Should you tell your mother – or grandmother – she's got terminal cancer? The Farewell opens up that question in a powerful, cross-cultural way.
The doctor has a serious face. You sit in her office as she gently tells you that your mother has stage 4 lung cancer and will most likely not live longer than six months. She then says not to tell your mother the diagnosis, as there is no purpose in further treatment.
What is going on here? Of course, you need to tell your mother about the diagnosis! How will she prepare herself for death? How will she make good choices about treatment? Isn’t there a possibility of some kind of experimental treatment that might save her life?
These questions come from the mind of an American, but most Asians might ask some very different questions: “How can I keep the news away from her as long as possible?” “How can I give her a lot of meaningful experiences and family times before she begins to realize what is happening?” “The family must know, but the young people must be told not to blurt the truth which would bring pain to mother.”
A masterful movie about big issues
The movie The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang, sensitively paints a picture of the complexities and cultural tensions around this universal struggle. The film tells the story of a Chinese family whose two sons have emigrated, one to Japan and one to America, making family reunions infrequent.
The American family has a daughter who is quite close with her grandma (奶奶, Nǎinai) who has remained in China, often speaking with her on the phone from New York. When they are informed that Nǎinai has inoperable cancer, the granddaughter, Billi, is devastated. The whole family has not been together in China for many years, but they decide their nephew, who has only been dating for three months, should get married to give them all a reason to return to China for a farewell without having to tell Nǎinai of her disease.
As the family gathers and enjoys family time amidst the wedding preparations, Billi struggles with not telling Nǎinai the diagnosis. Having grown up in America where individualism is paramount, her instinct is to tell Nǎinai the truth since she has a right to know. At one point she even says she thinks it’s illegal to not tell Nǎinai.
Billi’s uncle Haibin, however (though he is also grieving inside), tells her that she is being selfish in her desire to tell Nai-Nai about the cancer. “You think one’s life belongs to oneself, but that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” He goes on to say that the lie puts the emotional burden of the diagnosis on the family, rather than on Nǎinai Or, in the words of the doctor, “It’s a good lie.”
Why watching this is valuable for you
Watching movies like The Farewell exposes people to viewpoints from other cultures that might never occur to them. In both western and eastern cultures, the goal is to love the person who is dying of cancer.
The westerner loves the sick person by giving the individual dignity to choose the response to the diagnosis. The easterner loves the sick person by bearing the burden of the diagnosis for the person. Both of these reactions are loving.
The movie also subtly raises the more universal question of how our shrinking world is influencing all cultures. Just as Billi and her American family struggle with how much they are willing to live by the values of their Chinese heritage, China itself is struggling with knocking down its traditional neighborhoods and building western-style hotels that don’t quite function well. The movie does a good job giving the watcher a sense of the loss produced by the disappearance of the traditional neighborhood as well as a concern that the new is not as good as the old.
As travel and the Internet continue to break down walls between cultures, how much syncretism is too much, and how much of traditional cultural ways need to be protected? Different cultures can learn from each other, but how much change is too much?
These are questions the global citizen needs to struggle with, so think about bringing your older children to this movie. It could lead to an interesting discussion.
What do you think about the question, "Should you tell your mother she has cancer?"