The Parachute Generation

Brook Larmer:

When I first met Yang Jinkai, two days before he boarded a plane for America, the smog hanging over his industrial home city, Shenyang, had turned the sun into a ghostly orb. The 16-year-old paced around the family apartment as his mother labeled his suitcases and packed them with the comforts of home: quilted pajamas, chopsticks, instant noodles. She gestured toward a lone memento that would remain in his bedroom, a life-size needlepoint portrait of her only child, woven in shimmering gold thread. “I worked on that all year,” she said. “I knew this moment would come.”

Yang had never traveled outside China. But he had already chosen a new first name for his life in America, Korbin (“That sounds American, right?”), and was daydreaming about the adventure ahead. “It will be magical,” he said. “I’ll make lots of American friends. I’d like to have an American girlfriend. Maybe” — he shot a glance at his father — “I’ll even get a gun.” Over the summer, Korbin had been working on his English by watching, perhaps too zealously, the American television series “Criminal Minds.”