Different beliefs, traditions, and expectations can serve as tools that point us to God’s gifts

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

In the 2019 film, The Farewell, Billi, scans her surroundings in bewilderment. She is at her cousin Hao Hao’s wedding. Family members and friends indulge themselves in food and drink while sharing stories that trigger full-bellied laughs. Off-tune karaoke and drinking games entertain the guests. But beneath the celebration is an undeniable heaviness. Music and dancing are interrupted by mournful speeches and troubled glances. The groom offers his bride bashful yet proud smiles, only to end up weeping on his cousin’s lap. 

Billi, Hao Hao, their parents, and a few other close family members know that the wedding is a lie, one told to mask the true reason for their gathering. Nai Nai, Billi’s grandmother, is dying. She was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given three months to live. The wedding is an excuse for the family to travel home to China and spend what will likely be their final moments with their beloved matriarch. The reason for their gathering must remain hidden because Nai Nai doesn’t know she is sick. The family has chosen not to tell her.

The plot of The Farewell is based on director Lulu Wang’s own family story. Billi’s wrestling with her family’s deception reflects the same questions and concerns Wang carried when her family chose to conceal her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. The lie was meant to be an act of kindness, sparring Nai Nai the fear and anticipatory grief of her impending death.

In a surprising twist of fate, Wang’s Nai Nai appears at the end of The Farewell, vigorously punching the air and shouting, “Ha! Ho! Ha! Ho!” Cursive text appears on the screen announcing that 6 years after her diagnosis Nai Nai was still alive. Wang shares her grandmother’s story in a This American Life podcast episode. Her narration concludes with these words,

“Little Nai Nai is certain her big sister is still alive because of her decision to lie to her, because we gave Nai Nai joy instead of worry. My mom told me about an old Chinese belief called chongxi. Chong means to rinse out, and xi is joy. So chongxi is the belief that you can wash away a misfortune with joy. Even though this term was never used while planning the wedding, that’s essentially what we did.”  

The Farewell is about far more than a lie. Billi, and ultimately Wang’s story, highlights the ways in which our families and cultures can be both a burden and a blessing. Billi openly questions the ethics of her family’s lie, believing that her grandmother has the right to know about her health and to determine how she will spend her final days. The family’s repression of their sadness and grief is clearly painful. Emotions burst forth in uncontrollable weeping, rebranded as “happy tears” to further hide their grief from Nai Nai. Billi and her mother have difficult conversations about how family expectations and secrecy have left them isolated and lonely.

And yet, the family holds on to the conviction that there is something powerful about the pursuit of joy. They are steeled against hopelessness by their common mission. Whether the end justifies the means is a worthy discussion, but it is also meaningful to consider how our cultures and families can steward our deepest longings for joy.

Embedded within every culture is a theology of joy. As cross-cultural consultant Dr. Marlanna Pogosyan writes in Psychology Today, “…with a deepened intimacy with a culture comes the recognition that happiness—an emotion that many theorists consider the most universal of emotions—has its own distinct connotations and circumstances when observed through a different cultural lens.”

In recent years, books exploring cultural conceptions of joy and well-being have captivated global audiences.

From the Scandinavian term hygge, referring to coziness, warmth, and community to the Japanese concept of ikigai that proposes purpose as the path to a joy-filled life, culture shapes how we define, value, and pursue joy. To sit with loved ones in the comfort of our homes or to engage in work that aligns with one’s sense of purpose is a divine gift of delight! These perspectives seek to embrace and nurture our holy desire for joy. But, in and of themselves they are not sufficient.

No culture can boast a cure to the problem of suffering. While we should not be too quick to discard the beauty of culture, we also cannot deny the ways in which it can and has inhibited human flourishing. The tremendous weight of familial expectations in some Eastern cultures can be burdensome. The emphasis on individual achievement in Western societies leaves many overworked and exhausted. We can celebrate the gifts of cultural definitions of joy while seeking their redemption.

Our families can wound us. Cultural beliefs, traditions, and expectations can be wielded as weapons that cut deep. But our families can also heal us. When held gently, cultural beliefs, traditions, and expectations can serve as tools that point us to God’s gracious gifts of joy, hope, and peace.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.

Read more columns from “Church of many cultures.”