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Opinion: ‘The Farewell’ brings light to secrets and lies in Asian American culture

"The Farewell" is a comedy-drama film that was released in July. (Image courtesy of A24)

As I walked up the stairs to my seat in the movie theater, I couldn’t help but notice all the Asians with their friends and family, popcorn in lap, seat reclined, and of course, shoes off. Watching “The Farewell,” I felt a sense of communion, not just because I, too, had my shoes kicked off and popcorn half eaten, but because so many aspects of the movie seemed so specific yet universal.

Experiencing the family reunion across the big screen, the scent of steamed shrimp dumplings and fried rice filled my nose instead of the warm buttery popcorn and gummy worms that were actually in my lap.

Watching the dad talk about how his family members hadn’t seen each other in ages was like everyone in the theater that night — we don’t know each other, but we all came together one fateful night to feast over our pride and joy of Asian culture.

I take a moment from my everyday life to reflect on my identity. The most Vietnamese I hear is at big family get-togethers where the elders sip tea, eat orange slices, and murmur “chet roi!” to each other. The term “chet” means “dead.”

Death, to Asians, is often a secret. It’s talked about only with the closest of family members, whispered within noodles hiding inside bowls. You know what they say — “long noodles, long life.”

In “The Farewell,” a film produced by A24 Productions, death and life are spoken in secrecy, yet celebrated. 

Full of heartwarming family dynamics and life lessons, “The Farewell” features rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina as the strong Asian female lead. The movie follows the journey of a young Chinese American named Billi who goes to China to be with her dying grandmother. However, she and the rest of the family must keep the secret that grandma has advanced cancer.

Billi experiences a clash of the two cultures within her. Her American side that wants to tell her grandma that she’s dying, maintain patient centeredness, and allow for dignity of self-determination is juxtaposed with her Chinese side that must ensure her illness stays a secret to allow her to live her life in ignorant bliss. 

Sometimes in my Western teenage experience, there is a fatalistic pessimism where if one thing goes wrong, it feels like it’s the end of the world. But the stoicism of Asian culture makes it seem like life events just represent another day.

For Billi, a struggling young adult, rejections from internships compounded with the news of her grandma’s health made it feel as though her world is collapsing. Both Billi and I struggle to accept that no one event represents the end of the world. We cannot keep a secret for our lives, nonetheless a life-or-death changing secret.

Her silence spoke more to me than the Mandarin subtitles that flashed on the screen. Watching Billi sit on the sidelines taking a passive protagonist role for the sake of the other characters showed me a contrast to what society presents as the self-centered teen.

“The Farewell” is a moving film that explores the clash of different cultures and family dynamics, sushi-rolled into a two-hour feature. From moving shots to moving scenes, the movie’s visual beauty complements the beautiful plot. It challenges what one knows and knew about their cultural identity, and living life to the fullest. 

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