In ‘Maineland,’ Chinese High School Kids Live the American Dream

Documentary filmmaker Wang Miao followed two “parachute kids” as they adapted to life at an American high school.

In a sunny room somewhere in Maine, in the American northeast, a Chinese boy plays the piano. The tones he strikes sound melodious, but also a little melancholic.

The boy is Harry, one of the protagonists of the documentary Maineland. As one of the many “parachute kids” who enroll at U.S. private schools as young teenagers, Harry left his family and comfortable middle-class life behind in China and moved to a whole new world.

The director of Maineland, Wang Miao, knows the children’s struggles all too well. Wang grew up in Beijing and, at the age of 12, immigrated to the U.S. with her family. The next five years were full of challenges as she endeavored to adapt to her new surroundings. “Crossing continents from one culture into another at that age is the single most important turning point for anyone who has gone through this experience,” Wang told Sixth Tone.

During the more than three years spent filming Maineland, Wang captured the journeys of two teenagers — fun-loving Stella and more introspective Harry — as they prepared for life abroad and adapted to small-town, rural Maine. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: The main characters of Maineland, Stella and Harry, are both well-behaved children from affluent families. Why did you focus on them rather than on characters who perhaps don’t fit the “good child” mold?

Wang Miao: I didn’t necessarily see Stella and Harry as the typical Chinese “good children.” My preference for a character is someone who is captivating on screen, with nuance and complexity. I choose characters who are not only intriguing in their personalities, with potential for personal growth in the run time of the film, but also conduits for eliciting different aspects of Chinese culture, perspective, and society.

I wanted to track the journeys of students from their lives in China, leaving, and arrival at school, through graduation. I followed the Fryeburg Academy admissions officer on his recruiting trips to China, and filmed all 40 or so interviews. Among that crop of applications in 2012, 14 were accepted, Stella and Harry among them.

I started filming five kids but eventually narrowed it down to two. I liked Stella’s very open and vivacious personality. Harry embodied a lot of traditional Chinese ideas and qualities. He always seemed quite mature for his age. I appreciated his curious ways and his philosophical ruminations on his experience.

Sixth Tone: What do you think of Stella’s and Harry’s relationships with their families?

Wang Miao: I chose Stella and Harry partly for how different their families are. Stella’s family represents a segment of modern Chinese families that are on the brink of fracture. It almost feels like a classically tragic tale of the entrepreneurs of the ’90s who worked very hard to build their business empires, but the family breaks up. Stella’s mom and dad had built a factory business together, but their relationship fell apart. Like many of the entrepreneurial families of the ’90s I’ve encountered, there is pressure on the children of these first-generation entrepreneurs to inherit the family business.

Harry’s parents are very different. His family is quite traditionally Chinese in comparison, with a lineage of educated intellectuals. Harry’s upbringing shaped his curious mind and his desire to retain and appreciate the traditional Chinese qualities.

I have a very close-knit family, so I’m always attuned to portrayals of family relationships. When I first met Stella and her dad, I felt this very close father-daughter relationship that reminded me of my own relationship with my father. But I also saw elements of the very Chinese fatherly [way of speaking] in Harry’s dad’s [conversations] with him.

Sixth Tone: Maineland explores the differences between the Chinese and American education systems. Does the U.S. come out on top in this comparison?

Wang Miao: When I started researching this topic in 2011, coincidentally, Americans were also questioning the merits of their own education system. Each side seemed to look to the other as a shining [example]. The Chinese were reported to excel at all the schools, while American students were often failing.

Having experienced both education systems myself, I always felt that there were merits to both. While the Chinese system focuses too much on rote learning, the American system is sometimes too loose. I think a lot of Chinese students may find that many of the U.S. schools are not all that they dreamed of. But the process of questioning and critical thinking is still one of the strongest traits of an American education. Let’s hope that this advantage will not be stripped away by the current political climate.

Sixth Tone: The current trend seems to be that Chinese children start studying overseas at increasingly younger ages. What’s your opinion on this phenomenon?

Wang Miao: I think it depends on the conditions and the family. It’s very difficult for a kid at such a young age to be all alone in a completely foreign land. I came to the U.S. to join my parents, so I was under their parental love and care. Still, the alienation I felt is palpable to this day.

I think for these parachute students, the challenge is exponential. The experience will inevitably shape who you are. It’s not for everyone. Studying abroad is not a magic wand. It’s an experience that could challenge you, make you more resilient and independent, and [help you] gain a wider perspective of the world, but it could also lead nowhere or even backfire if the student doesn’t take what they can out of it or receive the support they need.

Sixth Tone: How did the students in the documentary change over the years? Did living abroad affect their personalities?

Wang Miao: The most important change is some form of self-awareness and independent thought. Just about every parent of a study-abroad student I’ve met — and every student — has told me that independence is the most important change. Even if many of these students end up spending a lot of time with their Chinese peers, they have exposure to a large variety of people and mindsets that will alter their perspective for life.

Sixth Tone: Why did you choose an open ending — a shot of cars on the highway — for the documentary?

Wang Miao: I like open endings. Life is an open ending. [Harry and Stella] are on the road — some of the shots are in China, some in America, but they’re continuing on the road. It represents a decision every study-abroad student faces: Do they go back home, or do they stay in America? The further they journey into both cultures, the more ambiguous that road becomes.

— This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.