Last summer, I visited Ningbo, China to see my family relatives. My grandfather on my mother’s side is getting older and recently was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and is in constant pain. As an American born Chinese kid, returning back to China to visit family has been one of the most present insecurities I’ve had.
Personally, my unfamiliarity and need-only-based use and “just enough to get by” ability to speak Mandarin have only amplified the difficulty I have connecting with relatives. With my limited knowledge, I already understand my grandfather is a compassionate, hardworking and the kindest man I know, and even as his increasing health problems only get worse with age, he has been learning English in an attempt to connect with me. Language allows people to communicate and connect and at my level, I’m only left looking for more.
I just recently watched “The Farewell” written and directed by Lulu Wang. Only a month after its release in 2019, it had been praised by the critic community achieving a pristine score of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and showered with awards such as at the Atlanta, Cinetopia, Sundance, Palm Springs film festivals and more. I’m only a year and a half late to the party and I’m going to be the first to tell you — it is amazing.
The lead role of Billi is played by Awkwafina — a Chinese-Korean born American as well as an American rapper, online personality and comedian. Possibly due to her diverse career as well as her background, I completely agree with critics that her acting is well-executed, skilled and complex.
The movie acknowledges the difficulty American born Chinese have with connecting and understanding Eastern ideology. Billi’s Nai Nai (grandmother) is suffering from stage 4 cancer and the family has collectively decided not to tell her and instead gather for one last time. Billi grapples with the conundrum of whether it is right to not tell her grandma.
Billi struggles with the concept of not telling her grandma: “You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.”
Billi’s father responds to her dilemma. Am I like Billi? Has my origin of being born and raised in the US created an ideological barrier between me and my other relatives so that some aspects of my Chinese heritage are erased in me forever?
Chinese people have a saying: “when you have cancer you die.” I could have done more to connect with my relatives, but I’m afraid this realization is too late. At my grandfather’s age, it’s increasingly possible that I am.
I see infinite parallels between myself and this bittersweet film. I feel as though I have a responsibility to understand my ancestors because they got me here. To forget is to fail. To remember and pick up heritage is a duty to my family, but all I know of it are a few stories.
The story of my great uncle, San Ye Ye, who had two children he loved his whole life. His love for those two took him to the Netherlands illegally for 20 years to work as a chef with low pay and long hours only to support his family. A question constantly present in the film: how can I come to terms with myself as an individual and my clashing heritage?
Right now, in times of social change that these stories will only matter more. What binds this movie together and makes it so captivating and successful is the emotions and thought it invokes in its viewers. It separates itself from the regular big-screen action movies and generic stories.
This profound connection between the storyteller and listener is what makes this particular movie so powerful by approaching the inherent conflict of those who seek to reconcile two contrasting cultures.