Lying in between: What the movie ‘The Farewell’ tells us about our own multicultural families

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As a Chinese international student who has lived in the United States for the past six years, I find that the gap between my family and me has grown both larger and smaller. Larger because of the physical and cultural distances that inevitably set us apart, and smaller because of my immense longing for home and fear of having to say goodbye for the last time.

Addressing similar sentiments, Lulu Wang’s new movie “The Farewell” stars the Asian American rapper Awkwafina and revolves around the central conundrum of “What is the better way to say goodbye to someone you love?” Billi (Awkwafina),  a Chinese American girl living in New York City, discovers that her beloved grandma, Nai Nai (Chinese for grandma), has been diagnosed with cancer and is predicted to only have a few months left to live. 

Influenced by an old Chinese saying “If the cancer won’t kill one, the fear of it will,” Billi’s parents and extended family decide that it’s better to not tell the grandma of her cancer. They plan a quickie wedding for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao, whose family immigrated to Japan long ago, as an excuse for a final reunion. When she travels to China to see her grandma for the last time, Billi is pressured by the whole clan to conceal the illness. She expresses conflicted feelings over the family decision, but discovers a new interpretation of the lie.

The story is, in fact, based on Wang’s personal experience of facing her grandmother’s cancer. Through her own perspective, which is represented by Billi, the story allows the audience to view a seemingly absurd family decision from the inside. Perhaps that is the reason why every detail in the movie is presented with such realistic mundanity and emotional connection. Portraying contemporary Chinese life amidst traditional culture as well as how it clashes with Western values, the movie faithfully tells the story of all those away from home, of those irresolvable cultural conflicts and of our feelings when lying in between. 

Large and round, the dining table allows everyone to share not only big plates of food, but also affections that are expressed implicitly in conversations and explicitly in actions.

While many would say that one of the most distinguished parts of Chinese culture is food, few outsiders know the importance of the Chinese dining table. Large and round, the dining table allows everyone to share not only big plates of food, but also affections that are expressed implicitly in conversations and explicitly in actions. Every time I go back to my home in Guangzhou during school breaks, my parents prepare a feast of traditional Chinese dishes and invite the whole extended family over for a reunion. Pork belly, steamed fish, braised beef, roasted duck, salt-baked chicken, vegetables, bottles of wine — there is always way too much to eat and drink. The chairs are always arranged in a neat circle. Around 10 people — my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — sit closely with our elbows pressing into one another’s. The kids usually sit next to the grandparents as their bowls start overflowing with food.

A similar dining table appears many times in Wang’s “The Farewell.” The household’s women all bustle around the kitchen to prepare food, while her dad and uncle talk and drink together. Despite the occasion’s cause for displays of affection and harmonious reunion, the festivities also serve as a mask that veils personal grief and family conflict. When Billi sits at the table with grief and no appetite, Nai Nai holds a fried pie up to her face and orders her to take a big bite. Billi obeys with a forced smile, joining all her other family members who are laboriously swallowing their grief with each bite. 

During a family dinner in a restaurant, the surface-level harmony breaks when Billi’s aunt challenges Billi’s father and uncle about their decision to move both of their families abroad and leave the grandma behind in China. Billi’s mom aggressively defends her husband and daughter by pointing out with heavy sarcasm that the aunt is sending her own son to study abroad in the future. The argument ends in an echo of silence around the table. Billi hunches over the table and lowers her head. With three languages and cultures among them, members of the extended family can only exchange polite nods of frustration. The differences in experiences, environments and cultures violently vibrate across the high-tension strings connecting the family members. 

“I always felt the divide in my relationship to my family versus my relationship to my classmates and to my colleagues and to the world that I inhabit. That’s just the nature of being an immigrant and straddling two cultures,” Wang told Variety.

I’m not Asian American. But as an international Chinese student who has studied in America for many years, I relate deeply to this experience of “straddling two cultures.”

I certainly recognize myself in Billi when I think about my own family’s dining table. Outsiders may easily imagine someone like me passionately sharing my experiences abroad with my family members in China. Yet it’s hard to utter a word when I perceive the gaps in our ways of thinking. I become overwhelmed by the well-meant yet insensitive judgments: “You’ve gained so much weight! Your arms are bigger than your male cousin’s! Your skin has become way too dark!” Every time I talk about my passions and ideal jobs, my grandparents start asking if they’re profitable. My uncle makes inappropriate jokes about women, while my aunt complains about her son’s recent rudeness with an authoritative tone. 

The members of my family still love each other very much. But, as a result of our continental divide, the environment in which I live, the education I am receiving, the values I have learned, the friends I have made and the language I speak are so different from those of both traditional and contemporary Chinese culture. I often feel ill at ease and confused in the face of these differences, not knowing how to reconcile them for better communication. Ironically, through my inaction, I have obeyed the very Chinese tendency of staying quiet in an implied agreement to prevent further argument and embarrassment. In this unspoken silence filled with words but void of content, my family members perhaps all hope to meet each other somewhere in the middle.

In this unspoken silence filled with words but void of content, my family members perhaps all hope to meet each other somewhere in the middle.

The fundamental question in “The Farewell” is how to best love and express love to a family member. Billi questions the decision to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her condition throughout the movie. She insists that the lie is not only deemed unethical, but also illegal in America. Yet at the same time, she finds herself pulled toward her family’s culture and prolongs the lie herself.

The day after I watched the movie, my USC professor asked me how I felt about the lie. I naturally started saying, “Oh, if I were to make the decision, I certainly would not.” But before I even finished the sentence, I hesitated and really tried to put myself in Billi’s shoes. I found myself equally confused and conflicted, unable to make a decision as to which would be the better way to say goodbye to a beloved grandma — to leave her blissfully ignorant, or to expose her to the brutal truth. Many of us came into the movie thinking that we knew already what’s right and what’s wrong. But the movie challenges these preconceptions and, through its intimacy, brings us to a place where we come to perceive our own positions in multicultural families differently.

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The lie, though seemingly extreme, is not unique in nature — it represents the distinct values and worldview of a culture that remains mystical to outsiders in many ways. One night, Billi’s uncle, Haibin, tells her that the lie allows the family to bear the emotional burden of the diagnosis, rather than Nai Nai herself — it’s a practice of collectivism that differs from the individualistic values in Western culture. 

In Chinese society, rather than following fixed, rigid principles and laws, people are more expected to have “rén qíng wèi,” the smell or flavor of human feelings, in whatever they do. Moreover, Chinese medicine has a spiritualistic character that contrasts greatly with Western science: It is believed that emotions and mental beliefs control physical health. 

As shown in the decision of Billi’s family, Chinese people tend to care more about the psychological understanding and human feelings in interpersonal interactions rather than mere impersonal facts. In the movie, instead of following a rigid moral principle of always sticking to fact, it’s more important to make Nai Nai happy in her last days.

But the conflict among different expressions of love is not just intercultural — it’s also interpersonal. Each person has their own interpretation of love and the ways to express that love. While still in China, Billi openly confronts her mom after hearing her nag her drunk dad about how Nai Nai didn’t like her as a daughter-in-law in the past. Billi accuses her mom, Jian, of being apathetic even in Nai Nai’s last days. In response, Jian tells Billi that when her own father died, everyone was expecting her to breakdown and cry, but she didn’t. She hated the Chinese tradition of using tears as a measurement of love and grief at the loss of loved ones. She hated how people even hire professional mourners at family funerals. She has her own way of expressing her grief, which is not always outwardly displayed. Billi finally understands this when she sees Jian crying in the taxi on their way to the airport. After saying goodbye to Nai Nai and all the extended family members, Jian finally reveals her care and love for her husband’s family and her grief over Nai Nai’s diagnosis. 

There is no right or wrong in “The Farewell.” There is no absolute answer to the “better” way of expressing love. Those of us living in a foreign land stay in a gray area between ideas seemingly opposed to each other, straddling two cultures and not feeling entirely at home in either. We navigate the in-between space and constantly make decisions between the two sides. But our goal should not be to take a side, find the right answer or reconcile both cultures. Rather, we should strive to understand both sides, while living in the conflict with compassion. 

Those of us living in a foreign land stay in a gray area between ideas seemingly opposed to each other, straddling two cultures and not feeling entirely at home in either.

In the end, it is really the universal human condition that we’re facing, and the complexities of life make many questions unanswerable. 

But perhaps there is a universal language relatable across all cultures and personal views. Despite “the nuances of those gaps between these different family members,” Wang also explained to Variety, what brings the family together is their “love of the grandmother.” 

When I was washing my face in the bathroom after watching “The Farewell,” I thought about how it’s so rare and exciting for me to see my culture represented in movies here. I recognized a Chinese accent and looked to the left. I saw a Chinese girl talking to her American friend about how much the movie meant to her. Her eyes and nose were still red. So were mine.

Contact Raina Yang at [email protected].