Americans sure can look ugly, especially in contrast to a sweet, openhearted Vietnamese girl. "Mai's America," a "POV" documentary by Marlo Poras airing on PBS tonight, follows high school exchange student Mai Nguyen from Hanoi to Mississippi and beyond.
Mai comes from a comparatively well-to-do family in Vietnam that plans to send her to the United States for her senior year, hoping she will get accepted by an American university. Our first view of her is in Hanoi, where she is chatting with streetwise but unschooled shoeshine boys. "Compared to these kids, I feel like I am a princess," she says.
Mai arrives in Meridian, Miss., and settles in with a family of self-described "rednecks," which might be giving them too much credit. Their accented English is more difficult to understand than Mai's. Neither "host parent" works, and one gets the feeling their only interest in Mai is to milk her for living money. Still, Mai shows remarkable compassion toward her "depressed" host mom, "injured" host dad and "lonely" host sister.
Filmmaker Poras' camera is so unobtrusive, it is apparent the documentary's subjects forgot it was there recording their words and movement (or lack thereof, in the host parents' case). This draws viewers into Mai's world. Her commentary can be amusingly blunt, as when she says of her host sister: "Kim goes to her boyfriend's trailer every weekend. I don't like to go there. She's always in David's room having sex."
Mai's observations have a kind of "Innocents Abroad" appeal of an outsider struggling to make sense of a radically different culture, and revealing the sometimes nonsensical nature of that culture in the process.
Things improve for Mai when she decides to move in with a new, African American host family and she becomes fast friends with a teenage transvestite, who also feels like an outsider. ("I wish you could come to Vietnam. I'm sure many boys would fall in love with you," she consoles Chris Welburn, a.k.a. "Christy.") Mai trades her bowl haircut for a hip buzz job, hangs out at a gay nightclub and enjoys bowling and roller-skating.
She also makes friends in the local Vietnamese expatriate community, all the while gaining insights about her home country, the U.S. and the difficult relationship between the two. It is quite a revelation for her, for example, when she realizes that some of the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam were the same age as the boys sitting around her in history class.
Mai does make it to Tulane University, but the story doesn't end there, as finances and family pressures affect her life. "A dollar takes so long to earn in Vietnam, and you can spend it so quickly in America," she says.
Though Mai's future is uncertain at the end of the documentary, in Scarlett O'Hara fashion, her last words are upbeat: "I never imagined that I would end up having a life like the shoeshine boys in Vietnam. But I feel like I'm so much luckier than them. I'm 20 years old and already I have so much education behind me."
Viewers are left assured that for the resilient Mai, tomorrow is another day.
"Mai's America" airs on "POV" at 10 tonight on KCET.