BY ELAINE HSIEH CHOU
That August, they arrived in the empty field next to the 210 freeway. They appeared in bursts of color: pink, fluorescent yellow, baby blue, striped, metallic. Like jellyfish drifting in the sky.
They unbuckled their mesh harnesses and shielded their eyes from the southern Californian sun.
We watched them from our windows with the shades drawn. We pointed and whispered to one another. We crossed our arms and narrowed our eyes.
Where did they come from? we asked.
Mostly China and Taiwan.
Why had they come? we wanted to know. What did they want?
That was harder to answer.
We watched them move into a stucco cream-colored house in a new development, a three-story with a pool. Eight, then ten of them lived in the house. We kept careful count.
Where are their parents? we quietly shrieked.
They attended high school with our children. In the mornings, they were dropped off in a hired van and at three forty-five, they were picked up in the same van.
They didn’t play on the school team. It was rumored that they had private tutors for violin and badminton, cello and fencing.
They didn’t talk to our children and we told our children not to talk to them.
Please understand, it wasn’t meant to be unkind. They kept to themselves, anyway. They spoke a language we couldn’t comprehend. They made faces we couldn’t read.
They were not quite like anything we had ever seen before.
They liked to gather at one of the shopping centers on the edge of town, at a new café that sold drinks flavored with exotic fruits: lychee, kumquat, honeydew.
The boys styled their hair differently from our boys, teased up or spread apart down the middle. They wore oversized sweaters, jogging pants and silver earrings.
The girls looked nothing like our girls. Pale and thin in an unhealthy way. They kept out of the sun, stained instead of glossed their lips. The color looked like they had sucked on something poisonous.
They laughed with an abandonment that frightened us, smoked cigarettes and sipped from small bottles tucked in their backpacks. We didn’t know how they purchased these items. They were only fourteen, fifteen years old.
We looked on in horror as they stayed out until 12 am, 3 am, 4 am. They reeked a fearsome joy that can only come from a lack of supervision.
There was a leader in the group of girls—we could tell right away. The way she talked and the way she moved. She had long hair that fell to her waist. Otherwise, we could not see what was special about her.
The news reports said she went by Lily. Her birth name was Li-Hua Hwang.
If only we had sensed earlier that something had to be done about her.
We didn’t always know how to tell them apart. When our children came back from school with stories of arguments in the hallways and vicious fights in the parking lot, we found it difficult to believe.
We thought of them as a single entity, moving and thinking as one.
It wasn’t until we learned about that girl—Lily—and what she had done, that we remembered they were teenagers, too. Foreign and strange, yes. But like our own children, they were subjected to the same extraordinary pains and jealousies, the same hysterical devotions and betrayals.
What was it like to live alone, without their parents, in that enormous house?
We were dying to know.
Did they sleep two to a bed? Three to a bed? Did they borrow each others’ clothes? Cook their meals together? Wash the dishes in turns? Compete over the TV remote?
Did they ever think of home and cry?
Did they know we were watching them?
What did they think of us.
There were rumors of things happening that were far worse than smoking and drinking. We didn’t like the way our children began to talk about them—with something like envy, or awe. We feared they desired entry into that ungoverned world.
If we ever heard about things going too far, we did not bring it up to the teachers, much less the principal.
That was their parents’ responsibility, not ours.
Or perhaps we simply did not care enough.
In June, we read the report in the local newspaper. We placed our hands over our hearts and shook our heads.
Severe physical bullying, we read. Stripped naked. Forced to eat her own hair. Cigarette burns found on her nipples.
Like animals, we agreed, our eyes wide and hungry.
We said to each other over the phone, can you believe it?
The answer was yes. We had believed it all along.
Oh, we felt sorry for the girl. The one Lily went after, the one she convinced her group of friends to torment. The report stated that Lily had caught the girl having sex with a boy she liked.
They were friends. Lily had gone after one of their own.
Poor thing, we said. She must be traumatized. We hope she gets the care she needs. Back home, with her mother and father where she belongs.
A video of the court hearing played on the local news. In it, Lily’s face remained smooth and expressionless. She showed no sign of repentance.
Inhuman, we spat.
When they wanted to try her as juvenile, we were outraged. When the defense cited parental neglect and mental health issues, we staged a protest. We painted signs and marched.
We chanted, send her back. We rang agony from our eyes. We hurtled words like freedom to versus freedom from.
Li-Hua Hwang was deported not long after. The others would soon follow, we reasoned.
We fell into our beds at night, exhausted with good-doing, and smiled in the dark. Our children would be safe. We had performed our duty to them, to our country.
We never talked about the fact that the boy—Lily’s boy—was one of ours.
Strong and bright and shining. A quarterback on the varsity football team and Homecoming king. A perfect specimen. He could have any girl he wanted.
We didn’t understand.
What had compelled him towards Lily? Towards the other girl?
The only reasonable explanation, we concluded, was that he had been tricked. Those foreign girls with their sly eyes and poisonous smiles. They were an infection, a blight upon our boys. We were sure they carried new diseases. When we imagined them writhing above their bodies like succubi, we felt bile rise in our throats.
We prayed for bad weather, for endless rain and thunder and lightning. Above all, we feared clear skies.
But prayer has its limitations.
The following August, we waited in the field next to the 210 freeway at dawn. We hid behind abandoned cars and heaps of tires. We watched the sun bleed into the horizon.
We came armed, with rocks to hurl at the sky and knives to split open silk.
But we had only taken down one—a young boy tangled in a parachute of primary colors—before we heard the scream of police sirens.
We were careful not to look the boy in the eye as we descended upon him.
That was many years ago. We have not been allowed to go near them since.
There are five houses full of them now, all in the same development, all beige stucco with coffee-colored trimming.
We have nightmares of them falling from the sky, a swarm of brightly-colored locusts. We imagine them raining down like ink that cannot be washed out. Seeping under locked doors and into our beds, our clothes, our skin.
Our children tell us that they are getting into colleges they were rejected from. That some have joined the school teams. That others still have integrated into clubs and student government. That mixed friend groups are beginning to form.
We shush them. Be quiet now.
We are finding new homes in places they haven’t thought to come. Arizona. Utah. Colorado.
Do we have to leave? our children ask.
We press them against our chests and cradle their heads. We will protect you, we sing. We will never let anything harm you.
Please understand, we love our children more than anything. They will inherit us. We have done our best, but when we are gone, it will be up to them to keep the skies clear. To dream of a net so wide it can wrap around the whole blue American sky.
Author’s note: This story was inspired by events that transpired in Rowland Heights, California in 2015. “Parachute kids” is a colloquial term for “A child of wealthy East Asian parents who is left in the United States to attend school while his or her parents live abroad” (Lexico).