There’s a scene in The Farewell where the main character, Billi (Awkwafina) is sitting with her extended family in her grandmother’s living room. They’re playing with the family’s dog, trying to get it to bark for them. The lighting is warm, everyone is smiling and the dog’s wearing a cute little outfit. By all means, it should be a happy, even funny, picture. But seeing it, I found myself squeezing my arm so hard that I broke the skin trying not to cry. That feeling stayed with me throughout the whole film, whether a scene was sad or not. I felt a constant, deep ache in my chest that didn’t let up until well after the credits.
Before I give the wrong impression, let me say that The Farewell is a truly masterful, even perfect movie. The visuals are stunning, the story is beautiful, the acting is amazing. The Farewell tells the story of real events that happened when writer-director Lulu Wang’s beloved Nai Nai (grandmother) was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. The diagnosis was told not to Nai Nai, but to Nai Nai’s sister, who ultimately decided that it was best to keep secret from the aging matriarch in an effort to prolong her health as much as possible. The family was also instructed not to tell Nai Nai the truth. Instead, Wang’s extended family travelled back to China under the guise of attending her cousin’s wedding, but they were ostensibly there to say goodbye to Nai Nai. (To hear how exactly Wang and her family did this, listen to her This American Life audio doc, the project that led to The Farewell.)
In the film, we watch Wang, portrayed by Awkwafina’s Billi, wrestle with the customary choice not to tell Nai Nai about her cancer while also navigating the differences between the American and Chinese cultures in which she was raised. The entire movie is a subtle study of communication and compassion in diasporic families, and with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus is basically unanimous: It’s f-cking amazing. I fully agree. It just happens that I was also affected by it in a unique way.
I was adopted from China as a baby and raised in Canada by a single mom, who is white. Needless to say, the circumstances that led to where I am now are so intricate that I know I’ll never be able to fully process them. My relationship to China, the West, my adoptive family and my unknown birth family is complex, to say the least.
Watching Billi’s—and by extension, Wang’s—story, I felt a pang of desperate longing. It came in the intimate moments she had with individual family members, but it also came in the rowdy scenes with dozens of people. Wang painted a vivid portrait of a family that I will never have. When she tried to tell her mom how hard it was moving to the U.S., I just wondered what it would be like to look my birth mother in the eyes. When she argued with her uncles over the differences between the East and West, I wondered what it would be like to have any concrete connection to “the East” at all. By the end of the movie, I was a mental and emotional wreck, conflicted in more ways than one.
Despite kicking my cultural dysphoria into overdrive, The Farewell also had moments and feelings that I could still see myself in. Maybe Billi’s story wasn’t my own, but I felt a connection to her nonetheless. We were both Chinese women whose Westernization was no choice of our own. We both had complicated relationships to our family. When I found out I was going to get to talk to Wang herself when she was in town for the Toronto premiere of the film, I wanted to see what she had to say about the things the two of us—having experienced similar and yet very different parts of the Chinese diaspora— shared. What she said gave me a greater appreciation for the film, Wang as a filmmaker and unexpected insight on some of the big questions in my life.
Home is where you decide it is
The main theme in The Farewell is family, but a close second is the idea of home. Billi’s entire family is spread out, with some in China, some in America and some in Japan, and most of them are grappling with balancing Chinese culture and the culture they live in. We see how at home Billi is in New York, and that’s juxtaposed with the way she seems to float through China, almost as if she’s a ghost there—or so it seemed to me, at least. I often wonder how I would feel if I went back to China, and I imagine that I’d look a lot like her; observing but not necessarily belonging.
I asked Wang how she figured out where her home was. She said she’s never had a real sense of home because of how often her family moved around. “I was born in Beijing but grew up in Miami, but never felt really at home in Miami, and went to school in Boston and now I live in Los Angeles. I think the thing I’ve learned is that home is where you sort of make it home,” she said. “I mean for me, probably not China.”
It’s OK to not feel fully connected to your ethnicity
Wang’s comment on not considering China her home really resonated with me, and what she said next was like a gut punch of truth. “I think I’m too far removed. Even though my family is still there, my entire identity as an adult and as an artist is not Chinese. And so I would definitely be a foreigner there, and it’s particularly uncomfortable because people look at me like I should belong there.”
For me, the main downside of going to China would be that everyone would assume I was just like any of them. I told Wang that I can feel that even here whenever I walk into a store or restaurant in Toronto’s Chinatown. Cashiers and waiters will speak Mandarin to me, and when I tell them I only speak English their faces usually fall. (There is a running theme in The Farewell where the younger generation is judged based on their ability to speak Chinese languages.) I can tell most of these strangers judge me, and it’s a horrible feeling—but hearing Wang, who can actually speak Mandarin, say the same thing, I felt relieved.
Family is never easy
At one point in The Farewell, Billi sits on the floor in tears, trying to explain to her mom how difficult it was to move to the U.S. as a child. It’s just one of the brief moments of frankness and honesty she has with her mom. Besides this, she doesn’t really discuss what she went through with the rest of her family, and this was what I related to the most.
There are things I won’t or can’t discuss with my family because they’re a different race than me. There are some things that they fundamentally won’t understand or that I don’t want to try and explain to them. I asked Wang for advice on how to navigate those difficult conversations—ones where your family could never truly understand what you’re trying to tell them—and whether it’s even worth it to try.
“I think it’s always worth it,” she said, “but you know, honestly, I didn’t have that conversation in my real life.” There was no big cathartic moment for her where she told her parents everything she’d felt, how alone and afraid she was. “I wrote it in the script and had Billi have that conversation as a means for me to have that conversation. And maybe I’ve had it in little bits here and there, but it’s never been like this moment where I said it. It’s just really, really hard. I think that it’s always important to try. But I think that’s also what art is for, you know, as a way to express the things that maybe are difficult to express in real life.”
It’s no one’s place to tell you you’re “lucky” to grow up in the West
When Billi goes to her hotel in China, a hotel employee learns she’s from America and asks her if America is better than China. “It must be,” he says. She replies that they’re just different. One of the things that infuriates me is when people, usually those who were born and raised in the West, tell me that I’m “lucky” to have been adopted. While our situations different, Wang evidently knows what it’s like to be considered “lucky” to be a person of colour who’s been somehow Westernized, so I asked her what she’d say to anyone who tells those people to be grateful.
She acknowledged that we have opportunities here that we wouldn’t likely have otherwise—something I’m often conflicted about, since it’s true that my quality of life is better here than it would have been in China—but she also clarified that this is a personal thing. “It’s one thing for us to recognize that privilege. It’s another thing for somebody else to come and tell you about that privilege, because they don’t know your experiences,” she said.
“So you can say, ‘I’m really grateful for these things because I choose to be grateful for these things, but I also recognize the flip side of the coin.’ I don’t think it’s anyone else’s position or place to be like, ‘You should feel grateful, you should feel lucky’ because they also don’t know the losses and the sacrifices that you’ve had to face.”
East Asian sentiment toward the West is…complicated
Wang went through a lot to get The Farewell made, to the point where she almost gave up on it. She’s talked about how American financiers suggested she whitewash the movie by introducing a white protagonist. Thinking she was maybe “delusional” that this was an American film, she tried a Chinese producer who told her the same thing. “They’re so influenced by Hollywood,” she told Indiewire.
I noticed how the movie reflected a general idealization of the West in East Asia, whether it was the doorman asking about America or the tension in the room when one of Billi’s aunts is asked why she’s sending her son to school in the U.S. It’s disturbing for me to see that idealization having been raised here, knowing it’s not deserved—Billi also chimes in about America’s myriad problems—and I asked if Wang felt the same way. She replied that there’s a divide. “There’s people who completely put it on a pedestal or there’s the backlash of people who completely hate it and are anti-the West, which is really just a backlash to the extreme pro-America worship culture,” she said.
“Anything American is [considered] better, and obviously in beauty and things like that, [there’s been] the Westernization of the standards of beauty. I think that’s partly what inspired some of The Farewell—that you have people who, maybe they want to go to America, or maybe they’ve never been—and there’s this sort of desire. And you’re trying to rationalize it to yourself, like to either completely worship it and see it as an aspirational thing or just hate on it because it’s something that’s not in your life.”
Having multiple perspectives will ultimately benefit you
I asked Wang how important her cultural experiences are to her as a writer and director, wondering if she thought she’d be the same creative force without them. “I think that I can’t take my cultural identity out of my work. It’s just always going to be ingrained,” she told me. “I always find myself making non-American films in ways. There’s this global aspect to my storytelling that I can’t avoid. Culture will always play a part in the storytelling, whether in an obvious way, like in The Farewell, or less obvious ways with my next film.” She’s just signed on to direct a sci-fi thriller that will also explore the dynamics of family.
It was heartening to hear her embrace her cultural duality, welcome it and acknowledge its role in her art. If there’s a lesson Wang’s amazing story (and The Farewell) has to teach, it might be that as much pain or grief as your cultural identity causes you, it’s part of you. The best you can do is accept it, explore it and really sit with it. Maybe it will lead to something great.
The Farewell is now playing in select theatres in Toronto and Vancouver. On July 26 it will expand to additional theatres in those cities, as well as theatres Montréal (Eng and French ST), Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Victoria, Halifax and Winnipeg. It will expand nationally on August 2.