After two years at a New England boarding school, Chinese student Xinyi admits of the Americans around her: “I still don’t know what they’re really all about.”
New film explores lives of Chinese students in the US
This scene from new film Maineland might be dispiriting for those who hope cultural contact creates understanding — or it might be laudable for its honesty.
The documentary follows the lives of two Chinese students, social butterfly Xinyi (or “Stella”), and introverted philosopher Junru (or “Harry”), as they attend boarding school in a small rural town in Maine and get to grips with Western culture.
Directed by Miao Wang, Maineland juxtaposes their wealthy and privileged lives in a flashy and fast-paced urban China against their school years in a New England community with just one commercial street.
As Xinyi struggles to gain insight into American culture, Junru finds himself torn between the individualistic aspects of Western culture and personal independence on one hand and “the rich ideas passed down to us from the long history of Chinese thought” on the other.
The film hits US screens at a time of deepening tensions between Beijing and Washington, as suspicion around China’s attempts to acquire US technology has pushed some lawmakers to sponsor new legislation that could bring the flow of Chinese students to the US to a grinding halt.
In discussing the threat China poses to American security, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made no secret of his attitude towards the country.
“We see [efforts by mainland Chinese to acquire classified information] in our schools, in our hospitals and medical systems, we see it throughout corporate America. These [are] efforts we have to all be more focused on. We have to do better at pushing back against Chinese efforts to covertly influence the world,” Pompeo said in January.
Wang’s portrait of young Chinese students excited about the opportunity to study in the US makes clear how counterproductive it would be to bar them.
“What interested me the most was what will happen a few years down the road when a whole generation of young Chinese are educated abroad at such a formative age,” Wang said in an interview. “How would that impact China, and how would that impact the US, and US-China relations?”
A former pre-med, economics and graphic design student, Wang’s shift into filmmaking has so far produced two award-winning documentaries showing sides of China that often go unmentioned in the news. She is planning a third film, to create a documentary trilogy.
Maineland, which won the “Special Jury Award for Excellence in Observational Cinema” at last year’s South By Southwest music and film festival, brings much-needed nuance to a demographic that is increasingly maligned in the US: nouveau riche Chinese mainland students, a group more abundant than ever on high school and university campuses.
Essentially a sociological study that helps deepen the understanding of a culture undergoing a historically unprecedented transformation, Maineland takes a poetic approach, often relying on Xinyi and Junru’s interior voices over footage of them interacting with other students, or enjoying the natural beauty of New England.
“I like to avoid talking head stuff because I find it boring,” Wang explains.
The poetic approach doesn’t keep Wang from addressing politics.
In one scene, Junru, whose quest for philosophical self-improvement perhaps makes him the film’s most sympathetic subject, is explaining to his teacher why he is making a documentary about the events of June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square.
“I chose Tiananmen because it’s a taboo in China,” he says. “People older than me don’t think it’s a big issue.”
Wang, who says the conversation about Tiananmen is an “inevitable” moment for any Chinese student studying abroad, then contrasts this with a point that Junru makes about how Tiananmen might have twisted American perceptions of China too much.
“Americans may think that we have no freedom, but look at how much spin there is in the Western media,” Junru says.
Revealing China to Americans was part of the motivation behind Beijing Taxi, the first in Wang’s trilogy, which also premiered at South By Southwest.
Wang acknowledges the role that her cross-cultural life has played in her ability to tell stories that resonate with American audiences. The director moved to the US from Beijing with her family in the early 1990s when she was 13 years old.
“I don’t feel Chinese-American necessarily, but I feel American and Chinese,” Wang said.
“I also feel very frustrated about this lack of understanding about Chinese culture and Chinese people. Most of the time, people are only reading news that doesn’t say anything besides policy and what the government is doing.”
Wang won’t be shying away from controversial subjects in the third installment of her trilogy – she says it’s likely to be about China’s sexual revolution.