Getting older is where you start to think about a lot of things, especially if you’re the child and-slash-or grandchild of immigrants, from anything vaguely-ethnic, because it’s that point in life where you finally start to find footing and parameters (I really like this word, I realized recently) about what you like and what you don’t like about the world those who came before you came from.
In that footing, you start to sometimes struggle, and I think the reason that when we recently watched Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell, which I’ve wanted to see but also struggled to bring myself to see (it came out last year and I’m mad I didn’t see this in theaters then because it would have definitely been one of my top films of last year), it so deeply resonated with me. I’ve also struggled with growing up Greek-American, with not wanting it, with trying to accept and embrace it, with the history of it and the current social and political aspects of it, of wanting to care but honestly feeling bad that I also don’t, if that makes sense. And so much of that seeps through this film, with Billi grappling to fit in and go along even though she knows that she can’t, occupying another space of the generation that are coming back, struggle with not being a part of their family’s cultures both on purpose and in defiance…AND YET still expected to go along with so much of it anyway when needed. It can feel like you’re being obligated to participate in elements of a world that only stands in the way of your own forward progress.
But barring toxic relationships, how can you ever say no to your grandmother?
I’m also close to my remaining grandparents, my mom’s dad and my dad’s mom. My paternal grandmother who now calls me “Costa” instead of the diminutive nickname version because “Costa” is what she used to call my grandfather, who I’m named after. But he’s dead now, so I’m the only “Costa” around, and I find myself doing a lot of the things he’s done, like eating corned beef and pig’s knuckles, drinking coffee, carrying things in my shirt breast pocket, watching old movies, that sort of stuff I know he did.
His mortality, the way that after that last round of chemo he decided that the last six months or so they’d give him weren’t for more medical stuff, and how he lived for almost three more years after that “six months” diagnosis, made me think about this film and how drastically different the two narratives of my family and this film’s “fictional” family (do a quick google search if you don’t know the story behind it), but at the same time they’re about how people take the news and responsibility of living after knowing that the end is within sight of someone in a seemingly-cruel and awful way.
My maternal grandmother left the US to go die in Greece when I was a kid, and I remember her leaving and my mother telling us later on vividly. My paternal grandfather died when I was at work one day, and my mother called me right before I had a class to teach. I distinctly remember the day (it was my birthday, and I feel like I’ve always ended up working on my birthday) and I remember bolting home after that last class instead of holding my office hours. Both times I had a sense of something important happening, of a generational loss (Akwafina’s character breaking down at how so much had changed in a land that she was culturally expected to still maintain some level of connection to despite the way that it was leaving her behind, or maybe she’s left behind and feeling stupid and raw at noticing it and being hurt by it was an excellent moment of volume in an otherwise tonally quiet but heavy film) that I was only more consciously-aware of when I was older and it happened with my grandfather, though all my grandparents had undergone amazingly-hard lives to come to the US and create better places for the families that they had and wanted, creating communities in a strange land, even though I think in their hearts they always knew they were of two worlds.
How would I react if she was where Billi’s grandmother was? How would my family react, and would we make the same decision? The film makes the very valid point that the cultural practice of denying someone news like that about their health is illegal, and that divide is something that I think the film touches on as a part of the larger issue of how the family is collectively struggling, considering the overall idea of individualism versus collectivism.
Billi in The Farewell is learning about those clear lines and the grey in the spaces separated by those lines, and the way that the film frames interactions and experiences as part of this larger narrative not of the wedding, not of the lie, and not even of her own personal demons necessarily, but instead of recognizing not only the way that all the other family members orbit her grandmother, Nai Nai, but at the same time the ebb and flow of her own personal sphere. T
hat’s something that I think about a lot with my own remaining grandparents, their won spheres, their own lives both in relation to mine, but the life they had before and they life they have when we’re not there. Nai Nai’s life is hinted at, but her love for Billi and the rest of the family is absolutely something that blooms no matter what, and watching that bloom reminds me so much of my own grandmother.