My Sister Swallowed the Zoo and Chinese International Student Filmmakers in the U.S.

Curator's Note

For the past decade, Chinese international students on U.S. campuses have been described as threats to college culture, as insular and private foreigners, as goldmines for struggling universities, as problems in the classroom, as cheaters, as depleters of public resources. In other words, they have been discussed in yellow peril language for the 21st century global university, where US-China politics play out against discourses of diversity and internationalism, as well as controversies over state-funding for education. For administrators, educators, and local students, the Chinese international student is both the hope for a sustainable campus, as well as a source of resentment, bitterness, fear, and competition. As has been the history of immigration to the United States, the Chinese international student has faced a racialized xenophobia that has denigrated them as a dehumanized demographic category, as a tradeable asset, or as a cultural problem in need of a solution. But what is on the minds of Chinese students themselves? Stereotyped as quiet, inscrutable, or English-deficient, they have been effectively silenced from their own conversations. But just as Asian Americans have for over a century, Chinese international students are finding their own voices as artists and mediamakers. Many are honing their cinematic talents in U.S. film schools, creating works distinct from both the rigorous sociological investigations of independent film from the PRC, as well as from the pan-ethnic politics and the cross-cultural genres of Asian American cinema. Short films as diverse as Tian Guan’s raunchy Drama and Amelie Wen’s melancholic Fata Morgana portray with humor and tragedy explorations of friendship and sex while in the United States. And then there’s Maya Yu Zhang’s remarkable short documentary My Sister Swallowed the Zoo, which layers old family photographs over an international telephone call of increasing intensity. Deftly experimental and wonderfully efficient, Zhang captures the liberation and the torment of being away – from home and from the expectations of daughter- and sisterhood. The work is not afraid to be loud, claiming a speaking and cinematic voice, and calling attention to the visibility of personal histories and anguished transnational futures.

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