The modern age we live in now is just weird, isn’t it?
I can name so many reasons why the time we’re living in is great, but I can also enumerate the more questionable aspects of it as well; one of them being the internet culture we have today. It’s so easy to accuse the people around us, particularly those we barely know, of being “ignorant” and “unreasonable”. Attacking a person for their beliefs is so commonplace nowadays to the point that what’s right and wrong is usually dictated by what the majority of Twitter thinks. If your ideals don’t fit into the “socially-accepted” standard of what’s true, then you’re automatically treated as a horrible person who deserves nothing in life. I usually brush this behavior off as a result of the world developing an extreme sensitivity to the simplest things, but I’ve begun to realize that we’ve only been only repeating the same behavior that’s been normalized for years. Somehow, becoming sensitive and insensitive at the same time is a trend we’ve never shaken off.
I’m sure you already get where I’m going with this, but let’s say you need a clearer picture. When’s the last time you read a celebrity gossip that actually had substance instead of being entirely based on a single photograph? How many times have you seen an army of strangers behind screens attacking a single statement that might have been taken out of context? In this day and age, people tend to look at the surface level of a situation and base their entire argument on that alone. They never take the time to actually obtain a deeper understanding of what and who they’re talking about unless it’s trendy, and even if they do Google it, they would probably just skim through the recent sources that’s based on the superficial details already being spread online.
Now, I’m obviously no saint in regards to all this; we’re all guilty. Most of the time, we recognize problems but let them be. The concept of attacking someone’s way of thinking isn’t only something that exists online; it can come in the form of criticizing that one peer of yours who slacks off to your annoyance. No matter how irritated you are, the reality is that you’ll have no way of knowing whether there was a valid reason for their behavior unless you actually confront them about it, and they're willing to open up. It’s like how we’re taught to be honest and tell the truth, but we let little white lies slip so often as long as they aren’t too harmful.
Speaking of lies, I recently watched the 2019 movie “The Farewell”. It tells the story of a Chinese-American woman named Billi Wang who struggles with her two cultures when her entire family decides to reunite to see her grandmother “one last time”. The grandmother has no idea that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and everyone else plans on keeping it that way. Billi, who shares a close connection with her grandmother, is left confused and distraught as she questions the morality of keeping the information a secret.
Besides the beautiful representation of Chinese culture and the identity crisis an immigrant may feel in regards to where they belong, the film provided a conflict that—for most people— may seem to have a simple answer: tell the truth. The particular act of deception being portrayed can be easily seen as problematic as it deals with holding back information about someone’s personal health, but there’s more to the story than what meets the eye.
The family hides their matriarch’s condition under the pretense that the truth would only harm her further. Billi, who spent most of her life in America, feels conflicted by this because it doesn’t seem right that her grandmother doesn’t know what’s going on in her own body. After all, what if she wants to accomplish certain goals before death? What if she wants to be informed so that she can give a proper farewell? You’d think by the end of the movie, Billi gets fed up with her family’s “strange” beliefs and steps up to right her family’s wrongs by telling the truth. In a unique turn of events though, she doesn’t, and it makes perfect sense.
Billi has always felt somewhat detached from her Chinese heritage due to her more prominent memories being in America. She knows how to speak Mandarin but even that is not as good as her other family members. At the end of the day, she doesn’t know much about Chinese culture. What’s convenient is not only does this move her character plot forward, but it also provides an opportunity for the viewers to learn more about her heritage alongside her as the movie progresses.
“Chinese people have a saying. When people get cancer, they die. But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear,” the mother of Billi tells her when she first finds out about her grandmother’s illness. A 2018 study shows that in China, a patient would most likely be unaware of their cancer status until their family discusses whether or not to be honest. 82% of the 180 physicians involved in the survey would oblige to what the family’s decision would be; at the same time, many of these professionals themselves would prefer to hide the truth too if one of their family members fell ill. The logic behind this mindset is explained simply by what Billi’s mother had said; families in China fear the psychological burden the truth would put on the person they care about.
Although Billi somewhat understood this, she still felt isolated in her grief as she thought she was the only one struggling with the guilt of bearing the secret; she kept going back to wondering if a lie based on good intentions is okay. The truth that she learned though is that for the Chinese, that guilt she is feeling is a responsibility. Family plays a large role in Chinese society as Confucianism teaches that it is quite literally the foundation of it. I go more into detail about this in the article ‘The True Reflection of Mulan’, but the basic idea is that family is sacred and integral to Chinese culture. This emphasis on familial duties developed the practice of collectivism in China; a concept wherein “the community takes priority over individuality, and collective interests prevail over individual interests”. In essence, the Chinese would traditionally put family above all else as there’s a sense of protectiveness over the people in one’s community.
Throughout the film, the family gains nothing from keeping the heavy secret about the grandmother’s condition. There are many points wherein members would break down or snap because of the stress of the situation, but they’re all willing to carry that pain so that the grandmother wouldn’t have to. The situation can be best explained by this one scene from the movie:
The irony is that this one heavy lie is what brings the family together. These are people who haven’t seen each other in years because they were all busy with their own lives abroad; however, after spending this emotionally heavy period of time together, they learned how to lean on each other and support one another. Towards the end of the movie, Billi realizes this and even goes out of her way to run to the hospital to make sure her grandmother doesn’t get the actual results of her recent hospital visit.
To be clear, I’m not condoning the lie nor am I saying it was wrong for the characters to do what they did as this is an issue faced by so many Asian families in real life. After watching the movie, it’s really up to you to decide how you think. The point is, the film’s conflict might not have seemed as complex as it actually is without understanding the context of the situation. Like I said earlier, the automatic response to a lie as big as this is to denounce it and tell the truth. After diving into where this family is coming from though, I personally felt empathetic towards them. Their actions and their beliefs are a result of the structure and environment they grew up in, and no matter how different they are from yours, they’re valid.
Culture doesn’t excuse ill-willed motives of course; you have to think critically for yourself when it comes to discerning another person’s convictions. Good intentions don’t always result in good results either. “The Farewell” actually points out the harmful consequences that can sometimes be caused by withholding information in a scene where Billi expresses her sorrow over her late grandfather who died from cancer earlier on. Her parents never told her he was sick, and so his death came as a shock for her. He simply disappeared from her life, and that created this large hole in her that could never be filled.
Ultimately, it’s all about taking the effort to see what others see from their point of view. We’re always taught to expand our horizons, but we have to ask ourselves if we actually do that. There are so many religions, cultures, and worldviews out there that may seem alien to us, but that doesn’t mean we should reject beliefs that don’t make sense in our own perception of the world. If they confuse you, then take the time to actually learn before speaking on such ideas. Studying humanity and its different aspects is actually a lot more interesting than you might think.
The next time you come across some controversy or disagreement with someone you know, just remember that everyone has their own story with complications you may never find out about or understand. Being perfect is obviously impossible, and there’s nothing wrong with expressing your true feelings about certain stances. Trying to be considerate is what matters here, especially when you think you need to correct someone.
Like what Billi’s grandmother says in the film, “Life is not just about what you do. It's more about how you do it.”
Original thumbnail image: BBC
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Gong, W., Zhu, M., Gürel, B., & Xie, T. (2021, January 20). The lineage theory of the regional variation of individualism/Collectivism in China. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.596762/full
Lu, D. (2019, October 29). The Farewell explores the ethics of lying about a cancer diagnosis. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2221673-the-farewell-explores-the-ethics-of-lying-about-a-cancer-diagnosis/
Wang, H., Zhao, F., Wang, X., & Chen, X. (2018, November). To tell or not: The Chinese doctors’ dilemma on disclosure of a cancer diagnosis to the patient. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6294856/