Written by: Pim Wangtechawat
There are silences in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell that linger much longer than they should and much longer than it is comfortable.
Long stretches of silences, no dialogue, of her characters emoting into the camera, looking into or avoiding each other’s eyes, engaging in some absurd physical comedy, or simply staring into nothingness. Sometimes these silences are not complete — occasionally there would be a stirring orchestral score playing in the background — but the absence of words in these scenes would be so heavy, it’d nearly drown out the soundtrack.
The loudest silence of all is the premise of the film itself: a truth omitted — an actual lie told by Billie’s (Awkwafina) Chinese family to her grandmother (Nai Nai) that she is completely healthy and has not just been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. A wedding is held in China so that the entire family can come and say goodbye. But for an Asian-American like Billie, staying silent is not something she can easily reconcile herself with.
The Farewell has been widely lauded as “a sensitive, nuanced portrait of family connection within the Chinese diaspora” and for making “the Asian American immigrant experience feel universal”. But aside from being Chinese, Billie’s beloved grandmother in The Farewell is nothing like mine: charismatic, engaging, funny, someone you can FaceTime with for playful chit-chats and pearls of wisdom. Instead what makes our families — hers Chinese and Chinese-American, and mine Thai-Chinese — similar are these silences. Let me explain.
My grandfather on my father’s side immigrated to Thailand from China in his early twenties; there he met my grandmother, a Thailand-born Chinese woman, and started a family with her. When I was young my parents would take me and my brother to visit them once a week, and we’d either go out to a restaurant for a meal or my grandmother would cook for us at her house. These few hours would be dominated by, of course, silence. Like many Chinese families, we wouldn’t have anything to say to each other; we never talked much about our personal lives nor share amusing stories or jokes that would make us laugh together like one big happy family. We hardly ever fought either. We just sat there, ate our food and avoided conversation.
Of course, I know my grandparents love me: they have shown it in minor, subtler ways, which included the amazing food my grandmother would make for us, small presents whenever I got my report cards, and pats on the head and brief hugs whenever we say goodbye after our visits. But even now the concept that you could be friends with your parents or grandparents feel as alien to me as moving to the moon. Other people’s grandparents, especially the ones I saw on TV or in films, used to be a constant source of jealousy. It didn’t matter whether they were real people or not: I just wanted them as my own. How could awkward, uncomfortable dinners ever compare to grandparents who could charm and dazzle you with their sharp wit and fascinating stories? How could an excellent home-cooked meal ever measure up to affectionate best friends-figures or wise mentors who always know just what to say whenever you’re feeling down?
After my grandfather passed away a few years ago, my aunt would tell me to go spend time with my grandmother more often. “You must understand,” my aunt said to me once, “that she’s Chinese.” Which I took to mean I cannot expect her to be the kind of company I would normally seek out or to be emotionally open. In The Farewell Billie is unable to hide her grief about her grandmother’s condition: Nai Nai keeps telling her that she looks terrible while the rest of her family are worried that she’ll not be able to hide her emotions. But for Billie’s Chinese mother, grief is not supposed to be performative: “I don’t scream and cry like you,” she says. My grandparents, too, have never cried in front of me nor have I ever witnessed them expressing any intense sorrow, excitement or joy.
However, despite our tendency to “parcelling up emotions into tightly wrapped dumplings”, the importance of community in my culture has always been intensely strong. Over the years many have asked me to try and describe the differences between my Asian, particularly Thai-Chinese, culture, and Western culture. For a long time, I wasn’t able to provide a good enough answer. Making sense of the loneliness that I felt when I lived in the West felt impossible. So, too, was trying to explain why, in Asia, the sense of community and family feel so poignant and ever-present.
I used to say to my Western friends, “We Asians are more about feelings. You guys are more intellectual. You’re the head, we’re the heart.” But even though it was the best that I could do this never felt like an accurate or fair description. It wasn’t until I heard Billie’s uncle reprimanding her for wanting to tell Nai Nai the truth that I’ve finally found the right words: “You think one’s life belongs to one’s self. That’s the difference between East and West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole. Family.” It is the duty of her family, Billie’s uncle explains, to carry Nai Nai’s emotional burden for her.
I spent many years resenting my Thai-Chinese family, especially my grandparents, for their silences. I did not understand why, for a culture that is so rooted in collectiveness, that is so driven by the power of our feelings for one another, we are unable to articulate or see the merit in expressing our emotions, as well as our passions and frustrations, freely and without reservations. With The Farewell, however, Lulu Wang has shown me that perhaps there is another kind of beauty or meaning to be found in our identity; another unique way at looking at the world.
Just like how Billie describes the differences between China and America, who we are is not lesser or better than anyone: it is just “different”. And it is in our silences that everything comes alive.