It’s not a secret that people compare American schools with other countries’ schools, and Chinese schools are known as some of the strictest in terms of exams—particularly their college entrance exams called gaokao. In Kelly Yang’s book Parachutes, this topic is introduced right away. We find out Chinese students who excel in school often have tutors for most subjects, whereas American schools typically resort to tutoring when students struggle. This is just one example of cultural norms and traditions held by other countries. Our world is vast, and looking at other countries’ norms and traditions allows students to expand their knowledge and see the world as a bigger, more interesting place.


In Parachutes by Kelly Yang, right before a family dinner, Claire, the Chinese protagonist, talks about how her boyfriend Teddy is preparing for his gaokao. Although Claire isn’t about to graduate, Teddy is in his final year before college. Claire is in the midst of an extended family discussion about the right tutors for her and everyone’s voice except Claire’s is heard—her uncle, aunt, mother, and grandmother all have an opinion. Claire wants to learn how to write well for college entrance exams instead of just copying word-for-word what her English tutor says. But she doesn’t speak up, and they wouldn’t listen even if she did. 


She’s distracted by a voice message from her boyfriend and readers realize how serious exams are in China through her description. 


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 the 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. (6)


Have students research cultural norms and differences with the mini-lesson below!


Jennifer Epping is a high school English and journalism teacher in Des Moines, Iowa. She has a passion for reading, writing, and making lame jokes to her students just to see them laugh or roll their eyes. She just concluded her ninth year teaching. Epping graduated from Iowa State University with a BS in journalism and mass communication (2010) and BA in English Education (2013). She attended New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute (2010), and spent some time in children’s book publishing in New York.