Two weeks ago, for the first time since February, I went to see my grandmother. I walked down the hall on the second floor of a nondescript Koreatown building and found her room in the corner next to a closet of cleaning supplies. She smiled when I poked my head around the corner but couldn’t remember my name. But she still knew how to scold. “It’s been a while since I saw that face,” she said in Korean, her face wrinkling under small rimless glasses as she sat up on the bed.
Her short, wispy white hair fell down to her shoulders. It was strange to see — she always used to wear it in a neat perm. For much of my childhood, and my college years in L.A., she lived in a small but homey subsidized apartment in the heart of Downtown. It usually smelled like Korean soup and fresh-cut Easter lilies. The nursing home was just a few miles away, but it felt like I was standing in some sort of bizarre ketamine dream.
“It’s me, Kim-Sung-Hyun,” I said, using my Korean name.
She rolled the syllables around in her mouth, and raised her brows after seven long seconds. “Grandson. How long did you fly to see me?”
“Don’t worry, Grandma. It was just a 15-minute drive,” I said.
“What about your wife?”
I stared at her, and then realized she was mistaking me for my father — her son. “Not yet, Grandma. Soon,” I replied, squeezing her hand.
I don’t really remember what else we talked about for the rest of the hour I stayed by her side. When she nodded off to nap, I gave her a hug and speed-walked to my car. Tears poked past the edge of my eyes as I dialed my mom.
A year and a half ago, over bento boxes at her favorite Japanese restaurant, I noticed my grandma repeating the same questions to me. Neither I nor my parents (who live in Honolulu) predicted that this red flag would devolve into full-blown dementia over six months. But when it happened, it felt like we hardly even talked about it. Grandma was always “doing fine.” My dad was always “doing fine.” My mom? “I’m okay. What else can you be?”
“It’s not all that fair. I wish your father and I could be there to help her,” she continued after a pause. “But we can’t just up and leave everything here.”
“I’m her grandson. I should be taking care of her. Instead I’m just an asshole who visits her when he gets sad about it,” I stammered back, feeling the words choke in my throat. “Isn’t stepping up what I’m supposed to do? Like how I promised to send you guys $2,000 a month when I got a career?”
My mom laughed, but I didn’t. I’d been adamant as a child that I’d one day show them old-fashioned filial piety — the kind of reverence and repayment that serves as a prototypical Asian parent’s dream. Instead, in the garage of that nursing home in Koreatown, I felt like a failure of a grandson — and by transitive property, a failure of a son.
Filial piety, or a deep respect for one’s parents and elders, is considered a major virtue in East Asian cultures and has been defined by a number of classic texts from Confucian times. A desire to simply care for parents is common around the world, but the Asian interpretation of filial piety is unique in the emphasis that it’s an obligation. Deference to an elder, and reciprocation of what they gave you, isn’t a choice in this traditional view.
Few films have captured the tension this creates in Asian-American households quite like The Farewell, director Lulu Wang’s tragic but deeply funny debut feature. The feelings that I’d failed at something as a son rushed back to me as the credits rolled, and I couldn’t help but fixate on the central theme of lying: how both love and shame pushes us to twist reality, to ourselves and to others, to cope with death and duty in Asian culture.
In The Farewell, China-born, America-raised Billi can’t help but smudge the truth toward optimism when her grandmother asks about her career as a writer in New York City. Eight thousand miles away, Nai Nai (the nickname for a paternal grandma in Mandarin) also can’t help but lie about that weird noise Billi hears in the background of their call. It’s the PA at a hospital, where she’s getting tests for a serious illness, but she blames it on the TV instead.
The results of that test define the narrative of the film. Nai Nai has stage-IV lung cancer, but her family decides to withhold the truth from her, brushing off suspicious blemishes on her CT scans by telling her a doctor deemed them just “benign shadows” (“What is that?” Nai Nai replies). Meanwhile, Billi’s parents explain to her that in Chinese culture, elders with terminal illness are often kept in the dark from their prognosis, to spare them the burden of reckoning with their departure. Billi is distraught — how can she lie to her grandmother in this way? Her dad remains adamant that Billi can’t tell her; they don’t even invite her to the family reunion, arranged under the guise of a cousin’s wedding, because he thinks Billi will lose composure and break the illusion.
Nancy Peng hasn’t seen The Farewell yet, but for the 22-year-old film and TV student in Philadelphia, the timing of its release couldn’t feel more fitting. A week ago, Peng was sitting on her bed when her phone chimed with a text from her father. “Your grandmother had a fall. She’s close to passing,” it explained.
“I mean, first of all, what just struck me as absurd is that my dad texted this to me. I’d just been talking to him like five minutes prior. This should be a sit-down conversation,” Peng says.
Her dad told her something else, too: You were always her favorite granddaughter, and she wished you had come with us to visit her in the summer. This was a shock to Peng, too. She’d never been all that close with her grandmother, or her extended family, as a result of her parents and older brother immigrating to the U.S. in the early 1990s. The last time Peng had seen her grandmother, in fact, was at her high school graduation in 2015.
She was aware her grandmother had been battling Alzheimer’s and lung cancer for years. She also knew the family had lied to her grandmother about the diagnosis, just like the family in The Farewell. But being told she was a favorite granddaughter churned Peng’s feelings in a more intense way. “It felt like a mess of family guilt. I regret losing my Mandarin so much when I’m on the phone with family, just being super awkward. I don’t know what to say, it’s just hi and goodbye,” she says. “Being in an immigrant family where you’re isolated in America, you end up having a very different understanding of what it means to be family and what it means to love the extended family. Intellectually, I understand my relatives in China would love me. But do I feel the same about them? How can I love someone I barely know?”
Filial piety is defined by the link between love and duty, and many Asian Americans remain unsure how to process the two when their family lives are marred by communication issues and conflicting emotions about tradition. Billi’s struggles in the film, along with the way her parents feel ostracized for having left China (and the rest of the family) behind, depict that in sharp relief. There’s a moment of illustrative honesty between Billi and her mother in the film’s second act, when Billi questions the family’s facade of always being “fine.” “She’s dying. Can’t you be a little more sensitive?” Billi demands.
“What do you want from me? To scream and cry like you?” her mother retorts.
I remember the lack of emotion when my maternal grandmother passed away. My mom quietly booked a flight to Seoul, demanded I help my dad keep their restaurant open and returned a week later, with red eyes but little to say about the funeral, even when I pressed. I also remember the lack of discussion when my mom called to tell me my other grandma had been moved to a nursing home. She told me weeks after it actually happened. I could hear the melancholy in my dad’s voice when she passed the phone to him. “How are you?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” he told me. “The days are the same here. Work’s good.”
The sensation that a family is refusing to acknowledge the emotional toll of something like illness is a familiar one to Elvis Wong, a 26-year-old in Toronto. His father fought cancer since 2010, but died in late June. For a long time, he says, his mother and older sisters just ignored the illness. “We didn’t talk about it. My dad was trying to do so, too. He was proud and stubborn, even as he was landing in the ER,” Wong says. “Then there was the element of keeping it from our grandfather. We’d only tell him things that were absolutely necessary. I guess it’s part of our culture and how we’re brought up — you’re taught to say it’s fine. Even throughout this entire process, I never told any of my friends that my dad was sick.”
As the youngest sibling and a man, Wong always came last as a kid, prompted to be dutiful to his sisters as well as his parents. Now, he feels the pressure to step up as the main provider of the house. His parents never explicitly spoke to him about the expectations they had, but Wong says he felt an assumption that he would stay home to first take care of his father, and now his grieving mother.
That’s particularly challenging at a time when Wong is at a major step in his career, having quit lucrative management consulting in favor of creating a nonprofit that aims to lift people out of poverty. “When my dad knew he was dying, he questioned why I was doing what I was doing, leaving a stable career to do this. The way he framed it was, he wanted me to support my mom first and foremost,” Wong says. He has bittersweet feelings about staying the course. “I don’t regret the decision. I guess I kind of blamed my dad’s viewpoint on how the illness changed his mindset. It’s hard,” he adds.
His story made me think of a line in The Farewell, delivered by Billi’s uncle. “You think one’s life belongs to oneself. That’s the difference between the East and West. In the East, one’s life is part of a whole,” he tells Billi. Throughout the film, the loyalty of Billi and her parents to this principle is questioned in ways both subtle and direct. An aunt throws shade on Billi’s choice of being a writer; an uncle wonders whether Billi’s dad has truly considered the effect of his mother growing old without him. They’re the same kind of questions that ultimately end up swirling in the head of a lot of young Asian Americans, who often prod themselves with as much force and bitterness as any relative could.
I posed a question about the guilt of filial piety to the popular Asian-American Facebook meme page, “subtle asian traits” and received dozens of replies that summarized the stress that comes when expectations meet self-doubt. “I wrestle with the feeling of having disappointed my parents every day. Their expectations were already low — they wanted me to become financially independent and find some kind of fulfilling career, nothing more — but they occasionally express doubts with the way in which I met their expectations,” says David Luo. “The fact that I ‘managed to fail’ such a low bar (even though I didn’t!) in their eyes makes me feel incredibly guilty, especially when I compare myself to other Asian Americans whose parents expect so much more out of them.”
Others noted how their parents encouraged them to chase a fulfilling career, only to realize later that they don’t have the time or money to commit back to their parents. “I want to do these things for my parents some day, but the reality of living in the Bay Area and making enough to fend for myself and parents is sadly unrealistic right now. Working in education is rough!” writes Amanda Cheung. “For one, I didn’t study something my parents approved of. I got my master’s degree, but still don’t make much money. Now, I can barely afford to live on my own. I just hope that some day things will change, and they will be proud and pleased.”
No wonder there’s a contingent of Asian Americans who outright reject the responsibilities of filial piety, deeming it a tool for obedience and preferring instead the “Western” view that parents provide for the kids in order to set them up for success, without anticipating reciprocation. There’s a fine line between guilt and resentment, as Hong Kong-based writer Doris Lam describes in her Huffington Post essay “My Parents Expect Me to Take Care of Them and I Don’t Know What to Do.” “The feeling of inadequacy and the pressure of earning more money linger in my mind every time my parents half-jokingly remind me that I’m their retirement plan. The fear of disappointing them outweighs anything else,” she writes.
Lam tells me that while she loves her parents, she believes they held the concept of filial piety “over my head so that I’d be more obedient.” She wants to one day take care of them, but feels like she still needs to discover mutual respect and “space to breathe at home.”
“I was always envious of my friends who had great relationships with their parents as a child and definitely think my childhood memories cause me to distance myself from my family now, hence affecting my desire to be generous,” she says.
The Farewell makes clear that this standard — whether it means providing for a family financially or helping cover up an elder’s terminal diagnosis — often comes with hardship. Billi’s uncle, the one who scolded her about the difference between East and West, breaks into tears in front of Nai Nai while delivering what’s supposed to be a cheerful wedding toast, nearly blowing the whole cover. It also leads to infighting, which Ya-Wen Huang, another member of the “subtle asian traits” page, described seeing in her own home. Her parents spent years taking care of their grandmother, who had cancer, and refused to hire a nurse because the notion of having an outsider do the work was “beyond their comprehension,” she says.
“It wore on them emotionally, physically and financially. My parents’ relationship also suffered. They’d argue all the time. They also fought with my aunts and uncles,” she explains. “Why weren’t the aunts/uncles helping out too? She’s their mother too.”
Hearing all these stories makes it obvious I’m privileged that my duty right now doesn’t involve lying to a loved one’s face about their illness, or having to send money home, or having to move back in with my parents. Yet no matter how many people I commiserate with, the urge to do more — or risk letting my parents down — thrums deep in my mind. Wong and Peng feel it too, but they both note that opening up communication is the cultural progress they see in their own homes.
“That text message from my dad about my grandma really illustrated to me that, ‘Wow, we literally can’t talk at all about these things. Like, you couldn’t even say this to me in person.’ I didn’t even know about any of this stuff for a long time. It’s also an age thing,” Peng says. “As I’ve gotten older, communication is opening up more. And I’m glad for that. But this was a reminder we have so much more to work on.”
A few days after I saw my grandma, I called my dad. I wanted him to open up about how he felt, 2,500 miles away from his dying mother. And I wanted to know what he needed me to do in his stead. The phone went quiet for a moment when I broached this with him. Then I heard a sigh. “Don’t think it’s just you. I feel it from time to time. Wondering whether I should’ve stayed in Korea and had your grandma with me. You never got to discover your family while living in the U.S. You never even really got close enough to your grandma, because you grew up in Hawaii,” he told me.
I was surprised by his candor and the realization that he felt a lot like me. I don’t really remember what else we talked about for the rest of the call, except for the end. My dad had a question: How would I feel if my parents moved to Korea to retire?
A flicker of panic creeped up my throat. How would I see them so far away? How would I take care of them? I’d been a difficult teenager, full of anger and embarrassment about how my family was different, how we didn’t fit American tropes and how to reconcile my own uneasy relationship with my Korean heritage. Only in my 20s did I see with clarity what and how they sacrificed to raise me. It felt like too little, too late. And now I faced a future in which I’d be double the distance from them, feeling helpless.
He broke my racing mind by loosening a short chortle. “We’ll be fine. You’re gonna be fine, too,” he said. “Your mother and I don’t need anything, you know that. And your grandma is in good hands. She’ll understand if you’re busy.”
I wondered whether he really meant it. “I can’t help but worry,” I replied.