The Farewell

L to R: "Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, Zhao Shuzhen." Courtesy of Big Beach.photo credit – https://variety.com/2019/film/festivals/the-farewell-review-awkwafina-1203117966/

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things we have to do as humans, especially when we don’t want to do it. Even if the separation is just for a few days, weeks, or months, when we love someone, we don’t want to let them go. We want them to be part of our lives, to share our joys and disappointments. When we are facing saying goodbye forever, the pain can be almost unbearable. The recently opened movie, The Farewell, explores these deepest feelings of having to say goodbye. Rapper turned actor, Awkwafina, stars in this dramatic role, based upon a real life event from writer-director, Lula Wang. The movies begins with this sentence on a blank screen, “This story is based upon a actual lie.” Real life normally seems to inspire the best stories..

Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling young New Yorker who as a child immigrated from China with her parents. Her grandmother, Nai Nai, remains in China, along with the rest of the family (with the exception of Billi’s aunt and uncle and cousin, who have resided in Japan for a number of years). Nai Nai is dying from cancer, and as was a common practice in China, the family has decided not to tell her. The family gathers from their various homes for the wedding of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao – simply a ruse to come home for the final time before Nai Nai dies.

Billi’s Western mindset and emotional connection lead her to believe that telling Nai Nai the diagnosis is the right thing to do. Certainly, we here in the West believe it is our right to know what is going on with our own bodies. Not knowing such information would seem like a betrayal from those we love the best.

Billi listens to her family’s rationale behind such a decision, and learns that Nai Nai didn’t tell her own departed husband of his fatal diagnosis years before. One family member tells Billi that the community is more important than the individual, and that the family “carries the grief” for the dying member so that the one dying does not have that burden.

Carrying another’s grief is such an incredible, beautiful image. In this society, filled with rampant individualism, we don’t want to carry our own grief, much less another’s. We just want to anesthetize pain with food, alcohol, ignorance, or means of escape. As much as we try to ignore our own pain, we do an even better job ignoring other’s. We want to blame people who are experiencing difficulty, instead of sitting with them in the dark days and working with them to find some better path or to change systems and structures which create pain.

I am so thankful for loved ones who have wanted to carry grief or pain with me. I hope I can at least do that in part for others – to carry what I can that might help relieve the burden.

Without giving away the ending, the movie does tell us that Farewell is never really a permanent goodbye. One of the most beautiful (and entertaining, as real life often is even in the midst of pain) scenes comes from the family visiting the gravesite for Nai Nai’s departed husband. They give offerings (a common practice in many cultures), and celebrate his presence with them, even if his physical presence is gone.

I pray that we in the West can better understand what it means to be community and to carry another’s pain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Lucky One

 

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Ava and I at the baby shower my church gave soon after bringing her home.

19 years ago today, a tiny little girl was born in Southern China. She was possibly premature, and circumstances were challenging at best. The mother was unable to keep her, even though I imagine she loved that baby as much as any of us do when we hold a newborn. She loved her enough to make certain she found a home until a couple from America could arrive to bring her to a new home. 9 months after that difficult day of birth, those new parents arrived to find an infant wearing a Hello Kitty bib and obviously well-loved by her caregivers. Baby Ava looked at her new parents with a puzzled face, trying to figure out this odd-looking couple. She received the devoted attention of her big brother, new grandparents, and many well-wishers with casual grace in the weeks that followed. She couldn’t have been loved more.

As do many mothers, I recall the early days with my babies with great fondness and moist eyes. I had waited so long for this little girl to arrive in my life, and the days were more joyful than I could have imagined. So many others – friends and strangers – seemed happy for us as well. Yet, one sentence kept being repeated. “She is such a lucky little girl.” Even in China, people would approach us with the only English they knew, which was “Lucky girl.” I never wanted to receive such words about my daughter. Sometime in 8th grade, I realized I wanted to adopt, especially trans-racially. That was back when I was toying with going to the far reaches of Africa and translating the Bible for my life’s work. That desire faded within a year, but the idea of adopting children did not. I knew there were countless children who needed homes, and I didn’t particularly feel the need to have birth children. (And I know there are many women who feel this biological need, and I certainly do not wish to downplay that. I’m just made differently.) It never felt to me like I was doing a child a favor – I just thought of this as the way I wanted to arrange my family. My teenage musings had me surrounded by 4 or 5 children, all adopted from around the world. I can’t tell you the envy I felt for Angelina Jolie when she began to live out my dream.

I always knew I was the lucky one – not my baby girl. God had gifted me with the most incredible child – not perfect; no child is – but just perfect for our family. When people wanted to compliment me on the decision to adopt, I always responding by telling them I was truly the lucky one. Both my children are such complete gifts, the best things in my life. I offer untold thanks for them each and every day.

Every family is centered around the concept of hospitality. We welcome new persons into our inner circle, whether by choice or by blood. We choose to offer the most intimate part of ourselves, the good and the bad, the strong and the weak. We support them in the difficult days, and let them comfort us when our tough times come around. Ava and I have comforted each other when the tears came, and laughed far more often than that.

She is a gift, and on her birth day each year, I give thanks to the petite Chinese woman who offered this precious child for our family.

The Right to Parent

My daughter (center) with two of her best friends, also adopted from China and also my honorary daughters!

My daughter (center) with two of her best friends, also adopted from China and also my honorary daughters!

Today’s news is filled with a huge policy change in the world’s second most populated country. China has decided to end its one child policy. China is a major player on the global stage. More people speak Mandarin than English as a native language. Its economy directly impacts the global market. Its policies, both militarily and diplomatically, have major implications for numerous other countries. Yet, in my family, this policy hits much closer to home.

I always knew I wanted to be a mom. As a young teenager, I decided I wanted to adopt any children I had. Adopting babies domestically was quite difficult for many years (and is still not easy), and I knew there were countless children around the world who needed homes, so I intentionally chose to adopt internationally. When Angelina Jolie began to adopt children from around the world, I cannot say how much I envied her. She clearly articulated the thoughts I had on parenting and what it means to be a family. I eventually ended up with one birth child, and one child adopted from China. They are now college-aged adults who are the most important people in the world to me.

As people reflect on the one-child policy, there are so many different avenues to explore. We are facing a global population crisis, one which we never (or rarely) discuss in this prosperous nation of ours. China tried to deal with the issue when it instituted the policy so many years ago. However, the implementation of the policy has oftentimes been harsh, cruel, damaging and even inhuman. My daughter’s story (and so many stories of other children adopted internationally) turned out well. When we traveled to China to bring Ava home, everyone kept telling us she was a “lucky baby.” But we knew we were truly the lucky ones to have her in our lives. It has been vitally important over the years for her to understand her heritage and take pride in it. The Greensboro Chinese Association will forever be dear to me for all the myriad of ways they help adopted Chinese girls and boys to know their homeland.

Over the years, I have found myself oftentimes questioned about the situation in China which led to bringing Ava into our home. Many people who ask these questions do so from an elevated place, believing that our country is one of freedom where people can choose how many children they can have and not have the government interfere. Yet, the long-standing eugenics programs in the United States, including in my home state of North Carolina, challenge such assumptions. These forced sterilizations had nothing to do with overpopulation and everything to do with who has a right to parent. People in power believed they could play God and make those decisions for society. People on the fringes, who were seen as less than, were forcibly denied that right without their consent.

As so many people in our country hail the ending of China’s one-child policy, we set ourselves up on a pedestal, believing that our land of the free is above that sort of thing. Our history negates such a belief.

I feel quite fortunate to be a mom. I know not everyone is called to be a parent, but for those who hear that calling, the people in power should not deny it. This being said, we do have a global population issue that needs to be addressed. One of the major reasons I chose to adopt was because there were children who needed homes, and I didn’t feel a great compulsion to create a “mini-me.” Instead, I encourage each person to look into her own heart. Why do I feel called to be a parent? What does that say about a relationship with a child?

Parenting may be a right to some people, but instead I offer that it should be a calling, a privilege, a gift.

The Other Mother

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My lovely daughter recently celebrated her 17th birthday. On each birthday, I awake with one thought in my head, “Dear God, please help her other mother know that she is healthy, happy, safe and well-loved.” We adopted Ava from China when she was 9 months old, so a different woman gave her birth. A different woman nourished my daughter in her womb for several months. A different woman then made certain she would be taken care of at an orphanage, until a new family could give her a home. We will never know why she couldn’t keep her little girl. It was probably due to financial reasons – there is a heavy tax on families who have more than one child. Yet, there could have been health concerns or other causes that led this Chinese woman to give up this beautiful baby girl.

Ava’s orphanage was a nice, clean facility in southern China. It was more than obvious she had been well loved during her few months there. A number of elderly who had no family to care for them also lived at the orphanage. During the few days we toted Ava around China, she lunged for just about every gray-haired woman she saw, so we imagined they gave her a great deal of attention as well. (Wouldn’t it be great if we could combine child care and retirement communities in our country? Think of all the great benefits to everyone involved!) Over the years, we have sent pictures and letters back to the orphanage. I know they post them on a board, and it is my hope that Ava’s other mother has been able to come by and see how her little girl is doing.

It might seem strange to start my child’s birthday each year with a prayer for her other mother, but I can never forget this stranger. Without her, and this incredible gift of life she gave us, I wouldn’t have my daughter. And I certainly can’t imagine life without her. One of my favorite passages from the Bible is found in Psalms 139:13 – “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” While Ava was being formed in her other mother’s womb, God had a plan for her. Our family planned and prepared for her arrival, well before we even knew who she was. Six months before we brought Ava home (and certainly long before we know who our daughter would be), our 3 year old son offered this prayer at Thanksgiving Dinner, “God, please bless my little sister and help her have strong, healthy bones.” The entire extended family was too choked up to offer much thanks beyond that ourselves. On different sides of the globe, various people prepared and waited for the arrival of this tiny babe, and then cared for her until she could be brought to her permanent home.

Studies show that many adoptive children are very curious about birth parents, some even to the extent that they search out information or have difficulty coming to terms with it. I imagine I would have been this way if I were in those shoes. Yet, Ava – for all her curiosity – seems perfectly content in our family. A little over a year ago, I was in a café with her and two of her friends who were also adopted. The other girls were talking about not always getting along with their mom. Ava said, “My mom and I get along great. We don’t argue. We’re really close because we’re so much alike.”

I didn’t cry in front of them, but I wanted to. For so many years, I had focused on the difference – between a petite Asian girl and a big blond Amazon, between a well-rounded athlete and a serious scholar, between a rather chill teen girl and a dramatic one – we had seemed so different in my eyes. I always thought perhaps she was more in the mold of the other mother.

Yet, perhaps she is also in the mold of her mom, or Ma Mere, as she sometimes calls me.