DECEMBER 26, 2020
“GUYS ARE LIKE school admissions,” Claire Wang’s mom tells Claire in Parachutes, a new YA novel by Kelly Yang. “Get in first. Then worry if you like them back.” The analogy is cheeky yet revealing: colleges and boyfriends function on a model of scarcity, and thus attainment is far more important than agency. Parachutes traces this logic with a critical eye, as conflicts arise not only out of relational drama, a staple driver of YA fiction, but also out of the stresses surrounding elite college admissions.
Parachutes follows the relationship between Claire, who moves from Shanghai to Los Angeles, and Dani De La Cruz, a Filipina girl who is Claire’s host sister and a scholarship student at her prep school. The book is named after “parachute kids” like Claire, who are flown in from China in order to get a better education. Ironically, Claire is not very interested in playing the college admissions game, but Dani is resolute about getting into Yale, which she believes will lift her and her mother out of the working class.
Another recent YA release, Ed Lin’s David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College, is “college admissions fiction” at its most blatant, beginning on the first page:
I was ranked eighth out of a class of 240. If I could end the year in sixth or seventh place, that would be a major win. […] My school is a public institution based in a landlocked town in northern New Jersey known for receiving 20-25 Ivy League college admissions offers every year. […] We’re the only school on the East Coast where about 80% of the students are Asian American, nearly all Chinese, and many with immigrant parents.
Unsurprisingly, the primary tension in the novel involves David’s attempts to square his nascent romantic relationships with the all-encompassing demand to build a perfect admissions portfolio. And, like Dani in Parachutes, David is a working-class outsider enveloped in a cluster of affluence.
The teenage protagonists in both novels also grapple with the challenges of tiger parents, social media, and racism. The one thing that remains conspicuously unremarked upon, however, is the legitimacy of college admissions itself: it is a given that David must attend an Ivy League school and that Dani stakes her future on admission to Yale, even though these quests become foundational stresses in their lives. In Parachutes, the issue of college admission is eventually overshadowed as the story shifts toward more pressing concerns, such as campus sexual assault, but in David Tung, no such shift occurs: matriculation at an elite school persists as a dominant goal, a myth of meritocracy David strains toward unflaggingly.
With New York Times best sellers like Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2014) and Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi (2017), Asian American YA literature has gained widespread exposure. While Han’s and Menon’s books focus on romance, Parachutes and David Tung can be read alongside YA novels like Paula Yoo’s Good Enough (2008) and Rahul Kanakia’s Enter Title Here (2016), which feature protagonists whose primary struggle is not racial assimilation or romance but whether or not they’ll be good enough to get into, as Paula Yoo puts it, “HARVARDYALEPRINCETON.” By concretizing just how treacherous climbing the admissions ladder can be, these books reaffirm the narrow scope of possibility in their protagonists’ lives.
In David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College, David is highly competent, resilient, and endowed with superhuman amounts of discipline: he works every day at his parents’ restaurant while somehow maintaining stellar grades and scoring 1550 on his SAT. The plot forces David into difficult situations, such as managing his “Dames Ball” date, Christina Tau, who is much richer and flashier than he is, as well as dealing with anxiety while waiting to hear back about a prestigious hospital internship. David’s lower-class status deprives him of many of the extracurricular opportunities his classmates enjoy, setting him up as an underdog whose experience potentially exposes the inequities of the admissions system.
During a visit with his high-school counselor, Mr. Wald, David struggles to brainstorm college essay ideas because, unlike his classmates, he doesn’t have a prestigious internship set up through connections. On a whim, he then throws out his restaurant experience, saying:
I remember this one time, I was complaining to my parents about how I had to work all these hours at the restaurant but still couldn’t buy some stupid gadget that everybody else at school had. My father pulled me to the back of the restaurant and pushed me out the door. I thought I was in for a thrashing, but he held out his hands so I could see the scars and calluses on them. Then he said, “This is all I have. I don’t have anything else to give to you.”
Mr. Wald reacts with gushing praise. “I love it,” he says. “You have to write it just like that for your essay. […] Your parents really did give you a wonderful gift, David.” In response, David “grimaced slightly and gave a slight shrug,” resigned to reducing the difficulties and complexities of his life to a few traumatic anecdotes whose utility lies solely in providing him a “hook” for his college applications.
Betty Jung, David’s eventual girlfriend, emerges as a potential foil, since she is relatively unconcerned about attending an elite college, having her eyes set instead on one of New York’s public universities. She asks David during one of their conversations, “Do you ever think that the Ivy schools your mother wants you to go to are like the nice tuxes that Christina wanted you to wear? Expensive and impressive on some level, but maybe not a good look overall?” Unable to comprehend the implications of Betty’s question, David responds simply by saying that he “wouldn’t want to end up being hounded by my mother about working on transfer applications. It’d just be easier if I get into one of the Ivies right off the bat.”
In an interview with Electric Literature, Lin said that he “always write[s] books for me,” reaching back to the difficulties he faced as an Asian American teen. At its best, YA literature can hold up a mirror to teenage readers, depicting protagonists who look just like them, and thus facilitate some measure of emotional maturation. This capacity is particularly valuable for middle- and upper-middle-class Asian American teens, whose lives are often oriented around competition and “standing out,” both inherently isolating mindsets. Yet what is the use of mirroring as a learning experience if the protagonist in whom we see ourselves always gets the prestigious internship, attains the top grades, and finds their true sweetheart?
While at first Parachutes seems to follow the same logic regarding college admissions as David Tung, the novel subsequently shifts to critique the pious devotion needed to succeed within this system. Claire and Dani must live up to the same performance standards as David Tung, but they also have to negotiate gender bias and the aftermath of sexual assault. The central plot of Parachutes revolves around the two girls finding their way to each other despite their messy teenage decisions. In one sequence of events, for example, Dani watches Claire cheat on her boyfriend with the boy Dani herself is crushing on, then snitches to Claire’s boyfriend, who proceeds to rape Claire out of spite. By the end of Parachutes, both girls see the institutions of law and academia turn against them, and thus admission to college becomes less a way out than a distraction and an afterthought.
At the beginning of Parachutes, the stress of college admissions deeply informs the relationship between Dani and her mom, who cleans houses for Dani’s rich classmates. Like David, Dani gets straight As, helps her mom with her domestic work, and contends with the upper crust of Asian America. She defines her relationship with her mother like this:
My mom thinks my debating is like a hot night in Vegas. Everything good comes to a disappointing end. But it won’t. I’ll show her. And when I win, our lives are going to change. I’m going to get into Yale, and we won’t have to ever worry about not making another mortgage payment again.
Parachutes reckons powerfully with this parent-child role reversal in immigrant families: Dani feels locked into a forced choice of going to an Ivy League school in order to be able to support her working-class mother, whose perspective she sees as parochial. Yet when her high school debate coach, her ticket to success, sexually assaults her, Dani chooses not to tell her mom because she would presumably be stopped from attending a national debate competition, “and then I won’t be able to go to Yale.” Parachutes thus pushes the issue of college admissions to the breaking point, asking just how much a student should sacrifice to stay in the race.
Dani ends up going to the debate tournament, where she decides to out her coach during her final-round speech, which is publicly broadcast, and ends up winning the tournament. However, when she returns to Los Angeles, she finds herself shunned by her school’s staff and her debate teammates. Claire experiences a parallel narrative: after she is raped by her boyfriend, whose father is a powerful school donor, everyone turns on her for wanting more than an apology. Her best friend Jess tells her that “justice is something Americans invented to sell movies,” and her dad tells her that she will become known as “damaged goods.”
As a result, Claire and Dani finally end their feud. Together, they go to the school’s headmistress, Mrs. Mandalay, and Dani proclaims to her that “[t]his school has a culture of allowing sexual misconduct.” Mrs. Mandalay counters by saying, “You think it’s any different at Yale? Or any of the Ivy League schools?” She attempts to silence Dani by dangling “Yale” over her head, saying that she must “sacrifice” in order to “build something great.” However, her cynical gaslighting underlines a bitter truth not only about the sexual assault problem on college campuses but also about the nature of meritocracy itself: skewed power imbalances will always favor the privileged, and thus a poor, Filipina teenager will always remain on the losing end. Parachutes puts into question this achievement ladder, exploding the notion that elite college admission will be any sort of panacea.
At the end, aware that they might destroy their chances at a good school, and knowing that their cases will be painful, uphill battles, Claire and Dani still go to the police station to report their assaults. Their decision is hopeful but latently tenuous: Dani’s mom’s conclusion that “everything good must come to a disappointing end” may be more true than not. Nevertheless, in its gritty realism, Parachutes works to depressurize the toxic environment in which so many Asian American teens live, exposing the emotional toll involved in making college admission the ultimate objective of a successful life.
College admission rates, especially at elite universities, have dropped precipitously in recent decades, leading to widespread hysteria and anger. Yet perhaps the most pervasive effect has been a passive resignation. In her landmark article for The Atlantic, “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” Hannah Rosin profiles Gunn High School (which uncannily resembles David Tung’s Shark Beach High School), exploring the mental health crises among Asian American teens. Rosin quotes Bay Area psychologist Madeline Levine: “[T]he teenagers have no sense of agency. They still complain bitterly about all the same things, but they feel they have no choice[,] […] that there is but one path to a successful life, and that it is very narrow.” Levine labels this a “mass delusion.”
One of the first “college admissions fiction” authors, Kaavya Viswanathan, finished writing her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (2006), while a freshman at Harvard. In the novel, Opal Mehta attempts to become more “well-rounded” after being critiqued by a Harvard admissions officer (hence the titular activities). In a highly publicized controversy, however, it was revealed that Viswanathan had plagiarized large sections of Opal Mehta after reportedly receiving a $500,000 advance. Having reached the acme of higher education, Viswanathan presumably had no more reason to plagiarize, yet still she did; by leveraging her “model minority” status to achieve cultural capital, she is symptomatic of the “mass delusion” Levine describes, a crippling mindset that in no way disappeared after college acceptance.
Books like Opal Mehta and David Tung seem to answer the call for more diverse YA fiction. Indeed, we now have a specific subset of Asian American YA that is focused on the turbulent lives of coastal, suburban East and South Asians. The faces captured in the mirror are representative, but what can this fiction do to show that the mirror itself is fractured? While Parachutes questions the sanctity of admissions mania, it nevertheless remains mired in the twinned myths of meritocracy and zero-sum competition. In the coming years, I eagerly await Asian American YA novels in which the protagonists fail to get into their top choice colleges and find their lives radically changed for the better as a result. Novels in which the tiger parent softens, and mother and child end up protesting on the streets together rather than fighting over grades. Novels in which talented Asian American high-schoolers reimagine their lives as so much more than mere fodder for the admissions machine.
A recent graduate of Brown University, Kion You is a freelance writer based in Seoul, South Korea. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review, Rewire, and The College Hill Independent.