About a year before I quit my factory job, a Vietnamese woman joined our little group of unhappy workers. She wasn’t treated kindly, especially after one of the floor supervisors made a point of telling her co-workers that when foreigners came to our country they were given cars, money and a house of their very own. That came as a shock to the Vietnamese woman, and it would come as a shock to Mai, who is the center of this documentary.
Mai is a high school senior and a foreign exchange student from Vietnam. She comes to live in America and ends up with a self-described redneck host family in Mississippi. That doesn’t go as well as one would expect, and she is soon feeling isolated and slightly depressed. Once leaving that situation, she goes to live with another family where the husband and wife are always fighting. Mai toughs it out, and eventually gets a half scholarship to Tulane. Her Vietnamese family can barely afford to send her there, though, and she ends up in Detroit doing nails once the money runs out.
“Mai’s America” is full of interesting observations about Vietnamese culture, the Vietnam War, how Americans treats foreigners, gender notions, and the rivalry between a mother and daughter. Mai’s experience in our country is probably closer to what many immigrants live through as opposed to the life my old floor supervisor was prone to spout off about. It’s a harsh world where money rules, and people who seem to have everything really have nothing at all.
That’s the America Mai finds, and its a rough lesson to learn. She goes from a curious gal ready to take on anything thrown her way and ends up at the feet of a some intellectually-stunted white woman who asks her if all she eats in Vietnam is “coconuts and squid.”
It’s amazing how quickly the American dream becomes a nightmare.