an adult woman sits with her mouther on a couch, averting her eyes

Thoughts on the Movie “The Farewell”

"The Farewell" is an award-winning movie made by a Chinese-American filmmaker in Hollywood. It’s about a Chinese grandma who had stage 4 lung cancer and her whole family returning to China from abroad to say goodbye. The catch was that the entire family knew their grandma would die soon except they kept this information from her. The story took place when the family, especially the 2 sons and grandchildren in the US and Japan, struggled between the Chinese culture and the American culture.

The movie has personal connections because I am a stage 4 lung cancer survivor and I am Chinese. I lived through the culture and saw the reasoning from both sides about hiding the truth of lung cancer diagnosis.

A “shocking” story

For non-Chinese, it’s so shocking that this Chinese family hid the truth from their grandma. What if she wanted to say goodbye to somebody? What if she had some unfinished business? What if... According to foreigners, it was cruel and radical not telling their grandma she was dying.

For Chinese, it was not a shocking story. When I filled the application for a IASLC/WCLC2019 Patient Travel Award 5 months ago, I wrote in my application about an incident that really opened my eyes.

"I am Chinese and came to Canada in 1988 when I was 23. So to an extent, I understand both Chinese and North American cultures. In the Chinese ROS1+ Lung Cancer Group WeChat*, I noticed there were more caregivers getting involved than patients. In Chinese culture, when a spouse or parent is diagnosed with cancer, especially a fatal one like lung cancer, the children or spouse often hide the truth; even telling doctors not to talk about the diagnosis when the patient is present..." I’m glad the movie showed this cultural difference.

Chinese perspective of the story

At the end of the movie, the uncle said their "grandma’s life belongs to the family, not herself. This is the difference between the western culture and Chinese one, and we, as a younger generation, must respect and honor the tradition". This is the theme of the movie.

It’s very true that the movie imitates life. In the Chinese ROS1+ Lung Cancer Group, there is a majority of caregivers, not cancer patients, who participate. When I joined the group, I questioned it but didn’t get an answer. Later I proposed in the group, especially to the patients, to get together and talk about mental health. It was bluntly rejected by caregivers. I even felt a somewhat unfriendly atmosphere as if I offended some of them and at that moment, I felt I was talking like a foreigner, not a Chinese.

An honest and faithful movie about Chinese culture

The movie is believable because it’s honest and faithful to reality. For example, grandma did the same thing by not telling grandpa the truth of his passing. Everybody was lying to show that their life was better than it actually was. The movie is full of small parts showing how the Chinese went the extra mile to make grandma happy. For example, the faked marriage, the grandchildren lying about how long the engaged couple had been dating so others would not think the wedding was rushed, and hiring people to cry loudly and sadly at the funeral... The whole movie was to make the theme believable. I think the movie was well made.

This movie reflects my family and my story

The movie is just like my family. My parents are 85 and 86 years old, similar to grandma’s age. I am just like the sons in the movie, the 2nd generation and I understand the western and Chinese culture. Though I disagree, I have to obey. My children, just like the grandchildren in the movie, don’t understand and don’t give a damn to certain aspects of Chinese culture.

It’s so funny that it’s full of small parts, like grandma constantly touching the granddaughter to show her love, constantly called her “stupid child”, constantly asking whether the granddaughter had a boyfriend; even just seeing a handsome young doctor, grandma couldn’t help to ask if the doctor was available. That’s very true to my mother. I couldn't stop laughing throughout the whole movie.

Remembering back to my childhood neighbor

The movie is a semi-comedy. But the reality is very gloomy in China. I remembered that when I was 10 years old, my mother’s colleague, who was also our neighbor, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her family, like most of the Chinese families, hid the truth from her for several months. Even I knew how serious her lung cancer was, but she happily told people she was cured, until the family took her to a special hospital. She noticed the sign on her blanket said Cancer Hospital. After that, she worsened and never left her bed. I didn’t know if lung cancer killed her or she was scared to death. Chinese say that the majority of Chinese cancer patients are either scared to death or misdiagnosed or mistreated. It sounds funny, but it really shows how Chinese people feel about cancer.

I asked my husband what he thought about the movie. He didn’t believe in his culture people treat death like we Chinese do, but it shocked my husband that Chinese also hired people to the funeral to cry.

It’s very difficult to change people’s minds, but we have to try.

*WeChat is a Chinese Messager in Facebook.

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