“Parachute Kids” is a term that denotes “children sent to a new country to live alone or with a caregiver while their parents remain in their home country,” at least according to Urban Dictionary. The term is mostly used to refer to a growing group of Chinese students who are sent by their affluent parents, ‘dropped off,’ to be on their own in a foreign country, in order to get a taste of western education. It is the subject matter of two new evocative documentaries that formed a paired screening in the most recent edition of Seattle Asian American Film Festival in February 2018: Maineland, a feature by award-winning documentary filmmaker Miao Wang, and Where Are You From, the solo debut short by independent filmmaker Xizi “Cecilia” Hua. At the center of these two films is the same question that Hua asks and Wang attempts to answer, equivocally: Where are you (parachute kids) from? Mainland China? Maine? America? Or is it, as Wang suggests in the title of her film, a kind of in-between place?
The most curious sentiment expressed in Maineland is that Chinese students who once romanticized going to school in the US discover a growing admiration for their home country after having studied in the US. On the surface, this seems to be the result of the inevitable disillusionment of an immigrant’s romanticization of America; still, the film is more interested in exploring, beyond national identity, its subjects’ fragmented relationship with the once-familiar concept of ‘home.’ Wang crafts an intimate portrayal of teenagers coming of age, one that trades the usual coming-of-age drama for a tender, more private poignancy that makes one, oddly, miss growing up. Under Wang’s patient and playful gaze, we become friends with the chief subjects through Sean Price Williams’ restless but controlled camerawork, which confronts them with intense curiosity, never failing to engage the viewer.
Harry and Stella are two Chinese high school students who come from affluent families in Guangdong and Shanghai, respectively, families that encourage them to study abroad at a boarding school, Fryeburg Academy, in Maine, USA, of all places. Stella, a bundle of energy with a short ponytail, explains that watching High School Musical (2006) was a formative experience in shaping an impression of what American high school life is like. In fact, she describes that experience as the “first time [she] fell in love with America,” and was especially enamored by the way American high school students “play and date.” Harry, charming us with a carefree demeanor and an unhurried stride, also looks at America with rosy glasses, and is quick to point out ‘critical thinking’ as an important educational focus that he differentiates from China’s overwhelming collectivism.
They are part of the growing trend of Chinese students going to school in the US, one that isn’t simply motivated by rich parents’ more open-minded approach to education, but is also a result of a highly concerted recruiting effort from American boarding and private schools, who rely on the tuition money from the largest international market, China, to run their programs.
Despite initial worries from their parents, most notably Harry’s mom’s speaking of ‘abandoning’ him, leaving their homes for the first time is presented as an exciting opportunity. Every step along the way of assimilation seems to be enriching to Harry and Stella: teaching Mandarin to American classmates, sharing summer experiences in class, playing dodgeball, giving a presentation on Maine’s blueberries, joining the cheerleading team…this is not the typical immigrant story where white America and society punish the minority immigrant with racism and systemic oppression. In fact, white America is presented as welcoming and nourishing to Harry and Stella, embracing their existence with open arms. The isolated boarding school setting almost seems like a paradise for privileged immigrants like them: there is no detectable racism, no assimilation issues, no academic problems, no bullying…going to school is just fun and wholesome, not exactly singing in a musical and dating all day, but Stella’s isn’t complaining.
Where then, you might ask, lies the conflict? Wang’s delicately observed study dares us to forget the usual notion of conflict, as vague as it is, and look into the fragmented identities of her subjects, a kind of psychological homelessness. In a strange way, this reminds one of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009), someone who feels alienated at his Omaha home, and everywhere else he goes, but considers the vast skies his actual ‘home’ due to the travel demands of his work. Rather than imposing control over her narrative, symbolisms and themes, like Reitman does in his film, Wang makes her point by letting the film grow organically with Harry and Stella as they realize that, beyond the too-good-to-be-true experiences, lies the gradual re-organization of their relationship with home. In particular, the processes of alienation and attachment, from/with home, take place simultaneously. On one hand, being away from family and one’s community means diving into a cheery multiculturalism and learning ‘critical thinking,’ as Harry has hoped he would; on the other hand, being introduced to the superficiality of American media and individualism leads to a renewed appreciation of traditional Chinese virtues and philosophy.
As the two grapple with this ambiguous in-betweenness, a new conception of ‘home’ begins to form with schoolmates, and later friends, at Fryeburg. At graduation, Stella remarks that there is a Chinese saying that goes, “rely on your parents at home; rely on friends when you’re outside of home,” noting that she’s found her best friends at Fryeburg, tearing up as they bid each other farewell. Harry’s friend, a Caucasian girl, repeatedly tells him to come back and visit after graduation, knowing that life will take them to different places. If anything, the bittersweetness in the end adds to the enduring perception that studying abroad at a boarding school like Fryeburg is an ultimately worthwhile and rewarding experience. Still, Wang isn’t advertising for Fryeburg. By stringing together a full-circle, feel-good narrative, Wang isn’t drawing conclusions as much as she is questioning her own assumptions. She utilizes a neat quote from Harry to wrap up her preoccupations with the construct of ‘home:’ “home is wherever my family is.” Although we might see this as a firm departure from the beginning of the film, where home is tied to national identity, Wang is really suggesting the malleability and fluidness of ‘home.’ It is a refreshing understanding that home can be both where one comes from, and where one goes to.
If Wang’s film unhinges the familiar notion of ‘home’ from national identity, Hua’s short, which also screened in the Documentary Shorts program at this January’s Slamdance Film Festival, flips it over, around, and back up again, practically reupholstering it altogether. An autobiographical exploration of her ambivalent identities as a ‘parachute kid,’ who has grown up in China and gone to school in Portland and Los Angeles, Where Are You From offers a deep dive into Hua’s perplexing and vivid headspace by splicing up and re-integrating the elemental cinematic tools of subtitles, hand-held cinematography, still photography, disembodied sound and freeze frames, to a uniquely arresting effect. A simple question is asked in the beginning, and a simple answer is given in the end, but it is the overwhelming mental tug-of-war between shame and pride, Chinese and American, English and Mandarin, image and sound, still and moving images, the psychological battle that hides under the surface in Maineland, that Hua wants to immerse us in. At only 4 minutes in length, this stirring piece of work, which channels Chris Marker’s mesmerizing San Soleil (1983), still manages to conjure a tear in the viewer’s eye.
Hua’s arrangement and presentation of language is a central piece to this devastating in-between space. Bilingual subtitles run throughout the film, in white and yellow, and are placed onto images and alongside sound that may or may not have to do with the subtitles themselves. While the subtitles ask questions and initiate discussion about cultural identity, Hua takes us into the baggage claim area of an airport, the passenger isle of a plane, her grandparents place in Xi-An, China, a Shanghai Metro train…This visually-overloaded juxtaposition of images and subtitles, both important elements of the film, is designed to overwhelm and confuse the viewer, illustrating Hua’s uneasy relationship with language itself, verbal and cinematic.
In a way, Hua charges the viewer to engage with her work with their full attention, absorbing both the difficult discussions in the subtitles and poignant imagery that accompanies them, an exercise she seems to be working through herself. How has her relationship with her second language, English, and that with her first language, Mandarin Chinese, changed and affected her everyday experiences? How do they influence her world view, and how do they shame and empower her? None of these questions evoke easy answers, which Hua wouldn’t care for, but the fundamental questioning of verbal and cinematic language is in itself the power of her film.
Perhaps the most indelible idea Hua introduces is that she comes from “[her grandparent’s] worries and expectations” and “these memories that aren’t familiar anymore.” The evasiveness of these phrases challenges the seemingly palpable idea of ‘home,’ which may only exist in Hua’s and her family’s imagination. With every succession of images and subtitles, Hua leads us into an unstable, constantly morphing understanding of ‘home’ that at once despairs, but ultimately liberates.
This bittersweet sense of liberation also breathes through the final frames of Maineland, as we come to realize Harry and Stella, like Hua, could find their place in the world in this in-between, bi-cultural existence. Unfortunately, for Hua, the question people keep asking her will continue to be awkward to answer, but both films offer a space in which one can comfortably justify the phrase “I’m from here,” which is also what Bingham, while on a flight back to his dreaded ‘home,’ tells the pilot near the end of Up in the Air, when asked: “so where’re you from?”
For details of upcoming Maineland screenings, see the official website.
 Bob1957 (2009) “Parachute kids”, Urban Dictionary, December 29, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=parachute%20kids. Accessed May 20, 2018.