DVD Review: Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Our friends out at Athena Learning sent over a surprising piece for us to review in the form of “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience”. As far as documentaries go, this one is surprisingly full and robust with data. But how does it watch?

“Becoming American: The Chinese Experience” is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a look at the Chinese migration to the United States, showing a warts and all sort of experience of what happened in the immigration. Many Chinese arrived in the United States expecting what was known colloquially as “Gold Mountain”, but what they found was something much different. The land of opportunity was not often kind to these immigrants, but as is commonly the case with many American immigrants, they brought their own culture with them and made it an irrevocable part of our own, which would soon become their own. The movie follows the immigration from its early days to the present, showing the Chinese impact on the United States and the United States’ likewise impact on them.

Some of this is absolutely breathtaking; at one point, P.T. Barnum’s traveling show featured, of all things, a Chinese family. No one had two heads, or three arms…it was just half a dozen Chinese people, dressed up in fancy Chinese-style silk outfits. This may sound bizarre, but apparently, it was just part of the show. “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience” will be full of all manner of stories just like this one. Oddly, some of the things heard throughout the documentary will be echoed to this very day, which makes for a very strange portrait indeed.

Much of this, however, is a series of pictures and narratives. Those interested in the movie will need to be, in like quantity, interested in the material that went into it. There’s little here in the way of excitement, but there’s a wealth of value in the descriptions of early Chinese life in America, and how the Americans responded to the Chinese. From the “guests of Gold Mountain” to the Chinese Exclusion Act and beyond, there’s an incredible amount of material to consider, and for those looking for a discussion starter, or a great movie to show history classes, this is one that will fill the bill nicely.

Special features are actually quite rich, and take up a chunk of an entire disc. There’s an entire 81 minute presentation featuring notable Chinese-Americans, telling their own stories to host Bill Moyers. There’s a 16-page viewer’s guide thrown in for added discussion value, and even some Web-based discussion points to consider. Additionally, there are English subtitles for further added value to the viewer, and a trailer for “The People’s Republic of Capitalism” appears in the beginning, though it’s inaccessible from the main menu that I can tell.

“Becoming American: The Chinese Experience” is a powerful experience, filled with knowledge and information. It’s not very entertaining, but it’s moving, and as an educational tool, it’s an excellent work overall.

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