“You’ll always have a home in Changchun.”
I cried the day I landed in China, big, gasping sobs swallowing me whole in the middle of the Beijing airport. I think I’m just tired, I told my mother. What I meant to say was: It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to be here anymore.
I grew up making yearly visits to my maternal grandmother’s apartment, her rural northeastern town my haven during the summer months. I think I formed my earliest conscious memories there: leaning on rusty railings encircling an algae-clouded lake and buying ice cream from a corner store and visiting monkeys caged in a backyard zoo. Then, one summer, I turned thirteen years old, and there were no more lakes or ice cream or monkeys. Sometimes, life just gets in the way of those things—six years passed, and I went to summer camps and applied to college, but I no longer ate ice cream with my grandma.
I know that it is unrealistic to visit a place you loved as a child expecting it to feel exactly the same years and years later. It is selfish, even, to assume that everything you love is immune to change. And yet, I still arrived in China three weeks ago foolishly sure that nothing would have changed over the course of six summers.
The lake was blocked off with barbed wire. I couldn’t find my favorite ice cream at the corner store. The monkeys had disappeared, leaving behind a cage strangled by weeds and inhabited by a lone and dirty rabbit. The feelings that had plagued me in the airport were proven correct—this was no longer somewhere in which I was supposed to spend time. I cried again that night, alone in my room and overwhelmed by the fact that the fixtures of my youth were not the immovable constants I had imagined them to be.
One of the most emotionally charged scenes of The Farewell shows Billi crying to her mom, talking about how she used to come back all the time and how things were different now. I understand, all too well. It would be far too easy for this to simply become a list of moments in The Farewell that paralleled my own memories, a broken record of an essay singing, This thing also happened to me. And so all I really have to say is that Lulu Wang’s stunning debut—modest as it is, simple in plot as it is—makes me feel like nothing ever really changed, reminds me that the place I once loved still loves me and is still deserving of my love, too. The Farewell feels like a warm hug from my lao lao, a hot summer day by the lake. I watch this film, and I see monkeys in the cage again.
The Farewell centers on Billi (Awkwafina at her finest), a young writer living in New York City. Billi’s grandma (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives a world away in China, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and is predicted to have only three months left to live. Billi’s extended family decides to throw a fake wedding in order to bring everyone together for the last time with Grandma, but they fiercely vow never to tell her of her diagnosis.
The Farewell is so familiar to me in part because it was shot in Changchun, hometown of both director Wang’s grandma and the nearest major city to the small town where my own grandma lives. I went to see the film with my mother, and we spent the entire runtime pointing out to each other the roots that we recognized: We just drove past those buildings last week. Those apartments are all the same color—they had to have been close to ours. Caught on camera, this city shines; everything that disappointed me had new meaning breathed into it.
And it is also familiar because of the plight of its protagonist. The first few days of my trip, I struggled to speak, a dramatic departure from the days of my childhood when I’d babble to my grandma probem-free. I’ve long called myself fluent in Chinese because of the absence of an American accent in my tones and the ease with which I speak at home to my parents—and yet I found myself stumbling over my words to waitresses, family friends, distant relatives. It is a uniquely terrible kind of pain to understand everything being said to you but to not be able to force out your replies. My mother learned to meet my confused relatives’ questions of Doesn’t she speak Chinese? with a patient She hears and understands it pretty well, but she seems to be having a little trouble speaking. There was a certain desperation to be heard boiling in my chest, a scream of I know how to speak! fighting hard to leave my throat, but how could I have even let it out when I could barely order food without stammering? I felt an incredible anger with myself for not having tried harder, for not having taken a class here or there.
In Billi, I see that desperation to be understood, so much so that it hurts. Billi clearly loves her grandma’s town in much the same way that I do. She feels the pain of a childhood memory evaporating, the frustration of knowing it might have been your fault. There is one particularly powerful scene in which she rushes to the hospital to pick up her grandma’s diagnostic report, gasping for breath, only to admit that she is unable to read the papers. Like Billi, I can’t read much Chinese. I spent the entirety of the trip scanning restaurant menus with a blank stare, watching road signs pass me in blurs while I tried in vain to pick words from them. (I’ve since come back to edit this piece after two years of college, where I declared a Chinese major and subsequently learned to read Chinese.)
The thing is, claiming Chineseness is tricky. Some people might call one who doesn’t speak the language a fake Chinese, undeserving of the identification—what right does one have to make grand statements about identity and experience when they talk like that? Still others might retort that identification shouldn’t come with terms. Personally, I felt ashamed of the fact that I had ever called China a “home” or felt entitled to it in any capacity when I could barely function for a day there. I was an American, period, and embarrassed that I had let the other “half” of my identity fall through the cracks.
I don’t want to claim that this is a unique experience, because it isn’t. Every Chinese diaspora kid has written some sort of college essay or long-winded poem about the language gap and the helplessness that comes with it. Billi, though, is never helpless. When I watch her take the stage at the wedding to give a speech even though her Chinese “isn’t that good,” I feel like maybe I, too, can speak clearly, even if only for a moment. I feel a pressure to improve for the sake of being able to call this place “home” without it getting caught in my throat.
I was born and raised here. I have no intentions of claiming some sort of proximity or indigeneity to China that I do not have. I know that the United States—my permanent residence, the country emblazoned in gold on the front cover of my passport—is my home. But I also know that I have a bit of a family and a lot of memories there. And even though I’ve grown older and my Chinese has worsened, there still exists some form of the young, happy girl I was. I can still “belong” in that town, if only because I once did. But if home can be redefined in the way that it is by The Farewell, as a place filled with love and happiness and a really great grandma…When I think about all those long and hazy-hot days, all those times I ate ice cream with my grandma in the apartment, I have no choice but to ask myself whether our homes can exist in two places at once.
I know they can. I know this because I landed back in Pittsburgh four nights ago saying “Pittsburgh” instead of “home,” knowing that “home” was no longer only a place in Pennsylvania, but also a town in China.
I tell all of this to my mom now, and she says, Well, you can always come back.
I want to ask, What if things change?
But I don’t. Because I know it is unrealistic to expect everything in Changchun to stay the same. The Farewell reminds me, reassures me, that I have a home there. And that no matter what changes, I always will.
By Julianna Chen