As Chinese American Billi wanders the New York streets chatting by phone to her Nai Nai or grandmother, still living on the other side of the world, she casually supplies the white lies to keep the old lady happy. Yes, she is wearing a hat to keep warm but no earrings which might be grabbed by thieves, tearing her lobes. Meanwhile, Nai Nai tells a lie in turn, pretending to be at her sister’s house when she is actually in hospital for tests.
The diagnosis of an inoperable cancer creates the need for a bigger lie. According to Chinese culture, Nai Nai must not be told about her imminent death: this will cause great distress and speed her demise. With her American upbringing, Billi finds this impossible to accept at first. The parents who emigrated to the states when she was a little girl have been influenced enough by the West to have misgivings, but their engrained culture wins out, even to the extent of leaving Billi behind, convinced that she will be unable to conceal her grief, when they set off to pay Nai Nail what they imagine will be a “farewell” visit. This is made on the grounds of attending a wedding which has been hastily arranged between Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend of three months, his family unit also having made the decision to emigrate, in this case to Japan. The bewildered air of the young couple who have been virtually press-ganged into an old-style arranged marriage would be amusing if one did not also worry about the shaky foundations of their future relationship.
In this environment of cultural conflict and concealing awkward truths, Billi does not tell her parents of her failure to obtain a Harvard scholarship, after the sacrifices they have made to support her studies financially. They are duly horrified when, unable to contemplate never seeing again the Nai Nai to whom she feels so close, Billi turns up at her flat in China, refusing to explain how she obtained money for the fare when they suspect she is broke.
This is the setting for a well-acted and subtly observed drama with a range of distinct characters which held my attention throughout despite its slow pace. Apart from exploring the dilemmas of being caught between two cultures, I was fascinated by its scenes of life in China, to build on my memories of visiting it twenty years ago. I was struck by how in some ways the Chinese have adopted the least attractive aspects of western urban living, with soulless high-rise blocks and the tasteless kitsch of a wedding parlour where couples go to be photographed. Yet beneath the western-style clothing and hi-tech gadgets, aspects of the traditional culture remain: the focus on eating, the table crammed with elaborate dishes prepared by the women of the family, assisted by their maids; the painful “cupping” endured by Billi, which seemed to involve singing her back with a live flame held over a tube; the elaborate yet to use slightly comical rites (involving piling it with disposable plates of food) at the grave of Billi’s grandfather.
There was tension between those who had left and those who stayed. The latter claimed to have made more money “doing well” in China, yet were mocked for still wanting to send an only child to study abroad, even at the risk of his not wanting to return.
A blend of poignancy and humour, this is an interesting film which increases one’s understanding and sympathy for a culture in some ways very different from one’s own, yet in basic human terms very similar.