The Farewell: Placing the Guilt of Being a First Generation Immigrant

“The Farewell” directed by Lulu Wang

“The Farewell” directed by Lulu Wang

On the car ride home from seeing The Farewell, I sobbed openly as we drove on the highway back to South Philadelphia. I wailed as if someone had punctured my heart and I was watching the blood pool into the car and drown me. 

The film follows Chinese-American Billi and her family as they gather in China to say their goodbyes to the matriarch of the family Nai-Nai. Nai-Nai’s contracted cancer and she only has a few weeks to live so the family guises their gathering as a wedding celebration so that they may say their farewells. However, Nai-Nai doesn’t know that she is sick or dying. All she knows is that her family is together again. Watching Billi deal with the pressure from her family and handle her grief within the bounds of her culture connected with me. When Billi asks why they won’t just tell Nai-Nai about her prognosis, the family tells her that this burden is not for Nai-Nai, but for the family. 


I recently started seeing a new psychiatrist and as we worked through intake and I droned on about my family, he gently stopped me to ask, 

“Do you resent your parents?”

I paused and rustled in the silence. 

“I know they’ve known nothing else and after years of therapy, I’ve come to not blame them, but understand where they are coming from”

“Do they try to understand you?”

“No, but it’s ok.”

“It seems you’re ready to forgive everyone but yourself.”

I was showered in silence again. He had caught me and all my guilt red-handed and this time I could only turn my eyes away. I imagined myself at 6, 9, 12, 14; carrying the burdensome understanding of my parents and twisted my hands in the static. 


So when Billi’s family says that Nai-Nai’s illness is their burden to carry, I wonder if her family knows of the other burden that she carries trying to understand them and not receive their understanding in return. There is really no place to put the guilt of being a first-generation immigrant. It eats you when you’re flourishing and devours you when you’re struggling. You blame yourself for not being enough like your people, but it’s no one’s fault you’re a cultural mutt. Your parents were just trying to survive. 


Tears stung my face as we shipped down the highway. Even though I felt hot with the validation of seeing my experience, it still felt like a pain that kept growing in my heart like all the rooms of my memories were merging together in my chest. 


To be truthful, I used to resent my parents with a fervor for all the guilt and pain I’ve gone through, for the insecurities I pushed into other relationships. But the only way that I can be free from the hold of this affliction is if I let myself be free. The only person aware of my personal burden and how it makes me feel is me. But this time, I forgive myself and bid farewell to the personal guilt I’ve burdened for no one but myself.  For me, The Farewell doesn’t suggest a place for me to put my guilt or recognize someone else as needing to hold it, but it has loudened a silence experience for me and helped me move toward letting that guilt go. 



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