Mai’s America is a personal journey that defies all expectations. Mai, a smart, vivacious, and resilient Vietnamese teenager, travels to America for her senior year of high school, shouldering her family’s high expectations and her own visions of western-style success. Yet, nothing in Mai’s wildest imagination could prepare her for what she finds in rural Mississippi, where encounters with white Pentecostal and black Baptist host-families, a local transvestite, and South Vietnamese immigrants challenge her long-held ideas about America, the concept of freedom, her identity and even her homeland of Vietnam.
Mai’s father, a successful Hanoi businessman and proud veteran of what the Vietnamese call “the American War,” sends Mai to the U.S. as a high school exchange student expecting her to secure admission — and the necessary scholarships — to attend a top-ranked American university. Mai may have arrived in America with the desire to make her family proud, but her journey through the Southern heartland reveals the surprising common bonds that span global boundaries and link Mai to her American counterparts.
It’s a tale as old as immigrants coming to America — the clash between dreams and reality. But each generation writes a new chapter of this essential American experience. Relatively privileged in Hanoi, Mai finds herself on a lower rung of the American economic ladder when she lands in Meridian, Mississippi. Her host family, composed of self-described rednecks, proves a challenge to her usually outgoing and upbeat personality. Plagued by unemployment and depression, the family shows little curiosity in their Vietnamese guest. At school, she finds it equally difficult at first to form real bonds.
But Mai is nothing if not persistent. She soon wins the heart of her host grandmother, who expresses an interest in her Vietnamese culture, and finds a worthy mentor in her high school history teacher. During her class, Mai experiences a remarkable revelation about the Vietnam War, when she realizes that the American soldiers she’d grown up thinking of as cruel killers were no different than the boys seated in the desks all around her.
Mai doesn’t find genuine friendship, though, until she meets Chris (a.k.a. Christy), an outgoing transvestite nightclub performer with whom she immediately forms a sympathetic attachment. Drawn together by a shared sense of being outsiders, they dance, trade make-up, and have long talks about life and the difficulties of being true to oneself. With Christy providing a boost to her self-confidence, she works up enough courage to change host families, and moves in with a young, African American couple who include Mai in their active social lives.
Mai’s window on the world opens even wider when she meets Tommy, an animated South Vietnamese immigrant whose father fought alongside the Americans before fleeing Saigon when Tommy was only three. Children of former enemies, Tommy and Mai engage in spirited conversations about the war and its after-affects. Through Tommy, Mai also meets an expatriate Vietnamese community that clings to the pre-war way of life. When Tommy takes Mai to a South Vietnamese celebration in a nearby town, she feels like an outsider among expatriates from her country. To Mai, they seem to cling to the Vietnamese lifestyle that they knew before the war – a culture vastly different from the Vietnam she grew up in.
Mai with filmmaker Marlo Poras. Credit: Jody Kivort.
“Mai’s story is a wonderful story to have had the opportunity to tell,” says filmmaker Marlo Poras. “I think we are able to see a reflection of ourselves in Mai — in her drive, her disappointments, her humor, and her dreams. Her story was nothing I expected, and yet it was incredibly familiar. And for me, it came to be very much about both the value and the cost of the American dream.”
Given extraordinary access to Mai’s activities and thoughts throughout her stay in the U.S., Marlo Poras has crafted, in Mai’s America, a very 21st century take on seeking the American dream.