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Lithium How "The Farewell" helped me find my way home

Aug. 30, 2019
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"You'll always have a home in Changchun."

I cried the day I landed in China, big, gasping sobs swallowing me whole in the middle of the airport. I think I’m just tired, I told my mother. What I meant to say was: It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to be here anymore.

I grew up spending summers at my grandma's apartment in northeastern China, walking to the lake and buying ice cream from the corner store and visiting monkeys caged in a backyard zoo. Then, one summer, I turned thirteen years old, and there were no more lakes or ice cream or monkeys. Sometimes, life just gets in the way of those things—six years passed, and I went to summer camps and applied to college, but I no longer ate ice cream with my grandma. 

I know that it is unrealistic to visit a place you loved as a child expecting it to feel exactly the same years and years later. It is selfish, even, to assume that everything you love is immune to change. 

And yet, I still arrived in China three weeks ago foolishly sure that nothing would have changed over the course of six summers.

The lake was blocked off with barbed wire. I couldn't find my favorite ice cream at the corner store. The monkeys had disappeared, leaving behind a cage strangled by weeds and inhabited by a lone and dirty rabbit. The feelings that had plagued me in the airport were proven correct—this was no longer somewhere I was supposed to spend time. I cried again that night, alone in my room and overwhelmed by the fact that the fixtures of my youth were not the immovable constants I had imagined them to be.

But Lulu Wang’s stunning debut—modest as it is, simple in plot as it is—makes me feel like nothing ever really changed. The Farewell feels like a warm hug from my lao lao, a hot summer day by the lake. I watch this film, and I see monkeys in the cage again. I watch this film, and it feels like I am still supposed to be here.

The Farewell centers on Billi (Awkwafina at her finest), a young Chinese-American writer living in New York City. Billi’s grandma (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives a world away in China, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and is predicted to have only three months left to live. Billi’s extended family decides to throw a fake wedding in order to bring everyone together for the last time with Grandma, but they fiercely vow never to tell her of her diagnosis.

How is it possible for one film to capture every nuanced detail of your childhood, from the meat pies you ate to that particular brand of Chinese only spoken between American-raised children and their still-living-in-China relatives? How do I even begin to write this essay without it simply becoming a list of the moments that paralleled my own with commentary like, This thing also happened to me? I can’t. I have written so many words recounting what it feels like to watch the Asian-American experience represented on screen, but I struggle here because The Farewell doesn’t even feel like watching one specific experience; it just feels like watching a home video of my whole entire life. 

The Farewell is so familiar to me in part because it was shot in Changchun, hometown of both director Wang's grandma and my own grandma. I went to see the film with my mother, and we spent the entire runtime pointing out to each other the roots that we recognized: We just drove past those buildings last week. Those apartments are all the same color—they had to have been close to ours. Caught on camera, this city shines; everything that disappointed me had new meaning breathed into it.

The first few days of my trip, I struggled to speak. I call myself fluent in Chinese and I talk without an accent, yet I found myself stumbling over my words to waitresses, family friends, relatives. I look like I belong here in China, and yet I don’t, because someone who belongs here should be able to speak. 

It is a uniquely terrible kind of pain to understand everything being said to you but to not be able to force out your replies. My mother learned to meet my confused relatives’ questions of Doesn’t she speak Chinese? with a patient She hears and understands it pretty well, but she has a little trouble speaking. 

There was a certain desperation to be heard boiling in my chest, a scream of I know how to speak! fighting hard to leave my throat, but how could I have even let it out when I could barely order food without stammering?

In Billi, I see that desperation to be understood, so much so that it hurts. There is one particularly powerful scene in which she rushes to the hospital to pick up her grandma’s diagnostic report, gasping for breath, only to admit that she is unable to read the papers. Like Billi, I can’t read Chinese. I spent the entirety of the trip scanning restaurant menus with a blank stare, watching road signs pass me in blurs while I tried in vain to pick words from them. 

Billi is never helpless, though. She never gives up. When I watch her take the stage at the wedding to give a speech even though her Chinese “isn’t that good,” I feel like maybe I, too, can speak clearly, even if only for a moment. 

It is so easy to feel alone in your existence when you are asking yourself those age-old identity questions: am I American, am I Chinese, am I Chinese-American, am I an American of Chinese descent? How does one define American? How does one define home? 

I feel a little less alone seeing The Farewell address these questions. Both the storylines of Billi and myself revolve around our first visits to China since childhood and the cultural struggles that came with them, and I take comfort in watching someone else not really know the answers, either. 

On Billi’s first night in China, a hotel owner asks her, Which do you like more—China or America? Billi hesitates: It’s different. At a family dinner, Billi’s father says, We’re Americans, then falters and says, I mean, we have American passports.

Billi and her family are people who struggle with, and yet simultaneously redefine, home, Americanness, Chineseness. I admire the fact that The Farewell never feels the need to explain a correct state of identity to me. It seems like neither I nor Billi knows all of the answers to those questions—and while The Farewell meditates on them, it doesn’t tell us how to feel. All I know is that Billi and I came back to China after a long time away, where we found an extended family and a home. 

I know that America is my home. America is my permanent residence, the name printed on the front of my passport. But I think about all those long and hazy days spent in Changchun, all those times I ate ice cream with my grandma in the apartment. Changchun is a place where I feel comfortable, a place where I have family that loves me, and isn’t that a home, too? 

Can our homes exist in two places at once? I think they can. 

I landed back in Pittsburgh four nights ago. I’m saying “Pittsburgh” instead of “home” because this was the first trip from which I returned feeling like “home” was no longer only a place in Pennsylvania, but also a city in China. 

I tell all of this to my mom now, and she says, Well, you can always come back. 

I want to ask, What if things change? 

But I don’t. Because I know it is unrealistic to expect everything in Changchun to stay the same. The Farewell reminds me, reassures me, that I have a home there. And that no matter what changes, I always will.