In 2010, the filmmaker Miao Wang spent three months in Beijing, and started to notice two things: the increasing number of wealthy Chinese, and widespread dissatisfaction with the Chinese education system. Across the social spectrum, Wang—who had left Beijing for the U.S. with her family in the ’90s, when she was 13—heard conversations about the problems with China’s rote-learning-heavy and highly competitive gaokao system, under which students’ scores on a single exam determine where and whether they will attend university. Many pointed to the liberal Western education system, said to emphasize critical thinking, as a solution. Yet in the U.S., there was also a great deal of hand-wringing over the failures of the American approach, accompanied by news headlines about Chinese schoolchildren outpacing American kids. That interplay planted the seed of an idea in Wang’s mind.
One year later, Wang was invited to Fryeburg Academy, a boarding school in Maine, to present a feature film she’d made, called Beijing Taxi. An hour and a half from Portland, the school seemed utterly rural, yet when Wang arrived, she was surprised to be met by three Chinese students.
“After the film screening, I went with a teacher to the cafeteria and was even more shocked to find Chinese students surrounding two big tables,” said Wang. It turned out that the school has an international student body of 160, of which at least one-third is Chinese. “The vision of these students coming from megacities in China to this quiet and remote American town created such a juxtaposition that I left the academy knowing that this is where my film will begin.”
The result is Wang’s latest documentary, Maineland. The film follows two high school students from China’s wealthy elite, Stella Xinyi Zhu and Harry Junru He, as they settle into boarding school in small-town Maine. The two are part of an enormous wave of “parachute students,” as they are called in Chinese, who are being sent alone by their parents to schools in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, paying top dollar to do so. (Increasingly, some are also sent to public schools, and boarded in private homes.)
There are around 370,000 mainland Chinese students enrolled in U.S. high schools and universities, a sixfold increase from a decade ago. (Even as his government tries to stem foreign influence in Chinese education, President Xi Jinping sent his daughter to Harvard.) And Chinese students contributed $11.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015, according to the Department of Commerce. As Brook Larmer put it in the New York Times Magazine, “Their financial impact . . . has turned education into one of America’s top ‘exports’ to China.”
Still, Wang’s film arrives at a time of uncertainty for many coming to the U.S. to study, and the institutions that cater to them. The number of F-1 visas issued to foreign students seeking to attend college and other types of academic institutions in the U.S. dropped by 17% in the year that ended September 30, 2017, a reflection, some say, of the Trump administration’s stricter immigration policies.
Wang spoke to Fast Company about the work of capturing life on both sides of the Pacific against the backdrop of China’s rising economic power–as well as the universality of being an awkward kid making one’s way through those poignant and unforgettable teenage years. Maineland, which received the Special Jury award at the 2017 South by Southwest festival, will debut March 16 at the AMC Empire 25 in New York City for a one-week run, followed by a nationwide theatrical and digital release on Amazon. (AMC is jointly owned by China’s Wanda Group and Alibaba.)
Fast Company: When did you first become aware of the growing phenomenon of parachute kids?
Miao Wong: I first became aware during the summer I spent in Beijing in 2010. People across the social spectrum were talking about education and sending children abroad. I was working on a project that was filming in an internet addiction camp in Beijing. Many of the kids in the camp either rebelled against or couldn’t handle the pressures of a Chinese education. Many of them would be doomed to fail the gaokao. The parents of many of these students looked for ways to send their children abroad, for what they hoped was a more progressive learning system. But most of these parents were busy business entrepreneurs who had no plans to go abroad with their children; they had to stay in China to oversee their enterprises.
On a separate occasion, while I was doing research on a project related to psychology, a psychologist told me that a portion of his clients are students who are severely depressed due to pressures at school compounded with problems at home. I wanted to do a project that would not only allow me to examine the Chinese and American educational systems, but also look at societal problems emerging from the mounting pressures of a new Chinese economic paradigm. Many of the families that can afford to send their children abroad to a private boarding school with a price tag of $40,000–$50,000 per year have backgrounds in business or politics. Many are factory owners, or entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in the booming 1990s. And many of these parents are too busy or face too much pressure of their own to spend much time with their children.
FC: How did you find the two subjects of your film, Stella and Harry?
MW: I knew I wanted to film the entire trajectory of my main characters, starting with their lives and dreams in China, then coming to the U.S. and seeing their process of adjustment and adaptation. But since only a small number of students who wish to study abroad can go, it was impossible to know ahead of time what students I found in China would actually make the journey.
A solution to my problem landed in my lap in the spring of 2011 when I received the invitation to screen my first feature doc, Beijing Taxi, at Fryeburg Academy in Maine. When I saw the large number of Chinese students in the cafeteria after the screening, I had to inquire how in the world they found their way from Chinese megalopolises of more than 20 million to this small town with a population just over 3,000. It turned out that the Fryeburg admissions director goes to China to recruit and interview twice a year.
That fall, I followed the admissions director on his next trip to China and began my focused scout. With the access the school provided, I could zero in and choose from the students who were interviewed and accepted by Fryeburg. Stella and Harry were among more than 40 interviewees from the two trips I filmed with the director. I started with five students, and narrowed down eventually to just Stella and Harry.
Stella and Harry both stood out immediately. Stella had a sort of buoyancy and vivaciousness that stood in contrast to the American stereotype of “a quiet Asian girl.” She also came from a wealthy family that owned factories, and to my surprise, they were very eager to show the new face of China’s economic boom to a Western audience. Harry seemed very thoughtful, and much more traditional in his upbringing. I love the contrast between their two families–both spoke volumes about different aspects of contemporary China.
FC: How do you think Stella and Harry were affected by their time in Maine?
MW: I think the biggest change for most students who come to study in the U.S., Stella and Harry included, is independence and individualistic ideas. They learn independent thinking and decision making. They also develop new thoughts about home and country, including a more sophisticated understanding of both China and the U.S. Most students realize that the U.S. is not as perfect and idealistic as they had imagined. Many start to recognize the complex problems in the U.S., such as gun violence, racial prejudice, and inequality. They also see China in a new light. For some, this makes them very patriotic and nationalist; for others, it raises many questions about the Chinese political system and lack of free speech. For most international students, this dialogue will be ongoing for a long time to come.
Partly due to some troubles at home, Stella launched head-on into her new vibrant social life in Maine, taking art classes, joining cheerleading and dance clubs, and emulating the American high school dating life seen in her favorite Hollywood movie High School Musical. Gradually, in her second year though, she begins to settle down and return to the path her parents set for her. Even though she wanted to pursue arts and teaching, she went on after graduation to study supply chain management and logistics at Michigan State University. In January 2018, she completed her BA one semester early, and headed back to Shanghai to pursue an MBA in business part-time, while working for her family enterprise part-time.
Harry started off much like a “normal” Chinese boy, quiet in demeanor, enjoys playing video games and soccer. Though his social life was more limited, his philosophical outlook led him to develop a much deeper understanding of the value of critical and independent thinking. His ideas and relationship to his home and country became more complex. Harry went on to study international relations at Washington Jefferson College in a small town near Pittsburgh. After college graduation, he plans to stay in the U.S. and pursue a graduate degree in business and/or computer science.
FC: What about the other way around: How are American students and schools affected by having these Chinese students? I imagine the answer is different for schools that have one to three Chinese students a year versus dozens or more . . .
MW: Chinese now account for one-third of international students for most schools across the country. That’s a significant number. Speaking from the perspective of someone who experienced being the lone Chinese in school, I can tell you the difference is huge. When you’re the only one, you are the one expected to do all the adjusting and adapting. When you’re not only accounting for one-third of the student body, but also contributing the majority of the finances to keep the school afloat, I guarantee the school and the community are at least trying to do their part in helping the students fit in and stay in school. They are an undeniable force on campus. I’ve seen efforts ranging from small things like including a myriad of Chinese sauces and condiments in the school cafeteria, to bigger things like schools looking for teachers who are bilingual Mandarin/English speakers so they can accommodate all the Chinese students in their classes.
FC: It seems like Stella’s father, and maybe less so Harry’s father, see sending their child abroad as a sort of strategic business decision. Stella’s father says something like, ‘In 10 or 20 years, America and China will be dominant superpowers. I want my daughter to integrate with Americans . . . students who study abroad will be the future elite.’ Harry’s father says, ‘Your future workplace will likely be international, so you need to know how to get along with people.’ Do you think the fathers got the ‘return on investment’ they were expecting? And how would you urge parents to think about sending their kids abroad?
MW: I think most Chinese today, especially from business backgrounds like Stella’s and Harry’s dads, have seen and understand that everyone lives in a global village now. They have seen firsthand as businessmen the effects of globalization. Gaining an international perspective is one of the top reasons now for Chinese parents to send their children abroad. Stella’s parents own factories, and their goods are exported around the world. Harry’s father used to work for a large enterprise that also did import and export. They are both acutely aware of the international nature of business, and the benefits of exposure to the outside world.
I think in both cases, their parents do get a good return on their investment, even if it doesn’t come directly in dollar terms. However, I don’t claim this to be the experience for all Chinese students who come to study abroad. It takes a lot to adjust–the experience can build character–but not everyone has the personality and support needed to come through this experience positively. There are students who end up just playing video games in the dorms all day and fail school, then get sent back to China. It’s not the majority, but it could happen. [Editor’s note: In 2016, four “parachute kids” were sentenced to prison terms in California for their role in bullying and attacking a fellow female Chinese student in an incident that a judge said reminded him of Lord of the Flies.]
FC: You’ve screened the film throughout both China and the U.S. What kinds of reactions do you get? Do you get different reactions from the two audiences?
MW: Most of the American audiences are not as aware of the parachute student phenomenon, so their questions and reactions are less about the specifics of studying abroad. They react to some of the scenes in the film where the teachers express some cringeworthy remarks. People often gasp in shock at the wealth on display, especially in Stella’s family. For Chinese audiences, the topic of study-abroad is close to everyone’s heart. Everyone has very strong opinions and/or questions about the experience of studying abroad. They’ve asked things like, ‘What do you think is a good age for students to go abroad? Are they going abroad too young? What can they do to better prepare for going abroad? Is the study-abroad experience a necessarily good one? Is it worth it?’
FC: Why did this topic strike a chord with you?
MW: This topic is close to my heart since I grew up in Beijing and moved with my brother to the U.S. in 1990 as a teenager, to join our parents who were among the first mainland Chinese visiting scientist scholars to come here. I was the only mainland Chinese student in my eighth-grade public school, and later on, my brother and I were the only two in the private day high school we enrolled in. I had just learned the English alphabet before I left China, and I didn’t speak to anyone for my first two years in the U.S. I know the challenges of being a teenager transitioning to a new language and completely foreign culture all too intimately.
But so much has changed since 1990. I can’t imagine what it’s like to come to the U.S. and have one-third to one-half of your classmates be from mainland China. I also came to the U.S. with my parents, which is very different from these parachute students, who are here alone. Their social circle of other Chinese students becomes very close-knit, as they’re the ones who truly understand everything they’re going through. Their families often have no idea what they’re experiencing, since most of the time they only visit for graduation, or for some, for orientation.
And of course, the biggest change is that China is no longer a backwards country decades behind the U.S. One thing I found interesting is that Fryeburg Academy also serves as a local school for the area, with 500 local day students. Most of the local day students pay a minimal tuition, compared to the $43,000 (in 2011) to $48,000 (in 2015) the boarding students have to pay. This further piqued my interest in turning stereotypes upside down: Contrary to the image of China as a third-world country (that was common while I was growing up), the Chinese students were the wealthy cosmopolitan elites studying alongside their American peers, many of whom were struggling economically.
Ironically too, while the Chinese are fully embracing globalization and a global village, America is closing its doors and turning inward. While I used to feel like the impoverished “country bumpkin,” most of these Chinese students are cosmopolitan and much more well-traveled than their American peers.
[The topic] also made me ask many questions, some of which couldn’t be answered in the span of the few years I filmed, but perhaps only observed: With such an enormous wave of Chinese students getting a Western education during their formative years, what impact could this have for the future of China, and for U.S.-China relations?
FC: Speaking of U.S.-China relations—and looking at a recent sharp drop in the number of international student visas—what does it mean to see this film released in our current political climate?
MW: I remember vividly the day after the election, when my editor Liz Rao and I returned to the edit room for the last stretch of our edit. We could not help but see the film in a new context, and realize that the film had become more relevant than ever. Throughout the course of filming, from 2011 to 2015, the U.S. was on a course of opening its doors, to immigrants and to international educational exchange. It was clear that along with the Trump presidency came the dawn of a new era. America took a sharp U-turn, to closing its doors on all fronts.
I always anticipated that as China rose as a global economic power and gained influence, there would be reverberations and pull-backs [here]. America is not used to being challenged in its position of being No. 1. Now with the Trump presidency, we’re starting to see the backlash. The relentless attack on immigration and now the recent sharp drop in the number of international student visas will certainly impact the U.S. in ways this administration might not realize.
The vast majority of international students and immigrants come to the U.S. because they truly see America as a beacon of hope. They come seeking refuge, freedom, education, and opportunities. They have to work much harder than native citizens to achieve their goals and stay in this country, often sacrificing the loved ones, comfort, and even prestige they were accustomed to back home. Many become naturalized U.S. citizens and bring immeasurable contributions and honor to this society.
They also bring significant financial contribution to this country. In the case of international students, they are literally helping boarding schools, colleges, and universities in this country stay afloat, contributing billions of dollars to the economy and supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs. Through a universal coming-of-age story, I hope my film will reach across the political spectrum and humanize the struggles of these students and the immigrant experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eveline Chao is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn and the author of NIUBI! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. Find her @EvelineChao