“The Farewell” and a Personal Story of Dual Identity

By Sanai Rashid

On the one day during PBA week when I had no tests scheduled, I leaped at the opportunity to indulge in movies at home. After scrolling endlessly through Netflix titles that did not excite me, I thought back to a movie I wanted to see over the summer, The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang and starring Awkwafina. I sucked it up, paid the $3.99 fee and pressed play.

Over the summer, my mom and I were listening to a podcast on NPR, and heard from a woman (who we would later learn was director Lulu Wang) discuss with the host, Terry Gross, the events that inspired her to write and direct The Farewell. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in late January. When Wang was six she and her parents immigrated to the United States from China. They would occasionally go back and visit China but Wang grew up with America being her home and subsequently became disconnected from the rest of her relatives overseas. In 2013, Wang’s grandmother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given three months to live. Wang had maintained quite a good relationship with her Nai Nai as they would talk regularly on the phone. So as it goes in the film when Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma) informed her that their family members in China had decided not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis, in hopes of shielding her from the anxiety of her near future, which Billi did not understand. Billi’s parents go on to inform her that everyone has decided to throw a fake wedding for her cousin merely as an excuse for everyone to come home and see Nai Nai one last time. Billi’s mom doesn’t even want her to visit with the rest of the family because she thinks Billi can’t hide her emotions and will give away their whole act.

Billi is bewildered at how calm her parents and the rest of her relatives are by this whole scenario. Take this excerpt from the film: 

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) I don’t understand. She doesn’t have a lot of time left. She should know, right?

MA: (As Haiyan) There’s nothing they can do. So everyone decided it’s better not to tell her.

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) Why is that better?

DIANA LIN: (As Jian) Chinese people have saying – when people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them. It’s the fear.

As a child whose grandma (whom I call Mimi) on my mother’s side immigrated from Guayana to America in the 1960s I knew all the jumbles of emotions Billi felt too well, but more with my great-grandma. I’ve only met my great-grandmother once when my mom, dad, younger sister, brother and I went to visit relatives in Guyana in April 2016. When I visited Guyana, I felt like I was in a bit of culture shock. Here I was in America, eating Guyanese food like roti, curry, oxtails, peas and rice, while hearing my Mimi listening to reggae while cleaning the house, thinking I knew all about Guyana that there is to know. But when I arrived I couldn’t help but realize how naive I was. Guyana was nothing like I expected. One story houses laid next to one another with the sun beaming through the open windows and vendors at the market with bags upon bags of goods on their back to sell just to have money to support their families. In a third world country where the average income is $4,725.32, I couldn’t help feeling like a spoiled first-world child. 

Throughout the movie, Billi feels lost between her American identity and her Chinese identity. Knowing that this will probably be the last time she ever sees her Nai Nai she can’t help but think about all the time that they never got to spend with each other. Towards the end of the movie she even spirals as far as saying she wants to move to China to be with Nai Nai during her last months. 

I think it is easy to be stuck between two worlds. When I first visited Guyana, I felt like an alien in my own land. However, as our stay went on, I realized that I may have not known the beuaties of this land in the early years of my life but it’s never too late to do so. I began loosening up a bit and talking to my great-grandma about her life growing up in Guyana. I wasn’t so quick to swat away flies or complain about how hot it was and instead tried to have fun. Before I knew it, the trip was over and we were back on the flight to New York. Our farewell ended in cries from everyone all around because you can truly grow close to your family in a short amount of time.

Looking back at it, although I did end up appreciating my trip, toward the beginning of it I spent so much time absorbed in my own world when I could have been spending precious time with my family. I was all too worried about why there wasn’t any WiFi and if my Snapchat “streaks” would end. Luckily, my Granny is healthy at 87 years old, but The Farewell reminded me that our days are numbered and that we must appreciate the little time we get with our family both overseas and even the ones that live 15 minutes away. 

Too often are we ashamed of our immigrant side of the family because we think that others will find our culture odd, confusing or weird. I admit sometimes I would be embarrassed by when my mom urged me to go to Carnival, a Caribbean celebration around Labor Day, and I still didn’t talk much about my trip to Guyana when I got back to the states. But as I got older, I realized my Guyanese side is not something to be ashamed of. If people cannot appreciate where I come from then they do not appreciate me. 

I do want to go back to Guyana one day now that I am older, more mature and also appreciate my background more. I still want to work on things like calling my Granny more often and all of my relatives back in Guyana. This story is common for anyone who has relatives in a different country, or state for that matter, but all in all, family is family. We only have one life to live so we should appreciate everyone who enters it no matter where they live and how different they may seem.