What Chinese High School Students Learn in America

A Q&A with Miao Wang, Director of ‘Maineland’

In 2011, when a rural prep school in Maine invited New York-based director Miao Wang to screen her first film, Beijing Taxi, she was surprised to find so many Chinese students enrolled at the archetypal New England establishment. Not Chinese-American students, but students from Beijing, where she was born—and from all across China. “What are all these Chinese kids doing here?” Wang said after a recent screening of Maineland, the award-winning documentary she went on to make about the first American adventures of a couple of China’s hottest new exports: high school students.

Nowadays, more than 330,000 Chinese students are studying in America, and they’re growing in number. Unlike the protagonists in Maineland, who arrive with well-heeled, doting parents in tow, Wang landed in America solo in 1990 to join her parents, biology researchers who’d transplanted to Harvard in 1988, uprooting from their modest life at People’s University in Beijing.

The Chinese kids at the center of Maineland, on the other hand, come from families who live in suburban mansions and are able to pay U.S.$50,000 a year in tuition. Stella, the daughter of a wealthy Shanghai factory boss, is a fan of Disney’s High School Musical and joins the cheerleading squad. Harry, whose father is a regular golfer, wants to study Western philosophy. In Maine, the 16-year-old delves into studying the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre—a subject not taught back home in China—and says he wants a job at the United Nations.

Maineland is a snapshot of what at least a few teenagers from China think of America (“nobody studies”) and what kids in rural Maine know about China (once upon a time, there was “Tank Man”). Wang hopes that kids from both her homeland and her adopted home will continue to learn about one another through educational exchange. “How can they fail to impact one another?” Wang spoke with ChinaFile Managing Editor Jonathan Landreth in New York. (Maineland will screen on Friday, April 27, at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York).

(Trailer of ‘Maineland.’)

How did you land in Maine filming Chinese high school students studying in America?

In 2011, I was doing research on this topic because I always knew I wanted to film the whole journey, from China to the U.S. I had a really hard time trying to figure out how the students I was going to follow and film were going to come over and get accepted and get into a school and not be spread all across the U.S. The dilemma was resolved when I got the invitation to screen Beijing Taxi. I knew nothing about the school, Fryeburg Academy. Interesting, what is this school? How did they find out about my film? I Googled it, and Wikipedia said it’s one of the oldest private schools in America, so I said, “Okay.” I flew to Portland and I thought I was going somewhere along the coast of Maine, and the next thing I knew I was on a school bus for an hour and a half and deep into the woods. We ended up in this small town, and as soon as I walked into the beautiful performing arts center at the school there were these two ushers who were both mainland Chinese, and I thought, “Hmm. Interesting.” And after the film I chatted with them a little bit. They were really enthusiastic and excited to see Beijing Taxi. We went into the cafeteria and I saw big tables of Chinese students, and I thought this is so fascinating how they ended up here—the thought of the visual image of Beijing and Shanghai versus this little town I’d come to.

Did students invite you, or was it a teacher?

I think the invitation came from one of the teachers. [The school’s leaders] realized that they have a large body of Chinese students and told the performing arts programmer to get in touch. . . They have an American teacher, Greg Huang-Dale, who’s married to a Chinese and speaks Chinese. He’s the one that teaches global studies, and is seen in the film sitting with Harry talking about Tiananmen.

Tell us about the decision to include that episode in the final cut.

The topic of Tiananmen is one that every single student who comes to study abroad will encounter, sooner rather than later. Usually right away, actually, because that’s what most Americans think of when they think of China and Beijing—they think of Tiananmen Square. It’s inevitable. But I didn’t expect, on one of my first trips to Maine, to ask a teacher, “Hey what are you guys working on right now?” and have him tell me, “Oh, you know, Harry is doing his project on Tiananmen Square.” I was like, “What?” I thought, “Okay, I’m definitely going to come by and film this class.”



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Did Harry express any reservations about your filming his discussion of the Tank Man footage with his teacher?

No. Remarkably, no.

Was the scene of the student and teacher discussing Tank Man cut when you showed the film in China?

Maineland was accepted into the Guangzhou Documentary Film Festival in December, and it was nominated for an award. They said we had to submit it to the censorship bureau. I knew I was going to have to cut something, and I was working on that. I didn’t yet have the Chinese subtitles and it was taking me a little while. I kept telling the organizers not to send the screener I’d shared yet, because I knew that would be rejected. I asked them to wait a little bit so I could send a new version. Then, at some point they were like, “We sent it in. It’s being reviewed.” And I was like, “What?” Anyhow, it came back that it was denied. So we were never able to show at the festival and instead we decided to host three little screenings in Guangzhou in a bookstore venue that was not connected to the festival officially at all.

Was your arrival in the U.S. in 1990 tied to the events of 1989?

Well, my parents were among the first visiting scholars to be sent over by the Chinese government, to Harvard [in 1988]. They had every intention of going back, but they were working on an AIDS research project—a hot topic at the time—and so I came here instead. . . I went back only three times in the first 15 years here, once every five years. There was a new ring road in Beijing each time I went back.

How did you fit in at first in the U.S.?

I arrived in April, 1990, in the middle of 8th grade. At that time in China, you only started studying English in 7th grade. I remember I’d learned the alphabet. . . I remember going to a bilingual school in Cambridge at the beginning and I hated it because it was Cantonese-speaking kids and I couldn’t understand anything anybody was saying. My math level was way advanced because we had studied so much more in China. But when I had to take an English proficiency test I remember not understanding much of anything. I knew “chair” and “orange”—two words—so obviously I didn’t pass the test. We had to move to Somerville where they didn’t have the language requirement. I was in a public school in Somerville that was filled with mostly Portuguese students. I barely spoke to anybody for my first two years in Boston. . . I just read a lot. That’s how I learned English. . . I was the only Chinese.

Fast-forward to Fryeburg Academy in Maine: What did the American students think of the Chinese students of today?

When we premiered at South by Southwest . . . one Fryeburg alumni, a local day student, posted “Thanks for making this film” to our Facebook page. She wrote, “Us day students at Fryeburg were always really happy that there were these Chinese students among us. We never really knew anything about the other culture, and this was our only opportunity to learn and have an interaction with other countries.”