finding asian america
seeing ourselves in the farewell
“Another Asian movie, ha? What the other one we watched? Crazy Asian, hm?”
My mom rarely goes into Boston for pleasure, and even then, it’s only when my sister and I drag her out. Usually, we take her to see the annual movie that scripts at least one Asian actor with more than two lines. This summer, it was The Farewell.
Shortly after we pulled out of our driveway, we cruised down streets lined with small, mixed-use properties donning bilingual signs and ads. We passed by paint-peeled barber shops and Chinese apothecaries with flyers plastered all over their windows and doors, then newer businesses like hotpot and sweet soup eateries whose neon signs and lush indoor plants promise A/C and sweet Insta-worthy photo ops.
My family lives in the heart of North Quincy, a neighborhood reductively dubbed by outsiders “Boston’s new Chinatown.” According to the 2010 census, 40.9 percent of the city’s population was Asian. Growing up here, I had the opposite of an identity crisis; I was irrevocably, undeniably, and comfortably Asian American. It was a label that held no confusion, just fact.
I grew up in a trilingual household, spent weekends in a nearby Vietnamese school, attended annual lunar moon festivals at my high school, joined Boston’s only all-Asian poetry slam team, and went to a barber who paid a worrisome amount of attention to his Chinese television drama while cutting my hair. It’s not to say that these experiences made me an Asian American, but it was because of my predominantly Asian community that I was able to center these experiences in my life and confidently claim a hyphenated identity for myself without fear of looking like an outsider.
On our way into Boston, we sped alongside what seemed to be a completely empty highway leading out of the city. As we drove closer, we saw cones and police cars blocking the entire lane. “It must be someone from federal. Maybe the president is here,” my father guessed.
It was definitely not the president. But for a VIP and their motorcade, it’s not all that remarkable to say that the world just stops. A whole city’s worth of gas-guzzlers, droning GPS assistants, and people with intentions put on pause.
When I started at Brown, the person I was at home went on a hiatus. My cultural identity, while still something I spoke about, no longer grounded me. I could no longer casually slip into Vietnamese with my friends here—even with the ones who were fluent—because we felt too out of place. With my family and our traditions out of reach, my own gaps in knowledge revealed themselves: In a hypothetical world where I knew how to cook, I couldn’t even fathom making my own phở in the dorm kitchens, as I wasn’t able to name the first ingredient. And on some hazy nights, when friends shared family histories over wine and greasy takeout, I rushed through mental catalogues handed down to me, desperate to find a tale I hadn’t told before. Despite my endless storytelling, I had very little to say about who my family was and how they got to where they were.
When we got to the theater, it was nearly packed. My family and I had to squeeze through rows of knees and overpriced movie food. My mother insisted on sitting in the middle. “So jiejie can explain to me what’s going on,” she justified to my disgruntled sister who would have rather sat next to me.
The Farewell follows Billi, a struggling New York creative who goes to China, gathering alongside her family to join her cancer-stricken nai nai, or grandmother. When she arrives, she grapples with the Chinese cultural practice that allows families to withhold terminal cancer diagnoses from loved ones. I was taken aback by how this storyline ran parallel to my experiences. While our circumstances and cultural confrontations were vastly different, the task of learning to balance ourselves and our values on the hyphen enjoining our Asian and American identities was something Billi and I shared.
After many scenes of an exasperated Billi trying to convince her family members that withholding the diagnosis is wrong, she comes to a decisive moment: The background blurs behind her as she races down the road to a hospital. When she arrives, panting for breath, she discreetly ensures that the medical files her grandmother requested are doctored to report benign findings as her family wishes. The film then cuts to a shot of Billi marching towards the camera. No longer solitary, she is now leading the loved ones she had previously resisted. While Billi does take a drastic turn in her actions, this is not a movie about the triumph of Eastern values. Billi did not so much concede to her family as she did choose them, elevating her conflict beyond questions of what is right. There is a solemnity as the family walks in lockstep, a reminder that there is no correct course to take, no moral squabble to judge, but rather a woman at the heart of it all, needing her children and grandchildren, united and by her side.
In the dark, drafty theater, while my mother and sister sat silently appreciating the film, I kept rubbing my palm against my eyes and breathing through my mouth (and not my snot-filled nose) to avoid giving away how much I was crying. At one point, my mother looked over and reached for my hand.
“Tội nghiệp,” she whispered. Poor thing.
What had beat me to an emotional pulp was that Billi was never a “half-person” at any moment during the movie. It was her Asian American-ness that resisted keeping the secret, and it was her Asian American-ness that finally chose to collectively bear the weight of the secret with the rest of the family. Her role never prioritized one side of the hyphen. Watching Billi, I realized that the struggle with my identity hadn’t come from my efforts to preserve the customs of one culture. Instead, it was from believing that there was only one correct way of living out two different cultures if I wanted to be fully Asian American.
On our way out, my mom wanted to stop by the Chinatown gates to pick up some bao from her favorite bakery. My sister and I stood at the back door of the theater confronting the sprawling streets, disoriented from the outside light. To our surprise, Mom pointed us in the right direction.
“You don’t know? I used to work here. That used to be McDonald’s,” she said, gesturing at an Unos.
I joked to my sister that this was “Mom’s turf,” but I really had no idea she used to come by this area every day. I asked her more about her first years in America, before me or my sister were in the picture.
“If I stay in Vietnam, I want to be a chemist. But here, my boss at McDonald’s keep saying he give me a raise, but he does not. Because I always mess up in English. But I had another job. So I left. And my English is okay now.”
Sometimes we forget that our hyphenated identities have been questioned and experienced by so many who have lived a life here before us. And just as they have moved forward in their lives, picking up what they can, holding on to what they know, and trusting themselves enough to be whole, I’m learning to do the same. I can’t always find myself at home in North Quincy surrounded by its cultural familiarity, but by listening to those around me, indulging in stories told by these powerful voices, and writing down my own life, I’m starting to uncover that there is no one correct way to be Asian in America.