The Farewell as a Tale of Similarity in an Era of Diversity

I have never identified with a movie character as strongly as I identify with Billi Wang in The Farewell (the role for which Awkwafina just won a Golden Globe), despite both our different backgrounds and the fact that the movie’s dramatic tension springs from the one plot point that could never happen in America. Billi’s family is lying to her grandmother (“Nai Nai” in Mandarin) about her cancer diagnosis, to spare her the pain of knowing that her death is imminent. As a pretext to gather the family for a final visit with Nai Nai, they pressure her other grandchild (Billi’s cousin) to marry his new girlfriend, a task that he and the poor young woman undertake with more duty than affection. Where American-raised Billi sees a violation of Nai Nai’s rights as a patient, her relatives see an act of mercy for somebody who will only suffer unless they bear the burden of this secret. It’s East versus West, family versus individual, duty versus rights.

But it’s more than just East versus West, for much of the story transcends culture. Billi has frequent, affectionate phone calls to her distant grandmother, while her interactions with her parents are tense. Nai Nai is endlessly proud of Billi’s talent, while Mom and Dad worry about her floundering career. Billi idolizes Nai Nai, even as Mom spills unflattering truths about her mother-in-law. And while Nai Nai beams over the reunion of her sons, the rest of the family frets about their drinking.

I’m probably not the only Westerner to see parallels with my own family.

Billi’s relatives maintain that culture and tradition support their deception of Nai Nai, but there’s scant evidence that tradition provides the strength to live with their actions — the aforementioned heavy drinking demonstrates their unease, as do the relatives’ constantly agonized facial expressions. Conversely, though Billi’s American experiences emphasize her grandmother’s right to know, there’s no indication that truth-telling would make it easier to watch Nai Nai die. Culture and tradition provide answers for our most difficult moments, but accepting those answers remains a painful challenge in every society.

The story’s central conflict also reveals the cross-cultural ubiquity of lying to ourselves. Billi’s uncle tells her that his Eastern sense of familial duty is strong enough for him to endure the painful deception, and she is just too much of an individualistic Westerner to understand. However, Eastern upbringings didn’t prevent him and his brother from moving far away from their mother, leaving Nai Nai’s care to others. Far be it from this American to judge anyone for immigrating, but a family gathering with contrasting words and deeds would ring familiar on any continent.

Likewise, the simple fact of conflict around a dying relative has strong parallels with my Western experience. Most Americans would not hide a cancer diagnosis from a dying relative, but that doesn’t mean that we amicably respect a dying relative’s agency and autonomy. I have watched grandparents struggle with terminal illness, and relatives quarreled with each other rather than just listening to the patient. The tension between individualism and collectivism is about shades of gray, not black and white.

It’s cliché to observe that people the world around are all similar deep down, but it also feels transgressive in this cultural moment. I teach in a university that is unexceptional in proclaiming its commitment to diversity and the strength that it brings. Dwelling on similarity suggests, at a minimum, a lack of enthusiasm for the zeitgeist, and perhaps even a lack of awareness of one’s privileges. Actually valuing similarity over difference borders on subversive. However, for all the value in diversity, and all the confusion and conflicts that can arise if we fail to understand differences, diversity is most valuable when people succeed in shared endeavors rather than stare across chasms of difference. While The Farewell centers people from backgrounds not usually seen in Hollywood films, it has succeeded both critically and commercially by getting the audience to identify with a character, regardless of whether we share the character’s identity labels.

Emphasizing similarity is not an exclusively Western project, and surely not an individualistic project. In keeping with a central concern of characters in The Farewell, balancing individualism with cooperation requires identifying with other people, not just identifying as our various labels. Emphasizing how identities differentiate our experiences becomes an ever-increasing individualistic project as identity labels proliferate. But once we’ve categorized everyone’s labels, and acknowledged everyone’s perspectives, cooperation requires that we find ways to identify with each other. Appreciating shared humanity is hardly inimical to diversity, and we find it most naturally when we identify with other people, not just as our own labels.

I will close this essay as The Farewell does, with music. The ending credits feature the song “Without You” (most famously sung by Harry Nilsson, performed here in Italian and English by Fredo Viola). Until seeing this movie, I had interpreted it as I do most sad pop songs: As a breakup song. However, director Lulu Wang recognized that lyrics of love and loss can describe more than one type of heartache, an insight with strong echoes in my own recent journeys. Consider these lyrics from “Me and Bobby McGee” (sung by many artists, but made memorable by Janis Joplin):

One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let him slip away,
He’s looking for that home, and I hope he finds it,
But I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday.

Before my Grampa’s death I heard this as a breakup song, and in context that remains the more compelling interpretation. However, when I heard those lines by chance shortly after his funeral, I thought of Grampa going home to the Lord, and the days I’ll never have with him, and I cried. Seven years later, I still get tears when typing those lyrics, and I probably always will. I likewise choked up when The Farewell’s tale of a dying grandparent ended with a sad musical epiphany. Writer and director Lulu Wang made this movie from her own experiences in an immigrant family superficially different from mine, yet we have been moved by similar musical revelations. Cultural diversity is a good thing, but also a small thing compared with music’s power to help us navigate love and loss.

Alex Small is a professor of physics in Pomona, CA. His opinions are his own, but the awesomeness of Office Space is objective fact, not opinion.

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