through her hair, pulling her shirt up just enough to reveal her milky white skin. The whole thing looked so effortless and staged at the same time, the kind of shot I try and try to take but can never get right.
I deleted the friend request and didn’t tell my mom about it, though maybe I should have. It was bold of her to reach out to me. There have been others, I’m sure. But none of them dared make contact.
I close my eyes, sinking back into my bed, trying not to think about what this means. Or where my dad is for that matter.
The softness of my mother’s hand on my cheek wakes me hours later. My mom’s sitting on the bed, staring at me. Like a creep.
“Mom, ew, what are you doing?” I squirm away from the light pouring in from the window, burying my face in the sheets.
“It’s nearly noon,” she says in Mandarin. She’s wearing big Chanel sunglasses.
“You ok?” I ask her, peering at her sunglasses.
She nods. “Oh yeah, just allergies. Probably from the pollution,” she lies.
I glance out the window. The Shanghai sky, normally gross and grey, looks peacefully white today, like those might actually be clouds we’re seeing.
Her shades slide down an inch and when I turn to look at her, I catch a glimpse of her red, swollen eyes underneath.
“Is it dad?” I ask gently.
She pushes her sunglasses up firmly, like a shield.
“No, of course not. He’s just working,” she says. I don’t know who she’s lying to—me or herself. She reaches out a hand. “Hey, let’s go out for dinner tonight!” she says, her face brightening.
I hesitate—I have so much homework—but her eyes say I need this.
It takes me six hours to slog through the homework my teachers assigned me. I’m in eleventh grade at a local school in Shanghai, which means every day I’m a slave to my task master. First math, then science, then English, and then Chinese, my weakest subject, despite the latest fancy tutor my mom got me. Her name is Ms. Chen, but I call her sticky fingers for the way she licks her fingers after polishing off the plate of fruit that Tressy brings us when I’m being tutored. When she’s not busy eating fruit, she’s barking at me what to write on my essay so I’ll get a high mark, literally word for word, as though I’m not capable of producing my own thoughts. I always throw the paper away after she leaves.
My friends and I sometimes watch American movies about teenagers hatching plots and going to crazy places, and we’re like, when do they have time to do this? In China, every second of my day is usually decided by someone else.
When the last of my assignments is finally done, I walk upstairs to my mom’s room. I can hear Snowy’s bell, our poodle. If Snowy’s still in there, it means my mom’s probably forgotten about dinner. She never lets Snowy in her room when she’s getting dressed for fear of Snowy chewing up her Louboutins. I’m about to turn when the door swings open. My mom’s in her satin robe, her hair’s up in a towel and she’s holding a glass of chilled Rose. Adele plays in the background.
“Go put on something nice,” she tells me. “We’re going to M.”
M on the Bund is one of my mother’s favorite restaurants, right on the water, a tourist attraction but in a good way. My mom used to take me there when I was little, usually after I’d just won a swim meet. Now she only takes me when she’s out of girlfriends. She usually goes out with Auntie Maggie and Auntie Pearl, women who share her love of complaining and laser skin treatments.
We sit at the corner table, overlooking the balcony. My mom’s in a Costume National wool grey dress, chic but not loud, thank God, unlike some of her other clothes. I’m in black pants and a white shirt. Unlike my mom, who likes her clothes colorful and tight, I opt for understated and functional.
Mom sips champagne while making small talk with the waiter. She’s a regular and he kisses up to her so shamelessly I have to look away. She orders for us while I gaze out the window at the boats going up and down the Bund, tourists taking pictures, the Oriental Pearl Tower. There’s a roller coaster inside. When I was little, I used to go on it with my dad. I smile at the memory.
The waiter finally leaves us alone.
“Did you know your father and I met here?” she asks. She points to the foyer, where the hostess, in pencil thin stilettos, balances delicately behind the white marble table. “Right over there.”
She’s told me the story a thousand times. She was a college student at Fudan, working as a hostess that summer. He was an executive with a considerable expense account. It was love at first sight. And a trip to Cartier shortly after.
“I was just nineteen!” my mom reminds me. “Not much older than you. So young.”
Her cheeks flush with nostalgia and I settle in for a trip down memory lane. I try to take a sip of her champagne but she moves the flute out of reach. I protest, “Aw c’mon.”
“I was so beautiful then,” she continues, ignoring me.
“You’re still beautiful,” I remind her. I can’t tell you how many classmates—the guys especially—have commented on my mom’s appearance. “Your mom’s gorgeous,” they’d say, usually followed by, “You sure she’s your mom?” har har har. It used to bother me that she looked so much younger than all the other moms. I guess that’s what happens when you get started at twenty. She used to joke that we were both still kids. She’d ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I’d ask her back, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And she’d laugh and laugh.
I don’t know when she stopped laughing. She shakes her head at the champagne, pursing her lips. “I’m getting old,” she sighs. She grows quiet, eyes welling up. I hope that’s not what she’s blaming dad’s infidelity on.
My phone dings. It’s a WeChat voice message from my boyfriend Teddy. He’s a year older and studying hard for his gaokao. The Chinese college entrance exams are so intense that girls take birth control pills to avoid getting their period during that week and construction work is halted, traffic diverted near the examination halls so as to not disturb the students. So far, though, he still has time to mess around. I try and tap out of the app but my finger accidentally presses play.
“Hey babe, just thinking about the other day, in the back of the library. It was so—”
I shut the message off and for the next two minutes, sit there face melting off my skull. My mom is silent. She knows about me and Teddy but she still thinks of high school dating as I’ll walk you to class, you walk me to class type of thing.
“Have you and Teddy . . .” she fumbles to get the words out.
“No!” I exclaim. “Of course not.”
My mom’s eyes scan me like a human lie detector. I remind myself I have nothing to hide. We haven’t done anything more than make out. Though lately, he’s been asking me for pics. He swears he won’t show them to anyone else. I haven’t indulged him, but I haven’t flat out said no either.
“Promise me you’ll save yourself for someone special,” my mom says. “A Fortune 500 CEO perhaps. Or second generation scion. Someone better.”
Better than me or better than Teddy?
“Teddy’s a nice guy,” I say.
“A nice guy?” She laughs, waving her champagne flute in the air. “You think that’s what’s going to pay for all this? A nice guy?”
“No, I’m going to pay for all this,” I snap. “I have a brain remember.”
She considers her words carefully. “So use it to get into a good school. Trust me, it’ll be a lot harder to meet a good husband once you’re out of school. I was lucky to have met your father when I did.”
I raise my eyebrow at her.
“I’m just trying to watch out for you,” she says, her voice softening. She reaches out a hand and my anger thaws. I look over at my mom, sitting there, so lonely, sneaking glances at her phone, pretending to be smoothing out her napkin when we both know she’s checking to see if he’s called. He hasn’t.
Gently, my mother lifts her champagne flute and sets it down in front of me, a peace offering. I take a sip.
The next day, my mother drags me to lunch at my nai nai’s house. Nai nai is my grandmother on my dad’s side, a fierce widow with a head of white curls and a mouth that makes my mom want to crawl into a Qing vase before she even opens it. I kiss nai nai on both cheeks as she sits at her throne in the dining room. She’s holding court, my aunts, uncles, and cousins all gathered around her. They make no attempt to scoot over when my mom walks into the dining room, so she’s forced to take the last remaining seat at the end of the table. My father, if he was here, would sit at the head of the table and my mother next to him. But per usual, he’s not here.
“Nai nai,” I greet her.
My grandmother’s face blooms. “Claire,” she smiles. However she feels about my mom, she dotes on me because I’m her eldest grandchild. Nai Nai waves to her maids to set a place for me next to her and I look to my aunts and uncles, who reluctantly instruct my little cousins to scoot down. “How are your studies Claire?” my grandmother asks.
“Her studies are good,” my mom answers for me from the other end. I can tell she takes the question as more a probe into her tiger-momming skills. “I’ve got her the best tutors in Shanghai!” my mother says.
But nai nai barely looks at her, keeping her eyes steady on me. My aunts and uncles jump in with various tutor recommendations. “Did you hear about the white guy who’s tutoring Chinese?” Aunt Linda asks.
Uncle Lu puts down his jade chopsticks. “Why is everyone in this country so obsessed with lao wai? Not everything done by a white person is better!”
“I hear he’s pretty good, actually,” one of my other aunts responds. She snatches up the last two remaining tiger prawns and puts them on her son Jeremy’s plate. Jeremy keeps his eyes glued to his iPad, while one of my grandmother’s maids feeds him.
My mom sighs loudly and tells my aunts and uncles my new Chinese tutor, the one who makes me copy down her words, cost RMB$2000 an hour. The brag, masked as a complaint, shuts up my aunts momentarily. “Anyone can just pay some money. That doesn’t mean a thing,” my grandmother remarks.
My mom’s cheeks color. I’d almost feel sorry for her if I didn’t dislike my Chinese tutor so much.
“Actually, the tutor is very important,” my mom says. “Her teacher at school even said. You don’t know the local schools in Shanghai these days, you really need to get the right tutor or you don’t stand a chance.”
“I’ll be fine,” I say. Contrary to what my mother thinks, I like Chinese writing. I don’t need to memorize someone else’s words and cough them up on my exam. I can write my own, thank you.
My mom sighs. “You see what I have to deal with?” She looks to me and motions at me with her chopsticks. “You’re doing what the tutor says. You’re writing what she tells you to write on the exam!”
“Yes Claire,” my aunt Linda remarks. “Don’t be stupid!”
“Can I have her number?” Aunt June asks, pulling out her phone.
“No! I’m not doing it,” I say. I’m not copying. I don’t care if it gets me a 100, it’s not my 100. My mom shoots me a stern look. All my aunts and uncles jump in, yapping about my future, my grades, the gaokao.
Here we go again, life by committee. I roll my eyes. No wonder my dad never comes to these things. My grandmother puts up a hand to silence the chatter. She takes my hand in hers and peers into my eyes. I’m hopeful she’ll take my side, but instead she says, “Your mother’s right, you can’t hit a stone with an egg.”
I yank my hand away, flushing.
“She won’t. James and I will make sure of it,” my mom assures nai nai.
My grandmother turns to my mom. “And how is the husband of yours?”
I glance over at her. Mom’s smile has vanished and she’s folding the napkin in her hands, trying to buy some time as she works out the best response.
Life by committee’s a bitch.
EAST COVINA, CALIFORNIA
Do you ever get the feeling like everyone’s looking at you but no one actually sees you? I mean, they see you—they see you standing on the stage, receiving your Headmistress Commendation, your frizzy hair, your ratty shoes, your mom in the back squirreling away stale cookies—that they see, but they don’t see you.
“Dammit Dani, how many times do I have to tell you?” my band teacher, Mr. Rufus yells, “It’s an F sharp, not an F! And please clean out your flute. That sound you’re making—that noise—that’s the sound of spit!”
My face turns red as I reach for my wipe. The entire band sits back and lets out an exaggerated sigh as they wait for me to finish.
“Ever heard of lessons?” Conor, who sits next to me, mutters under his breath.
Conor O’Brien. I remind myself he wears tighty whiteys stained yellow and uses his mom’s Crisco cooking oil under his bed as lube. I know because I clean his room every Tuesday after school when he’s at lacrosse practice. I’ve probably cleaned about half the people in band’s houses, not that they would know. Everyone always books their maid for when they’re out.
Yes, I’ve heard of lessons, I want to hiss back. You ever heard of pre-foreclosure? Splitting a $3.99 cheeseburger from Burger King for dinner while your mom fills up on free soda refills?
I glance over at Zach, my other neighbor. Zach’s the captain of the American Prep swim team. He also happens to be last chair clarinet and because I’m last chair flute, we sit right next to each other. I’ll admit that’s one of the only reasons I like band. Unfortunately, we’ve never talked. And I’ve never cleaned his room. I’m not even sure where he lives. I think he might be a scholarship student too, like me and Ming.
Ming mouths to me “You ready?” from her seat as first chair violin. I nod. She’s here on a music scholarship from China and she’s also my co-worker, cleaning houses with me after school.
“Alright let’s take it from the top,” Mr. Rufus says, looking to Ming. The trumpets get their sheet music back out. The French Horns put down their phones. As Ming lifts her violin up, the entire string section takes their cue from her. I smile. It’s nice to see her leading the other kids, even if we secretly scrub their toilets.
After practice, Ming catches up to me. She’s carrying her black violin case, balancing it delicately on her slim shoulders. She hand carried it from China and even though the edges are frayed, she refuses to get a new one, kind of like me with my debate shoes. She told me once when she was ten, she had a chance to be on China’s Got Talent but her parents couldn’t afford to fly her to Shanghai. So when Mrs. Mandalay, our headmistress, discovered her during one of her recruiting trips to China and offered her a full scholarship, Ming jumped at the chance to come to attend American Prep to pursue music.
“We walking over to Rosa’s after school together?” she asks. Rosa’s our boss at Budget Maids. I talked her into letting Ming work there, even though it’s not exactly legal—Ming’s on a student visa. But her scholarship only covers tuition and a tiny stipend for housing, so she needs the money.
“Can’t. I have debate training today,” I tell her. “I’ll come after!”
Ming sticks out her lower lip. “When are they going to announce who they’re sending to Snider?” she asks.
At the mention of Snider, I suck in a breath. Mr. Connelly, my debate coach, has been training us for the tournament all year. My entire college admissions strategy next year is riding on Snider. All the top coaches are going to be there, including the coach of Yale, my dream school. Their team is undefeated this year.
“Soon, I think,” I tell her.
“You’ll definitely get picked,” she assures me as she starts heading out. “Mr. Connelly loves you.”
I smile, grateful for the words. My coach has been encouraging, though right now my most immediate problem is coming up with the money to pay for Snider. Flights and hotels aren’t cheap and my mom doesn’t exactly have air miles like all the other kids’ parents. She works for Budget Maids too, scrubbing toilets to try to put food on the table. That’s what my grandmother did and her mother before her. I am going to be the first girl in my family to break the cycle. But first I gotta get into college.
I put my flute back in its case and wait around until all my classmates leave before returning the loaned flute back to its loaned instruments cubby.
After school, I push open the door to debate training. As usual, Mr. Connelly greets me with a smile.
“Dani! How’s my Thunder Girl?” he asks. I roll my eyes at the term. Ever since one of the judges at a recent tournament called my speech “thundering,” Mr. Connelly has been calling me that. “You ready to go up against Heather today?”
“Yeah Thunder Girl, you ready?” Heather jokes. I laugh and tell her I was born ready. My teammates, for the most part, are friendly. There’s an unspoken understanding that my situation is different than theirs, and so sometimes they don’t invite me to things, like if they’re all going to an expensive restaurant after a tournament to celebrate.
As he divides us into teams, Mr. Connelly reminds us that he’ll be looking closely at our performance in practice as well as in the next two tournaments to see who gets to go to Snider. As much as we’ve all been trying to avoid it, the simple math stares us in the face: there are ten of us and only six get to go.
“So today when you debate, don’t hold back!” Mr. Connelly urges. He tells us the motion: This House Would Eliminate Tracking in Schools and asks me to begin the debate.
I get up and walk to the front of the room, while my teammates pull out pieces of paper to scribble down responses to my opening statement.
“Close your eyes and picture your ideal audience,” Mr. Connelly says.
The ideal audience is a concept Mr. Connelly came up with. It basically means closing your eyes and picturing someone—could be a real person, could be fictional—who is patient, kind, thoughtful, smart, and who desperately wants to hear what you have to say. It’s kind of embarrassing but my ideal person is Mr. Connelly. He’s been my ideal person ever since he pulled me aside freshman year and said to me, You have a voice. Let me help you find it.
I think about that first year, how he spotted my mom $20 because she was so behind on bills, she couldn’t pay for a pair of Payless black pumps for me to wear to the tournament. And at the tournament, when he asked me why my parents didn’t come, and I told him I don’t have a dad and my mom’s busy cleaning houses, he gave me a hug and said, “Well, you have me.” Yup, he’s my ideal person. I don’t even have to close my eyes.
I take a deep breath and smile at him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I begin. “Tracking is a modern form of segregation. Kids are labelled from an early age based on how they do on a few tests and are then divided into separate tracks for the rest of their schooling. It’s based on the erroneous belief that we as human beings don’t change, that once ignorant, always ignorant. Once poor, always poor.”
I set forth evidence and examples, talk about systemic bias and racial bias and how it oozes into our subconscious and convinces us that we’re not good enough. I think about how people like my mom’s boss Rosa (though I don’t say it) looks at her and says you shouldn’t be sending a child to private school. You are a maid. What are you doing sending a kid to private school?
“And so, I ask you to look in your hearts and ask yourself, what is the purpose of education? Is it to keep people in their place? Or is it to lift people up? I believe it’s the latter and so should you.”
“Bravo,” Mr. Connelly says. He stands up and claps even though he’s not supposed to. The debate’s not over yet. He’s supposed to wait. The fact is not lost on my teammates, and I catch a few eye rolls as I sit down.
Mr. Connelly leans over and whispers, “You’re going to be amazing at Snider, Thunder Girl.”
Later after practice, I’m putting books away at my locker, bending down to tie my shoes, when I overhear some of my debate teammates talking as they walk past.
“Did you hear him gush over how good her speech is?” Heather asks.
I freeze, hiding my face behind my locker. Are they talking about me?
“He’s just going easy on her because she’s a scholarship student,” Josh says.
“It’s so unfair. It’s not like she paid to be here,” Audrey adds. “We all have to pay for her.”
Wow. And here I thought we were all equals.
I fume as I walk over to Rosa’s after training. I can’t believe what my teammates said; I thought we were a group of principled individuals. That’s what I loved about debating, we may come from different worlds, but we believe in the same things—justice, ethics, equality. Evidentially they’re just a bunch of words to score points from judges. They don’t really mean it.
The door to Budget Maids bangs against the wall as I push it open.
“Dani, where have you been? You’re late!” Rosa scolds me as she snaps her fingers, chop chop. “Get your uniform on.”
I glance at Ming, who already has hers on. Rosa makes us wear these ridiculous black and white maid uniforms that say Budget Maid on them, complete with hat and surgical mask, like some sort of half Pilgrim, half nurse. She says they make us look professional.
“I don’t get it,” I say, reaching for mine in my locker and putting it on. “What does the client care what we wear as long as we get the job done?”
“How many times do I have to explain it to you?” Rosa asks, cutting the air with her hands. “It’s not just about getting the job done. It’s about brand building.”
I roll my eyes. Rosa’s been taking e-MBA classes. That’s where she gets terms like that from, which she likes to throw around to remind us she’s not just a boss, she’s a “CEO.”
She hands me and Ming our next address, one I don’t recognize. My mom and I have this rule—if it’s a new address, I don’t go. Someone else can go and clean it for the first time, just in case there’s something dodgy with the client. But maybe it’s ok. I glance over at my mom’s sweater hanging by her locker. Ming will be there with me and besides, I really need the money, especially if I’m going to Snider. Round trip tickets to Boston cost $500, and that’s just for the flight, that’s not even including hotel. Every dollar counts.
Ming stuffs the address in her pocket. Her parents aren’t here to tell her where she can and cannot clean. I don’t even think they know about her part-time maid job. She nods to Rosa and says, “Okay.”
I help Ming with the cleaning supplies and we head over to the truck. Rosa’s husband, Eduardo, drives us. As we shuttle over to the address in North Hills, where the houses are twice as expensive and the people twice as likely to accuse us of stealing, I fidget in my seat, looking over at Ming. I want to tell her what Heather and those jerks said at debate but she has her eyes firmly glued to her window.
We arrive in North Hills and make our way up the winding driveway to the impressive Mediterranean mansion perched above. With its lush lawn and wrap around balcony overlooking sprawling views of Los Angeles, it’s got to be worth at least $2-3 million dollars. Property prices have been going through the roof lately. Ming points to a jade statue of a dragon near the doorstep, muttering, “Crazy rich Asians.”
“Gotta love them!” Eduardo says, beaming. He and Rosa are big fans, both of the movie and of the people, who buy up houses in North Hills and hire Budget Maids to keep them clean. He teases Ming, “Those are your people!”
Ming shakes her head as she lugs the cleaning supplies out of the car. “Not my people. We crazy poor Asians,” she says, pointing a thumb to her chest.
I get out of the car and smooth out my maid’s outfit. Together we walk over to the house. Eduardo waits until we’ve found the key under the mat before backing out the car.
“Call me when you’re nearly done,” he hollers as we open the front door.
Once we’re inside, Ming and I drop our cleaning supplies on the floor. I take off my surgical mask. We look up at the forty-foot ceilings in the living room.
“Holy shit, it’s like a museum,” I say.
A single crystal chandelier hangs from the center of the ceiling, made even more dramatic by the gigantic mirrors along the walls and the white marble floors.
“Or a concert hall,” Ming adds.
She lifts her hands up and pretends to play the violin, humming the melody. I smile and go into the kitchen to get us some sodas. There are a couple of dirty dishes piled in a corner and some pizza boxes on the floor. That’s it. This will be a cinch to clean.
Light floods in through the French doors. I stand for a while, taking a moment to look out at the pool as I sip my soda, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a place like this.
Ming’s testing the cleaning sprays against the mirrored coffee table when I get back to the living room. I hand her the soda and kneel down beside her. I’m about to tell her what happened at training when she turns and drops her own news.
“So yesterday my host dad was walking around the kitchen in his underwear, again. And he reaches in there and he readjusts.” Ming puts her soda down, gets up and demonstrates, reaching for her crotch.
“Ew,” I say.
“And then he takes the same hand and he hands me my plate.”
The look on Ming’s face is so priceless, I start laughing, even though it’s not funny. Ming’s host dad is a middle aged out-of-work truck driver named Kevin Malone with a drinking problem and no business watching over teenaged girls. But he somehow discovered that hosting foreign students was an easy way to make money and as luck would have it, Ming got assigned to him, mostly because he was cheap. The school only gave her a $600 a month for her housing stipend.
“Can you get another host family?” I ask her. “Or tell him to put some clothes on?”
She takes a sip of her soda and shakes her head. “The other host families, they’re all too expensive,” she says. She’s afraid of upsetting the school if she asks for more money. I can relate. I’ve thought many times of asking Mrs. Mandalay, our headmistress, if the school will cover my debate travel, but I’ve never been able to do it. Every time I’ve opened my mouth, I’ve promptly closed it and ran over to Rosa instead to ask for more addresses.
“It’s not like my parents can help,” Ming sighs. She doesn’t talk much about her parents. I know they’re not like the parents of the other Chinese kids at our school who drive around in Porches and Teslas, armed with their parents’ American Express black card.
“You want me to talk to your host dad?” I ask. I’d love to straighten him out!
But Ming shakes her head. “It’s ok. It is his house and I guess he has the right to wear—”
A noise from upstairs cuts her off. What the . . . ? Is someone home? Ming and I walk quickly up the marble staircase to the bedrooms. We follow the sound to the master, where we push open the door and walk in on two people having sex. The guy, not much older than us, peers at me and Ming as a topless girl sits on top of him. An amused look crosses his face as he looks at us. “Wanna join in?” he asks.