A Midwestern, LGBTQ Version of the American Dream in “Here, Hopefully”

Here Hopefully
Still from "Here, Hopefully" by Hao Zhou
“There are like immigrants everywhere, even in the rural, smallest town in Iowa. That version of the American Dream is still not represented well enough.” —Hao Zhou, director of "Here, Hopefully"

Filmmaker Hao Zhou has seen many movies depicting the American Dream: usually they involve a newcomer arriving in a big city (New York or Los Angeles), but rarely are they set in the Midwest, and certainly not with a queer protagonist. “There are like immigrants everywhere, even in the rural, smallest town in Iowa,” says Zhou. “That version of the American Dream is still not represented well enough.”

He knows this journey personally; in 2019, he left his hometown of Nanchuan in southwest China and arrived—not in a large coastal metropolis—but in the college town of Iowa City. That’s where he met Zee, a fellow Chinese international student at the University of Iowa and the protagonist of his short documentary Here, Hopefully. For many international students, America offers a chance at a better education. “Often, there’s a stereotype of wealthy BMW-driving international students, especially from China. Zee is quite the opposite of that. And there are many, many students, international students, not just from China who are like Zee. And they really appreciate the opportunity to study in the U.S.”

Zee in Here Hopefully
Zee, as seen in a still from “Here, Hopefully”, Image Credit: Hao Zhou

But for Zee, who is non-binary, the United States also offers another benefit: a more accepting environment to live openly, even in Iowa City. “It’s a super liberal and wonderful environment for LGBTQ people. And really, for all kinds of people. It’s like a little Berkeley or Boulder in the Midwest,” says Zhou. “It’s definitely a little bubble. And Iowa (the state) is very, very conservative.”

The stakes are high for Zee. Over video calls captured in the documentary, their parents express concerns about their future if they have to return to China after graduation. As an international student, Zee’s student visa will expire once they finish their program. The only way to remain in the States would be through securing a highly competitive nursing job. Zhou hopes Here, Hopefully will help illuminate the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in China, and also international students, in general.

Here Hopefully
Filmmaker Hao Zhou films Zee, Image Courtesy of Hao Zhou

“Many of those students really, really want to stay in the U.S. But they’re really struggling to be here after they graduate,” explains Zhou. “And I think the US government should be more gracious and encouraging and welcoming for them. Not just let’s take international students tuition—very high tuition—and then reject them after they spend their money here, get their education, and kick them out.”

Zhou produced Here, Hopefully as part of the Homegrown: Future Visions initiative, a collaboration between CAAM and Firelight Media to support eight emerging BIPOC filmmakers in the Midwest. Since completing the film, he has since moved on from Iowa, to another small town in Ohio. When asked why he stays in the Midwest, Zhou said, “I love the nature. I like the seasons. And I like the friendly kind of folksy Midwest attitude.” He’s now a film professor at Kenyon College and hopes to continue telling the stories of immigrants living in rural America.


Watch Here, Hopefully, as part of the Reel Midwest: Homegrown series premiering on January 15 on PBS stations, the PBS website and the PBS Passport app. Learn more about Hao Zhou.