Lulu Wang lets the audience know right away that her new film, The Farewell, is “based on an actual lie.” Awkwafina plays a character based on Wang herself, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the US. This story, which was first told on an episode of the public radio program This American Life, is about what happened when Wang’s grandmother, still in China, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The practice in China is to tell family members, but not the patient. So, in order to say goodbye – without letting her know it was goodbye – the family decided that one of the other grandchildren should get married to give everyone an excuse to visit the grandmother one last time. The film is a great illustration of the often stated principle that the more specific something is, the more universal it is. In an interview, Wang talked about the inevitable conflicts between immigrants and their American-raised children and about deciding when to lie and when she’d like to be lied to.
NELL MINOW: I read Gish Jen’s book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim, where she makes the exact same point that the characters discuss in the movie about the difference between Chinese culture putting the group first, especially the family, and American culture which is about individual autonomy and happiness. How does that translate to the Chinese/American community and particularly to the next generation?
LULU WANG: I can speak from my own experience as a first generation immigrant. I always struggle between this idea of individualism and collectivism because I feel so much responsibility to my family and to the sacrifices that they made to give me a better future. It’s difficult. On one hand you want to make choices for your own life. You want to pursue independence and freedom and you want to pursue your dreams. But on the other hand what if that dream causes your family to suffer? What if that dream makes them feel burden and fear and uncertainty?
So I think that it’s this constant negotiation between “Yes, I’m going to pursue my dream because that’s the whole point of why we came to this country, to give me these opportunities to do what I want to do with my own life,” but then immediately it’s followed by this other instinct of “Maybe I should just do what’s safe so that my parents could stop worrying about me so that I can just pay my rent and not have to worry about finances but also does not have them worry about how I’m going to take care of myself because they continue to work so hard because they’re like ‘Well, who knows what your future entails and so we can’t retire because what if you never get your film made and you continue to be broke?’ So I think that was the biggest internal conflict for me as a first generation immigrant and that deals with that kind of collectivism — society, family — as a unit versus the individual and their own priorities.
MINOW: Don’t you think that there’s a conflict because there are good reasons on both sides?
WANG: Oh yes, absolutely. There are good reasons on both sides and there is no answer. So in some ways they think that pressure from the family is also a motivating factor but then in other ways I think it can be a real hindrance. I’ve talked to other second generation immigrants who stopped pursuing their dream because of that and it’s something we don’t talk about that often because no one talks about the reason why somebody goes into a safer profession and doesn’t follow their dreams versus other people who from a young age had a super eight camera and always knew they wanted to pursue filmmaking and then they do. In many ways it’s like if you grow up in a family where there’s no fear and there’s just full encouragement — “You can do anything you want to do and we’ll support you, we have the financial means to support you.” When you don’t grow up with that fear that’s a huge privilege.
MINOW: And then what do those who do give up their dreams tell their own children about what to do? Do they repeat their own experience or swing the pendulum to the other extreme and become those privilege-granting parents?
WANG: My parents and I have that conversation all the time because I’m like, “You guys took the greatest risk of all with your own life.” My mother is a writer herself, my father was a diplomat in Russia so he was for ten years in Moscow and then gave that up to move to the United States. My parents were 33 and 36 years old and they had to learn a completely new language and had to make new friends and build a new life. “But here you are telling me to not take this risk and not go to art school.” That’s the ironic thing and you say that to them and of course it’s like it makes sense rationally.
They’ll say, “We don’t want your life to be hard. Yes, we suffered and yes we sacrificed, but we don’t want you to make those sacrifices. We don’t want you to struggle.” And I would say, “But what is life without that struggle? What is life without a journey?”
MINOW: It’s a terrible sacrifice to give up your dreams as well.
WANG: Exactly. My brother is a chef and I said that to them because they didn’t want him to struggle in a kitchen and work for minimum wage — “We did not come to this country so that our son could slave in a kitchen for like a zillion hours a day.” And I said, “Yeah, you should be thrilled he loves it because he could sit in an office for lots of hours and make more money but if he hates it then he’ll suffer so much more in his life.”
MINOW: Your movie begins with your main character on the phone with her grandmother telling her a lie about how well her life is going. She’s also dishonest with her own parents but she does not want her parents to keep the truth from her grandmother. That makes it really interesting kind of set of conflicts. When should you tell your family the truth and when should you lie to them?
WANG: I don’t have a prescription for anyone and I’m not even consistent about it in my own life. Sometimes it’s to protect them and sometimes it’s to protect me and sometimes it’s just out of sheer laziness because you’re just like “I’m too tired to explain so it’s easier if I just say something else so they don’t ask any questions.”
MINOW: What would you want to be told if you had a terminal diagnosis; would you want to be told or not?
WANG: I have a different opinion about it every single day.
MINOW: I guess that’s the right answer.
WANG: I’m a control freak so sometimes I think I’d want to know but sometimes, especially these days, I just think our sense of control was also a false one and our need to know in order to control was a false one and so maybe it’s just better to let go of all of that.
MINOW: It’s actually a fairly modern notion even in the United States that you should tell people the truth about a terminal diagnosis. In old movies like Dark Victory and No Sad Songs for Me women are not told by their doctors or families, at least initially.
WANG: It is – the law was changed in the 70’s. Before that they didn’t have to tell and I would be really curious to find out when that law came about and why.
MINOW: I loved the greeters in the wedding scene.
WANG: There are some moments of the film that are slightly exaggerated or surreal. This comes from communist traditions with these very orderly presentations. You saw the Olympics in Beijing there is a lot of in unison kind of behavior in general. Here it was just this notion of having this sort of uniformed greeting and the intensity of that because it was more like an emotional set piece rather than a factual one.
MINOW: What do you want people to talk about on their drive home from seeing the movie?
WANG: I want them to talk about the assumptions that we often make and the judgments that we often make. Hopefully people will say, “I came into this movie completely convinced that in one way or the other this was right or wrong what the family was doing but I came out kind of not so sure anymore.” Not that they necessarily have to change their mind but I just want people to kind of think, “I never thought about it but it actually kind of make sense from their perspective. It doesn’t mean that I have to agree with them, it doesn’t mean that I have to do the same thing but I can understand a little better now.” That really was the goal of this film but it was important for me to not to pick a side and not to make judgments. It was really just about how it was in the same family we often have a lot of disparity of ideas and perspectives and it’s important to know how to disagree with people we love in a respectful way because I think so often these disagreements leave families to be torn apart. I think that we’ve lost the ability to ask the other side questions and try to have a bit of compassion and try to understand where somebody on the other side is coming from. This movie is to remind us to try to do that.