By Diana Cheng
How do two Chinese high school students from affluent and protective families in Shanghai and Guangzhou adjust to small town America as they pursue, or rather, as their parents send them to pursue the American dream? The road to finding out what it is like to study in a private American boarding school is paved with many intentions: youthful idealism or simply to escape from the harsh national college entrance exam, or maybe for utilitarian purposes on the part of their parents.
The subject matter in director Miao Wang’s second documentary, “Maineland,” may be timely and relevant as an increasing number of students from Mainland China have been enrolling in U.S. private schools in recent years, schools opening to international students to remain sustainable. We are told in the feature that three million Chinese high school students had forgone the demanding national college entrance exam in 2009, many of them had gone overseas to continue their study. The documentary does pose a fundamental question, are the young teenagers reflective enough to shed light on the issue?
For those unfamiliar with the sight and sound of megalopolis China, the ultra-modern neon of Shanghai, and the younger generation there and their interactions with their parents, the documentary is an interesting window opened for their first encounter. The camera records like a home video and the capturing of its subjects in situ exudes a naturalistic feel.
Wang’s verité style of documenting the teenagers first at home in China and then to the dormitory of Fryeburg Academy in rural Maine could have been a more revealing endeavor. It could have been a probing tool to examine cultural conflicts, the coming of age in a foreign land, parental expectations vs. individual aspirations, or simply, as these young people want so much to experience, what exactly is the American dream? What have they achieved during their high school years other than a diploma? How much have they understood America? However, the film leaves some expected questions unanswered and meaningful themes underexplored.
Wang spent three years following Stella Zhu and Harry He from China to Maine. The film starts from the very beginning, with Fryeburg’s admission director going to Shanghai to interview prospective students. We can tell, maybe the same with the school interviewers, the students answer the questions posed to them in a canned and scripted manner, telling the school officials what they would like to hear.
Stella’s father owns a computer parts manufacturing company, a successful businessman who is hopeful that his daughter will take up the family business. Harry’s father had studied abroad when he was young and would like his son to have such an experience as well.
While the film follows closely the Chinese students, we see their dorms, their classes, their meeting with counsellors, but it seems we are unable to reach deeper than what appears. What are their anxieties, conflicts? What do they think of the local American students and how do the locals view them? The film does not interview any non-Chinese student about cultural issues or seek any of their views.
The title “Maineland” is meant to be a pun for the word “Mainland”, Mainland China. What it unexpectedly reveals though is exactly what the wordplay is about. The Chinese students in Fryeburg Academy stay together, go to the same classes – could be due to their being English-as-a second-language students – they socialize with their own cultural group, sit together in the school cafeteria, and during off school hours, go out to eat in a Chinese restaurant as a group. They communicate with each other effortlessly using their own language. We do not see them interact with white American students. Maineland or Mainland poses not a lot of differences except for the physical environment and the deep winter snow. It is no wonder that Stella says, in Mandarin, at the end of the film about the local American students: “No matter how long you’ve lived here, there’s always a disconnect. I still don’t know what they’re really about.”
For Stella, she intends to return to China after her education in America. There are underlying cultural values driving her decision, values that are ingrained in filial duty and doing what is expected of her to please her parents, even as she is seemingly set free in America. At first, she wanted to study to be a teacher after high school, but later decides to go for business to prepare herself to take over her father’s enterprise.
Harry is a musical young man and is introspective. The film uses his piano playing as part of his segment which is quite effective in translating his self-reflection. Harry feels his American schooling has motivated him to seek independence and form his own ideas. As his school counsellor helps him to fill out college application forms, we see his three choices of college majors are business, music, and philosophy. But how clear is he in his knowledge about each subject or its prospects? Well this might be the job of his counsellor. But seeing him struggling to form his opinion and articulate his view, this thought came to me: it would be interesting if Wang makes a documentary of these young people after their graduation from college, maybe that would be a more rewarding project.
“Maineland” screens at the 37th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on April 19 and 21. Click here to the webpage for show times and tickets.