DREAMS OF CHINA'S NEW GENERATION
--Documentary Takes Personal Look at a Global Trend --
A high school senior, Michelle is stressing about her college applications, but she knows that Taylor Swift’s songs will get her through. Her friend Louise, a self-declared Trekkie, says that for college she will “boldly go where no one has gone before.” While they may sound like typical American students, Michelle and Louise are in fact Chinese, living in Beijing, and trying on American names for practice. They and their families have made a choice that their best future lies in “boldly going’” to college in the West.
Michelle and Louise are part of a growing trend in China of middle class and wealthier students seeking higher education in North America and Europe. According to The New York Times, 300,000 Chinese students matriculated at American colleges and universities this past year, and that number is only increasing.
But who really are these young, ambitious students who are willing to stake so much on an unknown future.
Reaching West: Dreams of China’s New Generation follows Michelle and Louise and a handful of other students as they complete their final year at Camford High School in Beijing, a private school oriented to sending its graduates abroad.
The program documents how these students experience the rigors of the application process – the interviews , the SATs and the “personal essay” -- all identical to what American students confront and at the same time, immeasurably harder. After all, Michelle and Louise (whose real names are Haiwei and Jinyu) and their fellow students must take these tests and write their applications in English, which is not their mother tongue.
Further, because of China’s single-child policy, these students shoulder all the pressures and expectations of their parents and grandparents. As the program shows, the stakes are tremendously high.
Fascinated by Western popular culture, revealed through an internet they access obsessively, the students model their lives according to rock stars and TV characters. Louise loves Sherlock Holmes (not so much the stories, as the TV series) and considers herself a feminist. She hopes to be accepted by the University College of London and imagines her years of study there to be a break before life becomes “crucial and harsh.”
Michelle is applying to Cambridge University where she hopes to study chemical engineering. Growing up, she was told by teachers that girls could not be good at math and science. On track to be the valedictorian of her high school, with great grades and superb test scores in calculus and chemistry, she has proved those teachers wrong. Her struggle to gain admittance to one of the top universities in England is closely followed by Reaching West.
‘William’ (Chinese name – Zifeng) hopes to go to Carnegie Mellon University or Bowdoin college, because he is fascinated by the way these schools “encourage creativity.” A brilliant science and music student who has started an English literature book club, he likes the idea that in America he would not need to know what he wants to be when he arrives at college. In the past, William’s outside-the-box manner of thinking has got him into trouble in class, but it may be a source of success when he heads west.
Though all these students are greatly focused on their future, they, like all teenagers, also live in the moment. Specifically, they pay more attention to the personal chemistry of dating than, say, the subject of chemistry at school. As a result, Reaching West is as much about dating and gossip and the everyday life of Chinese students as it is about leaving one world for another. Yet even at this highly personal level, the influence of western popular culture has had an impact.
“I always ask myself, what would Taylor do,” says Michelle, as she takes a break from writing her application to Cambridge. “My boyfriend wanted me to suit his figure of a perfect girlfriend, but I won’t change myself for anyone.”
How will these students and their new ideas fare when they begin lives in a strange new land, thousands of miles from home? Reaching West: Dreams of China’s New Generation will capture the hopes and dreams of a generation of Chinese young people on the brink of a choice that will change their lives forever.