In writing my upcoming YA book, THIS IS MY BRAIN ON BOYS, my editors were concerned about an arc involving two star-crossed students. The students are Chinese, pressured by their over-bearing parents to concentrate on school, not love. Was the story line racist? Cliche?
The truth is, it never would have occurred to me to include these characters if I hadn’t witnessed the blossoming – or, rather, wilting – of such a romance in my own home.
A few years ago, we decided to host a pair of Chinese exchange students, two fifteen year olds from the Szechuan province who temporarily adopted American names: Sam and Jackson.
Sam was the more immature of the two, still very much a boy. Every morning he came to breakfast in a baby-blue windbreaker zipped to the chin and stared in horror at the offerings: eggs, pancakes, cereal. (I finally broke down and gave them noodles!) He had narrowed down his colleges to two choices – Harvard or Oxford. His study schedule began at 7 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. with a half-hour break for dinner. His only relaxation seemed to be a Nintendo DS and Gods of War.
Jackson, on the other hand was cooler. While Sam was prattling away about potential American boarding schools that had earned his strict grandmother’s approval, Jackson would stare the window dreamily. Fortunately, he took to Charlie and it was while they were hiking up a mountain that he made his first confession.
“I have a friend,” he said. “She’s in another program, but she’s come to Vermont and knows no one. She’s very lonely.”
“She’s his girlfriend,” Charlie said later. “He’s desperately in love.”
I was surprised. Jackson had never mentioned a girlfriend and, believe me, we’d asked. He was cute and very adolescent and just that type. “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to get them together, no matter what,” said my husband, the sudden romantic.
Gradually, their story unfolded. Though Jackson and this girl attended the same school, her parents (or maybe his, Jackson wasn’t entirely truthful about the details) had forbidden them from seeing each other. Supposedly, the excuse was that dating would eat into their schoolwork. Therefore, they would be free to see each other during the summer, right?
“No. Way.” The host mother on the other end of the line was firm. “I’m telling you, I won’t even consider it.”
We had finally tracked down the girlfriend who was staying about forty miles away near Burlington in the home of a no-nonsense school nurse. She knew the girl’s parents disapproved of Jackson and that they would be very upset if we facilitated their reunion. Moreover, as a school employee, the nurse worried her job would be on the line if something bad happened.
“Bad?” I said, shocked and kind of pissed off by this cranky attitude. This was young love here. This was passion in its truest form. How could something bad come out of a simple – and chaperoned – meeting in a park?
“Do you know the first thing this girl said when she walked in the door?” the nurse snapped. “How old do you have to be to be married in America?”
There was no cajoling. The nurse was so adamant she practically slammed down the phone.
That night, Charlie had to break the news to Romeo. Jackson was crestfallen, tearfully confessing that the only reason he and she had joined the exchanged programs was so their trips would intersect in Vermont where, for one, brief, glorious interlude, they would be free to be in each other’s arms. A Venn diagram of love.
So when I wrote about brainy kids at a summer program in New England, naturally my thoughts turned to Jackson for inspiration. It’s rare to see parents here so dictatorial about whom their children do or do not date. While we might disapprove of our offspring’s choices, I don’t know anyone who’s actually locked the door and taken away the car keys over a budding romance. Maybe you do. Or, maybe you have yourself.
For awhile, Jackson and Charlie kept up a chatty correspondence though, eventually, they drifted apart. I’ve often wondered if he and his girlfriend did, too, or, through some amazing divine intervention, they found each other at last.
I guess that’s what fiction is for – to add a happy ending when real life won’t.