Burdens and truth: inspired by “the farewell”
Hannah Chao | JULY 22, 2019 | 4 MIN READ
Is it morally acceptable to tell your grandmother that she is healthy even when she is dying of Stage 4 cancer?
That’s the question asked in Lulu Wong’s film The Farewell, which opened nationwide last weekend, and is based on an actual lie in her family.
In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is shocked when she finds out her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately called Nai Nai, has stage 4 cancer. That initial reaction turns to confusion and frustration when her parents tell her that the family has decided not to tell her grandma that she is dying.
Billi soon flies from New York back to her hometown in China, where Nai Nai still lives. Her extended family has all gathered there to spend time with the matriarch under the pretext that Billi’s cousin is getting married. She continues to have doubts about the plan, and the movie follows the family as it copes with trying to say goodbye without explicitly saying goodbye, all while planning a sham wedding.
Watching the film, I achingly resonated Billi’s conflict and inner turmoil. It was the familiar tension of living between two cultures. I identified more closely with Billi’s more Western beliefs, but I could also see the logic and perspective of her parents’ generation, which held to Eastern standards.
Though I had empathy for both sides, I struggled with whether or not what the family was doing was wrong. As Christians, we generally believe that lying is a sin. So then is the family in The Farewell a bad family? Are a lot of Asian families bad families? I’ve personally heard stories from many people about their families hid the seriousness of health issues from person who has been diagnosed.
Is there something inherently wrong with this Eastern way of thinking?
Having grown up in an Asian American household, I completely understood why the family was lying to the grandmother. Even if I didn’t agree with the decision (much like Billi), I knew they were doing it out of love.
In Western culture, love means you will tell the truth, no matter what the consequences are to your family, your group, or your country. That’s why we have romantic movies and songs with people interrupting a wedding at the altar. We celebrate whistleblowers, and we admire those who “tell it like it is.”
So seeing the lengths to which Billi’s family goes through to keep this charade going might seem like the opposite of love, and at the very least, odd.
But in Eastern culture, love means that you will carry the burden. The idea of withholding truth to protect vulnerable members of the family is a given. The stronger members of the family must collectively bear the responsibility of the truth or decision so that the one who is weaker does not have to suffer.
One of the things Little Nai Nai told me about why they lie is that when a person finds out bad news, they stop eating. They stop sleeping. Yes, you could say they die of fear in this abstract way, but you can also say in a practical way, that if they stop eating and they stop exercising or leaving the house and then they stop sleeping, then the lack of sleep causes more depression. And so yes in a literal way, that news can kill them.
The collectivism and burden-sharing of Eastern culture helps explain why the family hiding the truth. It is out of love and out of hope.
So how can Christian Asian Americans navigate this tension between East and West? The answer is the Gospel. Neither culture is perfect, but each has aspects which, if brought under the lordship of Christ, can be praiseworthy and lead people to the truth of Jesus.
Because family situations can be complex and need to be nuanced, there are very few hard and fast rules. For example, we need to consider the wishes of our parents, the need for truth, the desires of the person who is ill, and other variables. So we must turn to the Word of God to be able to think wisely and act humbly, even in the toughest of circumstances. Let us look at two verses:
“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).”
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Ephesians 4:15).”
The Eastern mindset is very good at “bear[ing] one another’s burdens.” We are quick to come together to share a meal and stay with a person who is suffering and in need. Our families are very close, and while this might lead to meddling or nosiness, it also leads to making huge sacrifices for the sake of the members.
But we are not so good at “speaking the truth in love.” In order to avoid shaming someone or to save face, we often hide behind cultural expectations and fake pleasantries. Let us break those false barriers and seek to be honest with one another.
The Western mindset, on the other hand, is very good at speaking truth. But we need to work on sticking around to bear the burdens together. That means we must first build deep relationships that go beyond just hanging out. We must be intentional about walking together through good times and bad.
But once we hear about suffering, we cannot immediately absolve ourselves of any responsibility, but rather we must linger in the aftermath. Instead of tossing the truth like a hot potato, we must sometimes hold onto the hard truth and sit in uncomfortable situations, even if it means sacrificing our time, energy, and money.
Our ultimate model for the fusion of these two ideas is Jesus. He bore all of our burdens on the cross, sacrificing himself so that we might be made into a new creation. He is able to empathize with our weaknesses and sit with us in our pain and suffering. At the same time, Jesus reminds us that we are sinners and that he is the only way to life. His words are truth spoken with great love, which he showed through his interactions with people in his ministry but also with his death on the cross. In Jesus we have an example of the humble elder brother who goes before us and brings us to intimacy with the Father -- to the perfect family reunion.
So let us learn to do the same in our families, for our friends, and with our churches. Let us bear one another’s burdens, forming relationships that can carry us through the toughest and darkest of seasons. Let us practice speaking the truth in love, pointing to the Gospel with gentleness for all of life’s circumstances. Above all, let us look to Christ, so that in seasons of sadness and suffering, we will follow his example and be wise and humble members of a family that is yearning to be reunited while knowing hope will be realized.
Hannah Chao is a writer and the editor for SOLA. She is also on staff as the administrator at All Nations Community Church. Hannah is a wife and a mom of two beautiful little girls. You can follow her on Twitter.