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'The Farewell' Captures the Chinese-American Experience in a Way I Never Thought I'd See on Screen

Going to China as a second-generation Chinese American is such a deeply personal and overwhelming experience that I never thought I'd see it on an American movie screen.
The Farewell.

The Farewell.

Every time a friend tells me they're seeing their grandma for Christmas or having their uncle over for dinner, I feel a small pang. As a second-generation immigrant—I was born in the United States to Chinese immigrant parents—I experience so many cultural joys and so much pain, often all at once. I love that I have this intrinsic knowledge of the Chinese food that my parents make, the language that they speak, and the culture they've imparted to me. But one of the biggest heartaches of my life is that my extended family lives on the other side of the world. Time, money, and language barriers make them largely inaccessible to me.

Months before The Farewell even came out, I knew it would be an important movie to me. It's an American film, in which director Lulu Wang tells a story based on her own life, about a Chinese-American woman named Billi whose paternal grandma—her nai nai—is diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. In keeping with Chinese culture, Billi's family decides not to tell her grandmother about her diagnosis and instead plans a wedding for her cousin as an excuse for the family, who mostly live in other countries, to return and see her. (This piece contains a few spoilers for the film.)

Billi was born in China, but when we meet her she lives in New York, not far from her parents, who speak English at home. She's played by Nora Lum, also known as Awkwafina, who had to learn Chinese for the role. Her pronunciation is often endearingly bad. It's never a plot point; Billi, based on Wang, who is relatively fluent, wasn't originally supposed to be bad at Chinese. So Billi's relatives and other various characters can somewhat miraculously always understand her, but there are moments where you can hear Billi translate her thoughts out loud. "Cousin," she says mid-sentence, pausing when explaining to the hotel clerk why she's visiting from America. "Tang di," Billi remembers, and carries on with what she was saying. (To be fair, there are eight different context-specific ways to say "cousin" in Chinese.) Later, when she's making a speech at her cousin's wedding, she apologizes for her heavily accented Chinese and mutters "thank you" in English when an unseen man encourages her.

My Chinese isn't much better than Billi's; I have an elementary-level proficiency at best. When I have the chance to go "back" to China, as both my family and Billi's family call it, I struggle. I freeze up when someone asks me a question, my mind grasping to string together a sentence. Billi's struggle with the language is just one of the many things that might make her experiences in The Farewell poignantly familiar to a Chinese-American immigrant.

In fact, many scenes portrayed my experiences so accurately that they felt like they'd been lifted from my own life; I'm sure my Chinese-American friends, with whom I've discussed these episodes, would feel similarly. For instance, the first thing Billi's nai nai says to her when she arrives is that she hasn't gotten thinner, the way her nai nai thought she would. Later, over dinner, the whole family discusses the merits of living in America versus living in China, and there's some tension over whether or not Billi and her parents are Chinese or American. Meanwhile, Billi is constantly anxious about making the most of her weeklong visit by spending as much time with her nai nai as possible. This anxiety is accentuated by the fact that her nai nai doesn't know about the advanced cancer she has, and keeps talking about plans for the future; at one point, she says that when Billi gets married, she'll arrange an even larger wedding than that of Billi’s cousin. Billi, who is single and probably not getting married any time soon, says nothing.

In one of the last shots of the film, Billi is in a taxi to the airport, being driven away from her nai nai's apartment. She's crying silently, and her mom, normally stoic, is crying too. It's unsaid, but it looms over the scene: They don't know if they'll ever see Billi's nai nai again.

The simplicity of this scene cut to the core of my pain as a Chinese American. A few years ago, my grandpa, my lao ye, had a stroke. I flew to see him in his hospital room with my mom, who told me not to cry. Unlike Billi's grandma, however, my grandpa was not lucid. I wasn't allowed to say goodbye when I left, because to do so might upset him. So I pinched the skin between my thumb and forefinger, I bit my cheeks, and I said "ming tian jian"—"see you tomorrow"—to my grandpa.

As soon as I stepped out of the hospital room, I burst into tears. I thought: Will I ever see him again? The answer was no, even though he didn't pass until a couple of years later.

These feelings of departure and loss aren't unique to immigrants. But for many of us, the pain of leaving our "home" countries after a visit is just another massive wave in an ocean of feelings that had already overwhelmed us during the trip itself. When I go to China, my family celebrates. We eat out, and I cram myself with as much delicious regional food as possible. Family might come from out of town and gather at my grandparents' apartment. I can't communicate with them as well as I want, but their love is so natural that it feels like another limb. And the anxiety of fitting everything in, the insecurity over the language, the love, the celebration, seeing little cousins who have tripled in size since I last saw them, the weird, smelly hotel rooms, the embraces from aunts and uncles that make my heart burst, the slog of jet lag, and the heartbreak of leaving my grandparents—it all happens in a week. This cacophony of emotions, all in one package.

These trips are crushing. They are beautiful. They are the most emotionally packed week or weeks that I have ever experienced. And they're something I never thought I'd see portrayed in a piece of mainstream media. The Farewell not only touches universally on loss and grief—Lum says that people have come up to her sobbing about their own grandparents after seeing the film—but also the specific subset of emotions that come with being an immigrant. These are feelings that, until now, I had mostly experienced alone, in the dark. Seeing them on a screen felt monumental; so monumental that, in the weeks leading up to my first viewing of the film, I cried just thinking about it.

Growing up, the closest thing to representation I had in a movie was Mulan. Mulan was the only character who was familiar to me as a Chinese girl, so I clung to her. When my white friends asked about my favorite movie, my answer disappointed them. "Of course it is," they'd say, rolling their eyes. "But you have so many options to choose from," I wanted to shout—so many stories about white lives and white families that had been told in so many iterations, over so many decades. The Farewell isn't just about representation, and its merits go far beyond its evocation of the immigrant experience. But the representation is what makes it feel so personal to me. To me, the movie feels like home.

The part of the movie that touched me most was a small moment toward the beginning. Billi is in her New York apartment talking to her nai nai on the phone. When it comes time to end the call, Billi says, "I love you, nai nai." For a second, you think that she's slipped and has accidentally spoken English to her grandmother. But instead, her nai nai responds, "I loff-ah you." And again, "I luh-feh you." The "v" sound doesn't exist in Chinese, so the old woman stretches "love" into two syllables. And for a second, Billi's nai nai, offscreen, sounds exactly like my own grandma.


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