Documentary | Film Analysis | Film Reviews

Coming to America

1 Jun , 2002  

Written by Chris Cooke | Posted by:

A review of Marlo Poras’s film 'Mai’s America' which premieres on the PBS P.O.V. series this season.

Growing up in Hanoi gives you a unique view of American culture. On the one hand, you have the mean aggressive killers of the world’s strongest army, obsessed with the women and addicted to dope, who were beaten back by the hardworking peasant army of a country a mere fraction the size of theirs. Then, of course, you have the glamour and excess of American cinema, all glitter and spotlight and action. At least, that’s how Mai viewed America. The daughter of a well-off (by Vietnamese standards) hotel-owner, Mai often wondered how the poor people of her country could get by, happily doing such drudge-work as shining shoes — and fantasized about America, the land of plenty, where everyone is rich.

All this changed, however, when she spent her senior year of high school in America as an exchange student. Marlo Poras’ documentary "Mai’s America" chronicles nearly two years of Mai’s life, as she finds herself transported from the packed streets of Hanoi to the backroads of rural Mississippi, from life with a critical mother and supportive father to life with a trio of catatonically depressed, self-proclaimed rednecks. Unemployed and hardly looking for work, her new family only takes interest in her when she puts ketchup on her salad or does some other foreign antic. Her only solace in the family come from the crotchety but loveable old Grandpa. At school, however, a history teacher takes her under her wing, and she makes a few friends who impress (or perhaps scare) her with their plans for conquering Hollywood and having more boyfriends than you can shake a stick at. She makes some Vietnamese-American friends who give her a different take on the Vietnamese plight during the war. But she finds her strongest friendship in a flamboyant transvestite — Chris by day, Chrissy by night — who loves to doll her up or just talk for hours.

Needless to say, this is all quite a change for Mai, who reacts to struggle and happiness alike with a laugh. She ends up fleeing the rednecks for Justin and Latoya, a young black couple who make her feel at home, but still all is not well. Eager to go to college in America, she struggles with applications and rejections, unsure if she can even afford the high cost of American universities. Throughout, Poras captures Mai in all her confusion and splendor as she comes to grips with her misconceptions about America and the questions of identity that plague her as a result. By the film’s end, the world of shoe-shining boys on the streets of Hanoi doesn’t seem such a bad one; they are poor but their lives are relatively free from complication. "Mai’s America" offers rich insight into American culture — touching on religion, socio-economics, the pull of conformity, and more — from an outsider’s perspective. But the real treasure here is Mai herself, whose cheerfulness in adverse situations takes on nearly heroic proportions. It’s difficult not to admire and sympathize with her. Smiling and slim on the outside, she’s a tough character underneath, and her story makes for a challenging, compelling film.

For airing schedules, previews and other information, please visit the P.O.V. web site at

For airing schedules, previews and other information, please visit the P.O.V. web site at