Immigrant Stories Hit Different

Last night I watched The Farewell which stars Awkwafina as “Billie Wang” a young Chinese-American writer who finds out her grandmother, her Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with cancer. Billie travels back to China to visit her Nai Nai hoping to see her before she passes and, along the way, deals with her family who is keeping Nai Nai in the dark about her diagnosis.

The Farewell was great. Funny. Heartbreaking. Personal. Please go see it.

In another lifetime, I wanted to get my PhD in English hoping to study novels by immigrants and first-generation writers. It’s not a surprise I was drawn to them—even though I did not read as many about Greek-American families, the novels themselves all tried to answer the same questions: What does it mean to be separated from family? What does it mean to grow up in a place that’s separate from your culture? Do you have to give up who you are to accommodate the place you’re in? How much do you owe each culture? Who are you really?

The Farewell touched upon feelings so real and so visceral.

Billie’s parents, much like many immigrant stories you’ve heard before, sacrificed their lives in their home country and their social support network to move to America for a “better” life for Billie and themselves. The sacrifice is traumatic, not just for Billie and her family, but for many immigrant families. To be in an unfamiliar place, to not have your loved ones around, to deal with the stigma of being foreign, all for some greater good that might not even come.

In a poignant scene towards the end of the film (no spoilers), Billie breaks down about how closed off she feels from her family in China, how things have rapidly changed there, and how the things she used to hold close and familiar are gone. She wants to spend her time with her Nai Nai before she dies. She wants what she couldn’t have when her family moved to America. She wants to go back to the last time she felt happy, loved, and supported.

Billie feels guilty about not living up to the expectations put on her living in America. She gets denied a fellowship she coveted - a material marker for success. She can’t pay her rent. She feels defeated. Her parents sacrificed so much for her, and what does she have to show for it?

Billie’s story does not feel unfamiliar from my own. I harbor guilt. Guilt that I feel as though my parents sacrificed their entire lives for me and that I have to make it up to them somehow. They moved to a foreign country, worked tirelessly, gave up their entire families. All of that just to give us more opportunity than they themselves had. How do you pay that back? How do you make sure that someone’s entire life wasn’t wasted chasing an idea? How do you reconcile your own dreams with the dreams your parents had for you?

It’s a tremendous burden to bear. The success, that so many immigrant and first-generation parents covet for their children and push their children towards, will have many names, look like many things, be intangible. The success may never come. The success may come over and over again. It’s a gamble - or as described in the film, it’s like the stock market. It’s an investment that you hope will yield something greater than what you put in.

At the end of it all, the success will just be happiness. It won’t be a prestigious degree. It won’t be an amount in your bank account. It won’t be newsworthy. It’ll just be happiness. The one thing that alludes us all, blinds us when we have it, makes its absence felt when it’s gone. If you’re happy and if you’re healthy, what more could you want out of this world?

What makes these immigrant stories so gripping and so beautiful is how much culture is brought to America. How much still lives and breathes, is passed down between generations, is revered and then hated and then appreciated again. Despite how different these cultures are, at their heart they are the same. They are about the importance of family. They are about celebrating loved ones. They’re about eating food that has special meaning. They’re about being part of something greater than yourself. The story of America is the story of the immigrant. It’s about hope, endurance, and, most importantly, love for yourself and those who have helped and supported you along the way.

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