The University of Iowa

Chinese grad student makes documentary about the so-called American dream

April 30th, 2010

By Eric Sundermann, The Daily Iowan

When China native Xin Feng told her mother she wanted to study abroad, her mother suggested America. Her mother said Feng should see the superpower.

Feng disagreed, but her mother insisted.

“She told me that when she was in college, she asked her professor what America was like, and he said, ‘Imagine the best world you can imagine, and America is even better than that,’ “ she said.

Feng, who also works as a Daily Iowan TV producer, eventually obliged her mother, and after coming to the United States, she discovered she loved American education. However, during her move, she found an interesting conflict — while many Chinese want to stay in America permanently after they come, Feng wants to go back to China.

That forced her to ask a simple question: Why?

Feng attempts to answer her question with a documentary film she created called The American Dream of the Chinese, which will be screened at the Bijou at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. Admission is free.

The 70-minute film tells the story of six different Chinese immigrants — ranging from age 20 to 71 — with different careers, from a musician to a member of the Red Guard to a scholar. Feng, a second-year graduate student in journalism, shot the film in seven states (California, Illinois, Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Iowa) and spent 16 months producing the film.

The final product is a result of 40 hours of tape, six months of transcribing, 14 days and nights of writing, and 400-plus hours of editing.

Through each character’s story in the film, Feng attempts to explore what the American Dream means to each of them, while at the same time using their stories to investigate what exactly the American Dream is and if it actually exists.

“This film is not a research project that wants to examine a theory or idea,” she said. “I think just by telling the stories, it sends a message and asks people to reflect on themselves and think, ‘Can dreams only be achieved in America?’ ”

Feng cited James Truslow Adams who first defined the American Dream in his 1931 book The Epic of America.

He wrote to “dream of a land of opportunity in which hard work leads to a better, richer, and fuller life” and “dream of social order in which everyone is able to reach his or her fullest potential and be recognized by others, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth.”

Feng believes this idea can be applied to both cultures.

“Dreams have no nationalities,” the 23-year-old said.

Feng’s supervising faculty member, Associate Professor Lyombe Eko, said the documentary is a “hard take on the American Dream.”

“She’s trying to say that the American Dream is not in America,” the 54-year-old said. “[The film] goes beyond the simplistic idea of the movies with the nice house and the two-car garage. The American Dream moves with people.”

And through the research of The American Dream of the Chinese, Feng found her answers.

“Let’s not romanticize America or China,” she said. “Neither country is heaven.”