In Lulu Wang’s recent autobiographical film The Farewell, a 20-something Chinese-American woman travels back to China to spend a week with her Nai Nai, her paternal grandmother, who is dying of stage-four cancer but doesn’t know it. The whole family has chosen to keep the diagnosis secret, lest the distress hasten Nai Nai’s demise.
The central character, Billi, spends time with her ailing grandmother but it quickly becomes clear the trip nourishes something in the younger woman too. Billi leaves behind her empty city apartment, career disappointment and recent rejection from a prestigious fellowship program. With her grandmother she finds an intimate bond, a sense of identity rooted in cultures she has been dislocated from – both Chinese culture and the idiosyncratic, close culture of her family – as well as some perspective on her own existential malaise.
“Life is not just about what you do,” Nai Nai tells Billi. “It’s more about how you do it.”
The film is about immigration and identity, and has resonated strongly with Chinese-American and other diaspora communities, with layers of meaning white Australian viewers like myself could not fully understand.
The Farewell’s Lulu Wang: ‘I would love it if white men were asked the same questions as me’
It is also a love story, about one of the lesser discussed but most meaningful relationships some of us are lucky enough to experience: the bond between an adult child and a loving grandparent.
The importance of grandparents in the lives of young children is widely studied and intuitively understood: they can provide deep attachment bonds and safety. Practically, they are an increasingly critical source of unpaid childcare for working parents. While caring for small children can be taxing and imposing, studies suggest there can be real benefits for the grandparents too. The ABC’s recent hit series Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds chronicled the positive impacts infants had on their elderly companion’s lives and physical health.
As adults, our relationships with our grandparents shift, and though we may no longer rely on them to look after us in a literal sense – and the caring dynamic may even reverse – it can be just as fulfilling.
If you’re lucky, these relationships are rooted in unconditional love, acceptance and family ritual. With grandparents, there aren’t the complex intricacies of the relationship between a parent and “adult child” – the term is an oxymoron of course, but it’s an apt descriptor of who we become among our families. For some, grandparents might be bridges back to old countries, languages and cultures. For others, they can be a connection to a different time and way of life.
I had a similar experience to Billi last year when I returned to Australia from New York. After three years, I’d said goodbye to a city, a partner, a journalism job, an apartment and my 20s. Unmoored and uncertain about what would come next, one of the first things I did was make the six-hour drive west, across the mountains and parched plains to spend a week with my 94-year-old grandmother, Gwynne, in her redbrick home in Dubbo.
We had nothing and everything in common – she was raised on a farm to mainly Irish descendants, married at 19, had six children and never held a paying job – though she worked hard all her life. Family and community were her whole world – “my people”, she called them – and loving, human connection was everything. My late grandpa – from more stoic stock – used to joke drily my grandma would hug you goodbye if you went to the toilet.
For a week we hung out. I would make her favourite dinners – sausages burnt black, served with tomato sauce and a glass of white wine with an ice cube – and we would watch TV together. She would roll her walker out under the shade of the big golden rain tree in her front yard to chat while I turned the hose on the red earth. We would have cups of tea in rooms cluttered with family photos and stacks of letters and old Christmas cards. She would run through the familiar repertoire of family legends with her gnarled hand on mine – her mother’s buggy accident, her rainy wedding day, the time my mum, then a toddler, handed her a live redback spider.
I spent much of the time feeling stressed about my next career move. When I got a call offering me a phone interview for a new job, I reluctantly told her I would need a few hours alone with my laptop to prepare. Less than half an hour later, I could hear the wheels of her walker rolling into the kitchen. “Joey,” she said. “I don’t want to disturb you, but I’ve just got to read you this poem,” she said, holding up a tattered little book. She launched into Banjo Paterson’s A Bush Christening, only pausing to hoot between stanzas. I wanted to be annoyed but how could I be? She had never done a job interview in her life, and of course enjoying a poem together was more important.
For people of my generation this is why these relationships can be so powerful. Our lives and identities are so deeply rooted in our work, in our digital lives, in often impermanent relationships and transient homes. Through our grandparents, we can access a different way of being in the world, a pre-neoliberal worldview, a different sense of belonging and identity. They gift us the wide sense of perspective that comes with age and witnessing the sweep of history.
The Farewell has beautiful coda (spoiler alert – though it’s been widely discussed on the press tour). The real Nai Nai survived the cancer, in total ignorance, and is still alive today, years after the events depicted in the film took place. The title turns about to be something of a misnomer.
Lulu Wang said in interviews that at every screening, people come up to her in tears to talk about their own grandmothers. “My goal is to leave people talking about the film, or talking about their own lives and their own family, or calling their grandma,” she said. “That’s my gift to the world. We should all call our grandmas more.”
My trip was a farewell, of sorts, though I didn’t know it. Four months later, my grandmother had a stroke, which she would never fully recover from. The next time I drove out to Dubbo it was to put her in the red earth, to share stories and songs and poems from her life at her funeral, with my people.
The final lesson these adult relationships with our grandparents teach us is the inevitability of loss. But through it we learn how we can become torch-bearers of histories, cultures and memories, if we choose to hold on to them. Even when they’re gone, they are lasting reminder: who we are is so much bigger than what we do.