Just like in the new film “The Farewell,” my family decided to keep my grandmother’s cancer diagnosis a secret from her. It was for the same reason that the mother in the movie gives: “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them — it’s the fear.”
The movie, starring Awkwafina, follows a Chinese American woman as she travels to China to say goodbye to her grandmother, while her relatives go to great lengths to hide their matriarch’s terminal illness. One movie reviewer called that premise “absurd,” prompting outrage from the Asian community, with some tweeting that their families, like mine, kept similar secrets.
“This idea of keeping things to yourself to not worry the other party is huge,” said Bonnie Choi Mo, a licensed clinical social worker who works with the Chinese community in Northern California. “Basically, the thought of how the grief of your own diagnosis and concern with your prognosis affects how you will actually deal with the sickness itself.”
This holistic approach to disease considers a person’s emotional and mental state, in addition to their physical state, a more Eastern way of thinking. It’s also rooted in a sense of community. While a disease physically affects just one person, the pain can be carried by those around them. It’s what characters in the movie call “a good lie.”
“It’s extremely common, the idea that we will bear the burden for someone, and that someone in the family will make the decision for the rest of us,” said Helen H. Hsu, president of the Asian American Psychological Association.
Asian families sometimes decide not to reveal terminal illnesses even to other adult relatives and elders “for the sake of preserving face and or peace,” Hsu said, noting that students in her Asian mental health course at Stanford University often say that their families kept relatives’ cancer diagnoses from them, so that they could focus on their studies.
"Preservation of peace is a huge cultural value,” said Hsu, whose own parents became more open after growing up in homes that were secretive and superstitious about death. “Sometimes the cost is that these students don’t make it home in time.”
As a Chinese American who straddled cultures, I could not understand as a child why my father would deceive his mother. So, after seeing “The Farewell,” I decided to ask him about his decision. It was the hardest interview I’ve ever done — harder than interviewing pop stars, government officials and even a man on death row.
The phone gave us both enough space to cry without facing each other.
“I still am sad about it,” said my father, his voice breaking up.
My nai nai was diagnosed with liver cancer, which later spread to her pancreas, when she was 82. The doctor gave her six months to live.
The family told her she came down with a “sickness,” because “telling her what disease she got may scare her,” said my dad, now 77. Even my grandfather was in on the secret, not wanting the bad news to hurt her.
As a dutiful son, my dad wanted to keep his mother’s spirits up, so he withheld the truth. But he also could not bear to lose her, asking the doctor to fight the cancer with all kinds of treatment, first chemotherapy and then Chinese medicine.
I didn’t know much about my grandmother at the time, being 10 years old when she passed. Like the nai nai in “The Farewell,” she had the standard Asian mom perm, tight short curls. I kept her perfume bottle after she passed away, and on sad days, I would sniff it to pretend she was still there.
My grandparents lived with my family when I was a child, and I remember curling up in her lap, asking about her life before I was born. She seemed like a burgeoning feminist, learning English when it wasn’t common, until her family pressured her to get married. I remember asking her for advice on elementary school crushes and her asking me to bring them home to meet her. I never did, but she always asked.
I never had the chance to ask her for real advice, about maneuvering life as a newly married woman, and whether to have kids. She had 10 in total and three died. I never had the chance to ask about her immigrant journey and whether she preferred Asia or America, if she missed her motherland. She moved from China to Taiwan in 1949, and then to the U.S. around 1978. I didn’t even have the chance to ask her to teach me one of her recipes, because I didn’t learn she was an amazing cook until after she died.
But most of all, I never had the chance to say goodbye.
She really only lasted six months after that diagnosis.
“She probably figured it out, but she could not say anything. … She could not talk, she could not see,” as the illness ravaged her body, my father said. “If we told her, she could have shared her last words with us. She must have felt a lot of regret she couldn’t talk to us.”
Even then, I could not directly ask my dad my most burning question. But he answered it on his own.
“I think I made a mistake to not share it with her,” he said. “If I got cancer and you found out, I would want you to tell me.”
I hope that out there, in heaven somewhere, my nai nai knows my father and I were thinking of her and miss her dearly. My father only wanted the best for her, but maybe for this next generation, we need to be more open, even if it is to just say farewell in person.