In Chinese, to say goodbye is to make a promise of sorts. It’s an ostensibly simple promise, one that for most of us, only requires another glance backwards or maybe a short call if the distance is truly great. Indeed, zàijiàn — Chinese for goodbye — is to say in the imperative that we will see each other again. An implicit promise.
To say farewell on the other hand makes no such promise. In fact, it leans into the separation; the Chinese phrases for bidding someone farewell, gàobié and its variants, make clear that there’s little chance of seeing each other soon, that any return would be driven by chance rather than expectation.
Of course, the English language makes no real distinction between goodbye and farewell except in formality. Perhaps that is why writer and director Lulu Wang titled her critically-acclaimed film “The Farewell” in English but named it what translates to “Don’t Tell Her” in Chinese. Because the film isn’t about gàobié or yǒngbié (to part forever, as in death); it’s about the return, the promise of seeing each other again. Zàijiàn.
Outwardly, “The Farewell” deals with what appears to be the impending death of Nai Nai (Chinese for paternal grandmother — played by Zhao Shuzhen) due to lung cancer. But nobody in the family dares mention it to her, for they’ve decided that it’s better that she doesn’t know. They play charades instead, holding an impromptu wedding to inconspicuously gather everyone together one last time.
Everyone in the story is processing its events with a farewell in mind, save for the most pivotal character. Nai Nai, as the only one ignorant of her medical condition, thinks of the goodbye, of the see-you-again, of the future rather than the end. And, despite the frantic machinations of the family behind the scenes, it’s Nai Nai’s frame of reference that dominates the film and gives it its direction of a recovery and regrouping.
Take Billi (Awkwafina), for example. As the main character, her narrative perspective permeates throughout the film, making the parts outside of Nai Nai’s influence — the beginning of the film, when she’s still in New York — contrast vibrantly with how she orients herself in Changchun. Whereas we see meek acquiescence to some unwelcome end earlier on, whether it’s on the question of Nai Nai’s prognosis, her career as a writer or her ability to pay rent, Billi moves beyond the trap of resignation and abandons the end when she is forced to act in front of Nai Nai. When she sees the remnants of her past again — her grandpa’s death, her childhood in Changchun, particular mannerisms of Chinese culture — with a renewed understanding, Billi tacitly diffuses those lessons into future possibilities, joining the journey of return at Nai Nai’s behest.
The audience is also taken on Nai Nai’s journey of see-you-agains, even while we’re led to believe that we’re approaching a farewell. Especially for Chinese-Americans (or Chinese-Canadians in my case), the film leads us to rediscover aspects of our ancestry and family that we are familiar but not intimate with, to confront what it means to be American with a truly American immigrant story, to live and relive events invariably resembling some dimension of our lives. We are correspondingly pushed to go beyond our ends, to seize the future — just as Billi was.
Ultimately, it’s Nai Nai’s zàijiàn that prevails over the family’s hidden yǒngbié, when it’s revealed that she has lived six years past her cancer diagnosis. Nai Nai has kept her promise, and the family has seen her again and again. And more, Billi seems to have moved on from the experience, stronger.
In any case, it’s much more common to say zàijiàn than it is to gàobié, so the outcome is fitting. Perhaps it’s that difference in the terms, the constancy of the promise and the rarity of the separation, that even allows for such developments in the first place. It’s like they say in the oft-cited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the structure of the languages we speak and think in influences our cognition.
I’ve watched “The Farewell” three times. Once by myself, once with my friends and once with my family. Each time, I find myself not looking deeper into the film per se, but deeper into my own memories, recounting exploits with my family that I’d thought I’d long since forgotten, recounting goodbyes and reunions and the whole cycle. I find myself recalling my own grandpa’s farewell four and a half years ago, seeing every aspect of my family’s grief unravel slowly across each consecutive screening: my family’s frantic rush out of our Christmas Eve dinner, the crying and the screaming and the accusations that “you never loved him!,” the messages and gifts we would send to him post-mortem. It’s as if I saw things all over again. Zàijiàn.
It is typically taboo to say zàijiàn to the deceased, given the implication that you might follow them into the dark. But it’s difficult to stop when you’ve made a lifetime of promises to see them again. After I brought her to see “The Farewell,” my grandma remarked to me that she was thinking of her late husband, that she saw grandpa in the film. Maybe she’s hanging onto that latent promise. Maybe we are, too.
On occasion, it strikes me hard. I’m standing by the door, ready to leave. But he catches my eye. And for a brief moment, I can see my grandpa, sitting at the kitchen table, picking off the ends of the green beans as he does, smiling. He waves, and then mouths something to me. Not a farewell. A promise. Zàijiàn.