A Foot in Both Worlds: Asian-American Identity in ‘The Farewell’

Images: A24

“Gaaaaaab! How are you? We say, ‘MAHAL KITA.’ Ok. Goodbye.” Voicemails from my nana are some of my favorite things in the world. They never surpass ten seconds and half of that time is her affectionately drawn out pronunciation of my nickname. That one was her returning a message I left the other day asking how to say “I love you” in Tagalog, our Filipino dialect.

The opening scene of The Farewell is also a phone call. We’re introduced to Billi (Awkwafina) and her grandma, whom she calls Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), during one of their routine long distance phone conversations. Director of The Farewell, Lulu Wang, wrote in an A24 newsletter shortly after the film’s release, “I … want you all to laugh and cry and call your grandmother or grandfather or any loved one that you don’t call enough. Every detail in this film was crafted with intention and I sincerely hope it speaks to you.”

The Farewell started as an episode on This American Life with LuLu Wang telling the true story of the lengths her family went to keep her grandma’s own terminal cancer diagnosis from her. Four years later, the film is a funny, melancholic triumph that examines what cultural identity and lineage mean to us. Billi is a young Asian-American woman, grappling with her identity and the intergenerational and cultural dissonance that comes with most of your family living on the other side of the world. It left me speechless long after the credits rolled, and several months later, I still find myself struggling to whole-heartedly express how much The Farewell means to me.

I’ve felt torn between identities, cultures, and homes my entire life. My family are immigrants from the Philippines, and I was born and raised in the U.S. Finding a way to embrace my cultural identity, while always feeling somewhat distant from it, has been a lifelong balancing act. Chicana writer and feminist activist Cherríe Moraga wrote in ‘This Bridge Called My Back’, “I am a woman with a foot in both worlds; and I refuse the split.” The Farewell is a celebration of duality and a refusal to split between cultures, identities, and worlds.

I see so much of my relationship with my nana and papa in Billi’s relationship with Nai Nai; cultural dissonance, guilt, and unwavering love are at the heart of both. One of the most poignant scenes in The Farewell is when Nai Nai teaches Billi her daily breathing exercises in the park. Billi says that exerting t00 much energy might hurt her, and Nai Nai responds, “Even so, I have to keep exercising. It’s the reason I’m so healthy. Even at my age!”  The pain on Billi’s face is visible as she’s reminded of her grandma’s mortality. It makes me think of my nana, an unparalleled caretaker who adopts a militant approach to everything in life: her education, her career, her faith, and her love for us. I’ve always assumed that she is going to live forever (and there is no sign that I’m wrong about this).

The Farewell is about the sacrifices we make for our loved ones: the small ones that go unmentioned and the big ones we take for granted. My papa picked me up from school on the other side of the city in our family’s Lincoln Navigator, a mammoth of a car, nearly every day.  As a child, I loved hanging out with him. I was convinced that he, a short Filipino man with a limp, was a retired ninja because of how quietly he moved around the house. As I grew older, I started insisting he wait in the Navigator. I’d climb in the back seat, annoyed at him for reasons I didn’t understand then. He’d ask how my day was, and I’d respond monosyllabically: “Fine,” “Good,” or “Eh.” I now understand that I wasn’t annoyed, I was embarrassed. He represented a part of my identity that othered me from many of my classmates and friends, a part that I subconsciously wanted to keep hidden.

I got the call that my papa was in the hospital while I took a college midterm 500 miles away. He suffered a severe stroke overnight. When Billi finds out that Nai Nai is dying of cancer, the film cuts to scenes of her going through the motions of life in New York City, despondent. When I got that phone call, I thought of all our car rides in the Navigator, eating sunny-side-up eggs with rice, and watching Walker, Texas Ranger episodes on the couch together. I realized how much those moments impacted me and how much I took them for granted. By the grace of god—or my nana’s supernatural ability to bend life to her will—my papa survived. He was there to watch me walk across the stage at graduation a few years later as I proudly wore a stole representing my Filipina identity over my shoulders.

I wonder if I’ll ever be able to fully express my gratitude to them. There are volumes of the fascinating lives they led that I’ll never know: growing up in the Philippines, the decision to come to America, and the countless sacrifices they made so that we could have a great life here. Attempting to bridge that distance between us, both culturally and generationally, is really the beating heart of The Farewell. The scene that best captures this is when Billi arrives in China and her family crowds in Nai Nai’s small apartment to prepare a meal together. It’s organized chaos: Billi’s mother is manning the stove, Nai Nai’s sister, whom Billi affectionately calls “Little Nai Nai,” is rolling dough, and various aunts, uncles, and cousins are setting the table. All the generations sit down together and pass heaping bowls of food around. “Eat! Eat!” is shouted in a loving chorus as they shove more food on to one another’s plates. It’s a moving portrayal of familial love with hardly anything said aloud. Sharing a meal is an enduring symbol of the bonds that connect us.

At the 35th Annual Independent Spirit Awards on Feb. 8, The Farewell took home the biggest award of the night, Best Feature. Lulu Wang said in her acceptance speech, “I have to thank my parents, of course, and my entire family. Especially my Nai Nai, my grandma. I think a year ago no one would know what a Nai Nai was. I’m sorry, Mom and Dad, for putting all our baggage out there—but I hope it’s worth it.”

The film’s emotional win flooded me with memories of the family I have to thank: celebrating Simbang Gabi, a Filipino-Catholic holiday, with the whole neighborhood in the church basement and coming home after midnight mass on Christmas Eve to be greeted by the smell of Pancit Bihon, a delectably greasy noodle dish, wafting from the kitchen. My connection to my Asian-American identity is comprised of those memories. They are the reason I have one foot proudly planted in my Filipino culture and the reason I refuse the split.

“Hi Nana. Hi Papa,” I left a voicemail after Lulu’s speech. “I saw this movie that reminded me of you. It’s called The Farewell. I think you’d really like it. Mahal kita.”

by Gabriella Granada

Gabriella Granada is a Filipina-American writer from Chicago. She credits Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, (both) Lindsey Lohan(s) in The Parent Trap, and Carrie Fisher in everything she’s ever done for who she is today. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her work here.

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