Learning to Put Myself First

I used to think empathy was the only thing I needed to be a good person. As long as I put everyone else first, I could be pure, kind, understanding—all of the words that described the peacemakers and visionaries of the world. These words were upheld in churches and schools, on playgrounds and in childhood homes. If I could be entirely selfless, I would be worthy. Of what, I didn’t know. It didn’t really matter. I just wanted to be so unfailingly good that no one would ever call me “difficult” or “stubborn” again. Bullies wouldn’t be able to touch me if I could find forgiveness in every slight, each hurtful word. I became an eternal mediator, perennially willing to turn the other cheek. My parents and teachers were proud of me. I was happy. 

When I got to high school, things started to change. Instead of simple unkindness, I had to grapple with more complex issues. As an empath, I wanted to fix every problem I encountered, which led to a string of codependent relationships. One friend relied on me to talk through and fix his problems, even threatening self-harm if I tried to take a step back. That kind of manipulation backed me into a corner. How could I say no? Now, taking time for myself felt like a waste—worse, it felt selfish. Each minute I spent alone was a minute during which a loved one needed my help. I constantly put my own feelings aside to sort through theirs. I felt like I had a purpose, but I was drained. I had no one to lean on. 

I began to realize how dangerous empathy could be. At this point, it was all I had to cling onto. It was my whole identity. Over and over, I was manipulated and neglected. A boy I had dated started to harass me; at first, he targeted my bisexuality, but over time, it devolved into objectification and sexual exploitation. I felt that I had to forgive him because of the heteronormative way he was raised. In an effort to see his perspective, I forgot my own. Turning the other cheek became more and more debasing, until I believed I was the problem. If I stood up for myself, I would be the bad guy. And at the end of the day, all I wanted was to be liked. I was a hardcore feminist, but I still feared being too loud, too angry. Not being believed. By the time I had hit rock bottom, it was too late to build myself a safety net. The fallout was bad: panic attacks, dissociation, lashing out. I hated myself for not saying anything, for denying my own experience. 

On every airplane, the flight attendants instruct you to put on your emergency air mask before you help someone else—you can’t be a protector if you aren’t protected. I was letting myself down too often to be genuinely helpful to anyone else. My heart wasn’t in it anymore when I offered someone support. Empathy was just an opening, a way for me to get hurt. And so I had to show myself a little kindness before I could open up to others. 

What I’ve learned is that being a good person doesn't have to mean sacrificing my well-being for every passing relationship. Kindness doesn’t always mean forgiveness. Sometimes, the kindest thing to do is put up a fight. I don’t have to give up my standards to be empathetic. When I started to draw from the energy I’d so recklessly poured into others, I felt myself opening up. I could talk about my problems without feeling the crushing weight of anxiety. I cut my hair and dressed how I wanted to. I broke away from the toxic people I could never say “no” to before. I stopped feeling bad about taking up space. Helping people is still part of my DNA, sure—but now I do it in a healthier way. I donate to charity and offer people support, but I don’t let their emotional baggage become my own. I’ve learned to step away, to be kind to myself when I need it most. It’s still an ongoing process, and it’s still painful. There are moments when I’m overwhelmed by misplaced guilt. There are times when I flinch at the idea of standing up for myself. But with time, I know that will change. People are no longer a drain on me, and they’re no longer a source of validation. I have myself to lean on now.

By MJ Brown
Collage by Ana Tellez for Man Repeller

Ode to Tiger's Head

On top of a mountain behind a small town in Hong Kong, one can behold many things. There is the dark, green-blue mass we call the ocean. Beyond it, a softly sizzling landscape of buildings and skyscrapers. And above, a sky that bursts with clouds. 

I stood on top of this mountain on a very rainy day, sometime during the lead-up to Typhoon Mangkhut, a ripping cyclone which cut across the Philippines and through southern China this past summer, the summer between my last year of high school and first year of college. My father and I were hiking up the mountain that lay as an evergreen backdrop to our peninsular town, where I’d grown up—the town a short ferry ride away from the city, the town where I lived off an unceasing smell of salt in the air, the town where every bus driver knew my name. Behind and above our town, my father and I were hiking Tiger’s Head. 

The pre-typhoon weather brought a sweeping fog that blanketed any promise of a horizon view. For the last few minutes of the hike I trudged up a steep dirt path to the peak, while my dad stayed at a lookout point hundreds of feet below me. There, beneath the shelter of a small pagoda, he could wipe his now water-speckled glasses and rest. 
“You want to go all the way up there? Go—I’m too tired to follow you,” he said in Chinese.

My father didn’t miss any view on that completely white-gray day, but he missed an extraordinary feeling of solitude and fantastic reality, something like a cool sauna in the thick of a tropical jungle. Beads of sweat and rainwater collected all at once on my arms, lips, and face, a sensation unfathomably satisfying. It is utterly pleasing to know that expanses of nature and civilization surround you, and yet to see only the cloud that shrouds them and consumes you. 

I, alone, stood above my dad, alone. But as I was being engulfed by a gentle and beautiful solitude, my father was soaking in a type of loneliness that I had yet to know in my lifetime. 

My father lives most of the year alone in our 1,500-square-foot suburban apartment in Hong Kong. He is a seasoned investment banker for HSBC. In his free time, he reads the news, watches 60 Minutes, peruses WeChat on his iPad, and hikes. He will often walk to the town plaza, shower and eat at the clubhouse, restock on groceries, and walk back home. That is his biweekly routine. His back is perpetually slouched in a subtle hunch, his brow quietly furrowed toward a screen. He seldom cooks a proper meal at home, and the piano across the kitchen sits dormant and shut. Occasionally, my father will clean the apartment: mop the floor, wipe down the windows and large mirrors, dust off the living room chandelier. 

Things were not always like this. 

When my father’s hair was blacker (he hasn’t aged ostensibly other than the strands of white that have sprouted on his head,) he would come home from work each day to his wife and two young daughters. Home was routinely filled with eyes and smiles and conversation; my father would serenade us with Michael Jackson songs after dinner when he was in a good mood, cook us the tastiest dishes out of our assorted leftovers on Sundays. On weekdays, dinner was my parents’ zealous intellectual debate, coupled with my sister’s and my spirited nonsense, over homemade dumplings. If my parents were lucky, the meal was followed by a set of songs sung by my sister as I pounded the piano keys. 

Undeniably, home also held bouts of anger and pain: when panic attacks afflicted my sister, when my mother was fired from her headhunting job, when my father’s anger leapt out of bounds, when I started a foolish fight with somebody in the family. Too often, my sister and I would curl up on our bed and cover our ears to shut out our parents’ fiery shouts from the next room over. 

But voices are voices. Loud or soft, they fill a house and turn it into a home. 

The first departure from our home was my sister’s. In 2011, she was sent off to a therapeutic boarding school in the States, not on account of any disciplinary punishment, but after my parents debated and hesitated and took painstaking measures to find the best option of support for her first diagnosed bipolar episode. For the first time, our family had reached one of its four limbs to a town across the world called Madison, Connecticut. But my sister’s distance from us only augmented my parents’ care for her: phone calls and Skype sessions were almost as frequent as the incessant conversation concerning her wellbeing. My parents, thousands of miles away from the subject of their fretful speculation, continued to build their priorities around her. My sister was learning to make new friends, going to the movies, and unfolding herself in therapy sessions. At eleven, I did what I found most peacefully effective from afar: pray for my sister each night to a god I had abruptly chosen to believe in. 

The second departure, not long after, was mine. My best friend in middle school started looking into college preparatory schools in the U.S., and soon we were taking SSAT classes together and I was filling out lengthy applications for boarding schools in states I only knew of on TV and in songs. (“Massachusetts” by the Bee Gees comes to mind.) In August of 2013, my mother and I scoured colossal department stores for the right laundry basket, winter coat, and snow boots. The following month, I started living away from home: a day’s costly commute from my parents and two hours’ commute from my older sister. My new environment was an exciting new test, andI was taking in more from my surroundings than I was giving out. My sister was on the cusp of adulthood, I on the cusp of puberty, and we were both edging out of our parents’ wrinkling reach. 

The third departure, my mother’s, was a gradual one. Caught in a hectic schedule at boarding school and willfully ignorant during vacations at home, I didn’t notice that my mother was out the front door until the door had closed behind her. It was, as I view it, a decision formed by the culmination of various events and reflections. It was a decision both personal and interpersonal, rational and emotional, perplexing and elucidating. It was one that, for some time, contained “divorce” in its header, until the word was discussed and revised and ultimately placed aside. My mother decided to spend time practicing mindfulness at Buddhist monasteries abroad, eventually remaining in one for most of each year in upstate New York. She bought a meditation mat and cushion, learned to lead her own segments of the practice, and came close to shaving her head. It is a decision she continues to make and a process she continues to undertake today. 

My father remains in our old apartment, overlooking a still marina and disheveled palm trees. He gets his hair cut once a month without fail, passing the kindergarten my sister and I attended on his way to the same town plaza. The three of us return to Hong Kong a few times a year, and on other vacations he flies to the U.S. and visits us. The same apartment is emptier now that the three of us have cleared out old things. In the fridge is nothing more than eggs, old congee, and soy milk. My father frequents the same mountain trail up to Tiger’s Head, sometimes with a colleague but usually on his own. He works five days a week in his worn dress shirts and trousers, his socks tattered with stubborn holes. He won’t quit his job soon. 

Standing at the lookout point, I pictured my father sitting on a bench under the pagoda below me and scrolling through news feeds on his iPhone, a mere few inches in front of his face. He has removed his glasses to reveal creases by his eyes. His blue T-shirt is cold and soaked through. His hair is darkened by the fog.

 “I am so lonely,” he tells me from time to time, sometimes through text while I am away at school, and sometimes in person, his eyes turned away from mine. My father holds his loneliness close to his heart. His loneliness I wouldn’t know, I couldn’t know. 

I loved that mountain, and my dad loved it, too. When he was younger and I a baby, his back was in fit condition to hike the steeper trail up the mountain. He would climb, through brush and trees and on steep rocks and roots, almost every day, before stopping by the clubhouse to shower and coming back home. Alone, with neighbors, with friends, it didn’t matter. After the hike, he would always return to my mother, sister, and me at home in our apartment, a short walk from the trailhead. 

One by one, each of us has left my father. My sister to therapeutic boarding school, I to boarding school, my mother to the Buddhist monastery, our footprints gently fading in the Atlantic. My father still hikes Tiger’s Head when we leave him, alone, at home. The three of us are visitors and he its inhabitant, its climber, its faithful companion. 

My father used to tell me growing up how special our town was, wedged between the mountains and the sea. I didn’t understand it until now. 

We walked back down the mountain together as the clouds matured into a steady rain. The fragrant, ripe soil permeated the air and browned my father’s gray sneakers. In silence, I thanked the earth for being there for him when the rest of us could not be. 

By Becky Zhang
Photo by William Chu

Here's What Gen Z Has to Say About Activism

Activism is not a new concept in the U.S. In fact, it’s been around for about as long as the country has. America is always changing, and there are always people opposing the new changes or pushing for more. Recently, though, a new wave of youth activism has emerged. In February of 2018, students from Parkland, Florida demanded justice and rallied thousands of young people to fight gun violence, galvanizing them behind the message, “The young people will win.” Emboldened by the growing youth movement, many young people have followed suite creating their own movements—Sunrise, PERIOD: The Menstrual Movement, and the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, to name a few. But alongside these monumental strides for change, a problem has arisen: activism has become a buzzword. So, what is activism, really? What does it mean to our generation? Here’s a summary of what 30 young people from various backgrounds and communities have to say.

Passionate and selfless work 

Of the activists interviewed, every single one acknowledged passion as a defining characteristic of an activist. 
“An activist is someone who advocates passionately for their beliefs through action and words,” Creative Director of the National Styrofoam Ban Movement, Margo Cohen, tells Adolescent. Cohen believes that anyone who takes tangible action in their community, regardless of the level—local, state, federal, global—is an activist in their own right. Activists come in many forms, from organizers and writers to artists and educators. They are not strictly leaders of global movements, award-winning speakers, or people spending eight hours a day fighting oppressive systems. They are also athletes that compete at fundraising events and students that canvas on the weekends. Cohen used to shy away from the title because she felt her own work and accomplishments paled in comparison to those of fellow organizers, but in realizing the place activism holds in her life, she has come to embrace the title. Anyone can be an activist. 
That said, Cohen is concerned about the rise of people leveraging social media to amplify their values without taking offline action. She distinguishes those who only make an occasional social media post as allies, not activists. When allies start identifying themselves as activists for personal gain, they become what she and many other young people refer to as internet “slacktivists.” The main criticism surrounding slacktivists is that their intentions are self-serving, their activism shallow—limited to retweets and hashtags. Because of slacktivists, the term “activist” is being overused and exploited for personal gain, diminishing its originally positive connotation. “[Activism] has become a label associated with clout for one person to use in their Instagram bio or to ‘join a community’ instead of the actual organizers doing the work in the streets. Activism isn’t a fun extracurricular for privileged individuals to put on a college application,” shares Mobilizing Youth Project co-founder, Joyce Jiang. 

Jiang isn’t alone in her vexation, as many other young people also share her frustration when seeing mainstream activism overshadow the hard work of grassroots organizers that have had to endure real struggles. It cannot be said enough that activism is not about recognition or credit, even if that is a result. 

Fight oppressive systems 

Today, young activists’ work is largely inspired by experiences that they have gone through. This rings true for one young Muslim, Zaynab Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Elkolaly, as she explains that her religion commands her to uphold justice and fight oppressors and their oppressive systems. “The way I carry myself is to ensure that everything I do is from a place of decency and civic duty, not an honorable title.” Though she realizes many identify her as an activist, Elkolaly herself does not. “I just consider myself a passionate human being fighting for the people around her.” 
The work of political organizer Malavika Kannan also stems from her personal experiences. Kannan saw a need for a space specifically for girls of color who are underrepresented in politics so, in June of 2018, she founded Homegirl Project—an international girl-led movement promoting inclusivity between womxn of color and empowering them through storytelling, mentorship, and political training. Kannan shares that “An activist is a person who rises up as a leader in their community against the oppressive systems they face. Being an activist isn't as simple as amplifying a cause, demonstrating reactive outrage, or discussing the issue: instead, an activist has to take conscious, proactive actions to dismantle these systems and empower others to do the same.”

Amplify affected voices 

In order to dismantle oppressive systems, we must uplift underrepresented and directly affected voices. This, however, is no easy feat. “It’s always important to check ourselves and check our privilege,” Jamaican advocate, Alliyah Logan, tells Adolescent. “We need to understand that people are actually fighting for their lives to change their communities.” 
Humility is key. In being an effective activist, it is equally important to acknowledge when to give someone else the spotlight as it is to take the lead. One way to practice this awareness is to consider how an issue is directly affecting you. Ask yourself the following: “What relevant experience do I have to contribute? Why am I the best person to speak on this issue? Is there another perspective I should listen to and consider?”
In June of 2019, America’s Promise Alliance in partnership with Facebook Education hosted State of Young People, a national two-day conference bringing together young people and adults to discuss authentic youth leadership. Young changemakers, the majority being youth of color, were given a platform to share their lived experiences speak with adults from various industries. Some Gen Zers expressed that they couldn’t speak out because, in their community, they would be killed for doing so. It is essential that we not only recognize, but amplify the work that marginalized activists do because they are often the ones risking the most.
With the surge of youth activism and the consequent media coverage, it can be easy to view youth activism as a combination of movements, marches, and social media posts. That’s why, whether you’re a kid entering adolescence, a fellow young changemaker, or an adult watching the youth take the world by storm, it’s essential to remember that youth activism is not about the methods used to be heard nor the praise and recognition of work. It’s about the values that ignite and fuel the work Gen Z does and the change that their work will bring.

By Maya Siegel

Why You Need to Unfollow Your Ex on Instagram

I spent the summer of 2017 taking things really personally. As someone who doesn’t like to hang out late, the hot season following my first big breakup was dreadful. It was unlikely that I would have any video of a wild night out to post on Instagram and prove I was having a good time while newly single. Yes, I had my own things going on, but I felt the need to perform being “OK” for my Instagram followers—more specifically, my ex. Especially because it seemed like his life was spectacularly well, as I’d determined from obsessively watching his Instagram stories. Despite how little we talked, I always knew what he was up to—social media made it so easy! It felt like every person he hung out with and everywhere he went was an attack on me and our relationship. I spent a lot of time laying in bed swiping and scrolling, discovering more and more things I wished I hadn’t seen. I was a week away from starting my fall semester when I realized I had wasted my whole summer being a self-destructive Sherlock Holmes. As much as I didn’t like it, I knew there was only one thing to do: unfollow him. 

The temptation to watch 
At first, following your ex might seem harmless. If the relationship ended on good terms then what’s the big deal, right? The truth is, though, we’re curious and social media allows us to take our curiosity to the extreme. So it’s oddly satisfying to find out where your ex is and what they’re doing just by swiping your finger. Most of the time, doing so ends up feeding our insecurities about ourselves and the endings of our relationships. Maybe you always thought they would hang out with this person, or maybe you think they posted something just to get your attention. Whatever the case may be, I’m sure the feeling will leave you swiping to see more. And more. And even more. When I was three hours deep into watching stories and clicking on tagged photos, I found myself unable to stop despite the tears in my eyes. Why wasn’t I the person hanging out until 3 AM? Why wasn’t I out having fun? Why wasn’t I okay? 

I kept looking at who my ex was hanging out with and what they were doing, creating a story in my head of what their life was like without me. Did they miss me? Did they know I was having fun without them (even though I wasn’t)? Did they even care? Obsessing over what they were doing was my way of getting answers to questions I didn’t have the courage to ask. While you might think you’re getting answers to your most pressing questions, we all know that people only show us what they want us to see on social media. Had I not been so obsessed with being sneaky, I might’ve had some fun of my own instead of living through someone else’s posts. Reading “clues” and making inferences based on body language I thought I saw in a 10-second Snapchat story didn’t actually answer any questions for me—it just aided me in creating a narrative that was based on my sadness. Misery loves company, and I was looking for more reasons to be sad. Curiosity might be what drives us forward in life, but rewatching the same stories to find out who’s sitting next to your ex is not freedom.

From mutuals to strangers
The idea of unfollowing or blocking someone I once considered my best friend felt so weighted. I know it seems harsh. Trust me, I didn’t want to do it. But let me be the one to tell you, it has to be done. If you can’t avoid watching your ex’s stories and obsessing over their posts, unfollow them. If you’re like me and can’t help but type their username in the search bar, block them. You’re 100% entitled to curating a timeline that serves you, and no one should be able to make you feel guilty for removing them from that said space. The most important thing is that you stop looking. Your questions will never be answered by a cryptic caption or a blurry Snapchat story; you can’t receive that closure from anything or anyone but yourself. Every time you think about checking your ex’s profile, start occupying your time and mind with something else. These are the steps I followed, and I’ll be honest—at first it was really difficult. I must have done at least a hundred Sudoku puzzles that summer trying to distract myself from looking at Instagram stories that weren’t meant for my eyes. But before I knew it, it had been weeks since I’d even thought about what my ex was doing. 

Oh, and if your ex reaches out to you and says “Why did you block/unfollow me?”, at least you know you weren’t the only one obsessing.

By Elysa Rivera
Photo by Diane Durongpisitkul, via Stocksy

Southern Girlhood and Misconceptions: A College Student’s Perspective

Bankston Creech is a talented poet, writer, and performer who hails from Alabama. A sophomore at Bryn Mawr College in suburban Philadelphia, Creech’s relationship with being Southern was in flux throughout her childhood.  Now, she has reoriented her perspective on what it means to reckon with the nuances of Southern culture and identity.

We sat down to talk about home, youth, and the internalization of pervasive misinterpretations—especially in academic circles. Our conversation quickly shifted to explore the erasure that happens in the homogenous way we address Southern people, how relocating for college shines a light on rampant misconceptions, and the ways in which well-meaning cultural and political discourse about the South actually harms marginalized groups who desperately need support.

Lithium: So you’re from Huntsville, Alabama. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like, culturally, growing up there?
Bankston: I mean, it’s a very NASA, engineering-centric town. It’s a weird experience, because Huntsville is very much an urban center in Alabama. It's the third largest city in the state, and it attracts a lot of government workers and college-educated people. It's just a very wealthy [place]. Then, if you go outside of the city limits, it's very rural Alabama, so there's a bit of weird whiplash from that.

Lithium: Can you detail your evolving relationship with being Southern?
Bankston: This is actually something I've been thinking about a lot because I just went to South Carolina to see my dad's family. I don't know, especially after coming back from Bryn Mawr, I've been thinking a lot about my accent and being back home. I went to a small private school, and like I said, Huntsville attracts a lot of workers who come here from outside of the South. So a lot of my friends aren’t from the South, and a lot of them don't have accents or have chosen not to have one because of the stigma around it. But it definitely was and is a weird experience being with my immediate family and then going and seeing my dad's extended family, especially because they have really thick South Carolina accents. I just become acutely aware of how out of place I am in that sense.  

And now it gives me a little bit of guilt, because I think I have a more mature view of my family and appreciation for them than I did when I was younger. I had a very cringy and elitist view of the North, or of intellectual centers as existing only in the North. I had this idea of intellectual superiority. To me, anywhere out of the South was more urban, educated, and influenced by the arts—and if I wanted to be accepted or allowed into that sort of sphere, I had to get rid of associations with what in my mind was a less sophisticated, more rural Southern culture. Now I really regret it, and I wish that I had a Southern accent because I think that they're really pretty!

Lithium: What did your college search look like? Was your intention to move to the North, or did you want to stay closer to home?
Bankston: My intention was absolutely to move north. I actually looked at the West Coast, but my dad said no to those immediately because it was too far. But I definitely wanted to go north. 

Lithium: Once you got to Bryn Mawr, how was the adjustment process for you?
Bankston: I didn't have huge adjustment issues, I think in part because I made friends beforehand. I guess the big thing about culture shock was American Poverty class. It was very surprising for me when we started talking about the Civil War, the North versus the South, and what you hadn't learned compared to the different approaches that my education took toward that particular subject matter.  

Also, people would come up to me and ask if the South was more racist or bigoted. It was kind of a lot. If anything, I thought that going up North would be much better and that I would love the political environment and culture switch. To some degree it’s a fact, but I think I gained an appreciation for home. 

Lithium: Have you had any notable interactions with peers after you told them where you're from, or picked up on harmful misconceptions about the South or Southern people?
Bankston: A few people have just asked me if the South is more racist. Someone at school and I got into a little bit of an argument about it, and he made some good points about systemic racism being more apparent in the South. I think that's true and an important thing to note, but at the same time, I do get very defensive. Especially when someone from New York or a liberal area says something, and I'm like, “You don't know the textures of it.”  

I also feel like there's a lot of a erasure that happens with black people, of people of color, of queer people that live in the South when you say that the South is just filled with a bunch of racists and bigots. That bothers me a lot. You can never say something about a place as a blanket statement, because when you choose a particular narrative and use it to vilify or think of an area in one way, you inevitably end up hurting the people in that area who need the most help and the most support.  

(A Queer Appalachia Instagram post that provides greater context for this prevalent and damaging phenomenon is linked here.)

Lithium: What's your take on the culture at Bryn Mawr? Does it feel relieving or a bit frustrating, and how do you interpret the discourse that's constantly happening?
Bankston: I can get a little frustrated. I think there's some surface-level “woke” culture at Bryn Mawr. Growing up in a majority Republican area with very Republican family members, acquaintances, and sometimes friends, I have the thought that my liberalism is more legitimate than the liberalism of the people who are coming from already liberal backgrounds and areas. That sounds really awful, but part of me is like, “You haven't had to fight for this!” 

Also, sometimes I miss that sort of pushback on campus. I think it's definitely a give-and-take thing, because the safety of students—intellectually and physically—is definitely more important than the ability to argue with an incel, but at the same time, I really enjoyed arguing with incels at school. It's a tricky situation, especially in the current political climate. There are people literally undermining and questioning the existence of other people, and I'm acutely aware of the fact that I come from a place of privilege as someone who was in the closet during high school, is able to present as straight, and is not that marginalized at all. I recognize this when I say I miss that debate, that push and pull.  

But at the same time, I do think there’s a lot of nuance that gets lost in the political and cultural conversation at Bryn Mawr—sometimes at the expense of people who need support, who need a voice, and end up getting drowned out.

By Avery Matteo
Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath

How “The Farewell” Helped Me Find My Way Home

"You'll always have a home in Changchun."

I cried the day I landed in China, big, gasping sobs swallowing me whole in the middle of the airport. I think I’m just tired, I told my mother. What I meant to say was: It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to be here anymore.

I grew up spending summers at my grandma's apartment in northeastern China, walking to the lake and buying ice cream from the corner store and visiting monkeys caged in a backyard zoo. Then, one summer, I turned thirteen years old, and there were no more lakes or ice cream or monkeys. Sometimes, life just gets in the way of those things—six years passed, and I went to summer camps and applied to college, but I no longer ate ice cream with my grandma. 

I know that it is unrealistic to visit a place you loved as a child expecting it to feel exactly the same years and years later. It is selfish, even, to assume that everything you love is immune to change. 

And yet, I still arrived in China three weeks ago foolishly sure that nothing would have changed over the course of six summers.

The lake was blocked off with barbed wire. I couldn't find my favorite ice cream at the corner store. The monkeys had disappeared, leaving behind a cage strangled by weeds and inhabited by a lone and dirty rabbit. The feelings that had plagued me in the airport were proven correct—this was no longer somewhere I was supposed to spend time. I cried again that night, alone in my room and overwhelmed by the fact that the fixtures of my youth were not the immovable constants I had imagined them to be.

But Lulu Wang’s stunning debut—modest as it is, simple in plot as it is—makes me feel like nothing ever really changed. The Farewell feels like a warm hug from my lao lao, a hot summer day by the lake. I watch this film, and I see monkeys in the cage again. I watch this film, and it feels like I am still supposed to be here.

The Farewell centers on Billi (Awkwafina at her finest), a young Chinese-American writer living in New York City. Billi’s grandma (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives a world away in China, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and is predicted to have only three months left to live. Billi’s extended family decides to throw a fake wedding in order to bring everyone together for the last time with Grandma, but they fiercely vow never to tell her of her diagnosis.

How is it possible for one film to capture every nuanced detail of your childhood, from the meat pies you ate to that particular brand of Chinese only spoken between American-raised children and their still-living-in-China relatives? How do I even begin to write this essay without it simply becoming a list of the moments that paralleled my own with commentary like, This thing also happened to me? I can’t. I have written so many words recounting what it feels like to watch the Asian-American experience represented on screen, but I struggle here because The Farewell doesn’t even feel like watching one specific experience; it just feels like watching a home video of my whole entire life. 

The Farewell is so familiar to me in part because it was shot in Changchun, hometown of both director Wang's grandma and my own grandma. I went to see the film with my mother, and we spent the entire runtime pointing out to each other the roots that we recognized: We just drove past those buildings last week. Those apartments are all the same color—they had to have been close to ours. Caught on camera, this city shines; everything that disappointed me had new meaning breathed into it.

The first few days of my trip, I struggled to speak. I call myself fluent in Chinese and I talk without an accent, yet I found myself stumbling over my words to waitresses, family friends, relatives. I look like I belong here in China, and yet I don’t, because someone who belongs here should be able to speak. 
It is a uniquely terrible kind of pain to understand everything being said to you but to not be able to force out your replies. My mother learned to meet my confused relatives’ questions of Doesn’t she speak Chinese? with a patient She hears and understands it pretty well, but she has a little trouble speaking. 
There was a certain desperation to be heard boiling in my chest, a scream of I know how to speak! fighting hard to leave my throat, but how could I have even let it out when I could barely order food without stammering?

In Billi, I see that desperation to be understood, so much so that it hurts. There is one particularly powerful scene in which she rushes to the hospital to pick up her grandma’s diagnostic report, gasping for breath, only to admit that she is unable to read the papers. Like Billi, I can’t read Chinese. I spent the entirety of the trip scanning restaurant menus with a blank stare, watching road signs pass me in blurs while I tried in vain to pick words from them. 

Billi is never helpless, though. She never gives up. When I watch her take the stage at the wedding to give a speech even though her Chinese “isn’t that good,” I feel like maybe I, too, can speak clearly, even if only for a moment. 

It is so easy to feel alone in your existence when you are asking yourself those age-old identity questions: am I American, am I Chinese, am I Chinese-American, am I an American of Chinese descent? How does one define American? How does one define home? 
I feel a little less alone seeing The Farewell address these questions. Both the storylines of Billi and myself revolve around our first visits to China since childhood and the cultural struggles that came with them, and I take comfort in watching someone else not really know the answers, either. 
On Billi’s first night in China, a hotel owner asks her, Which do you like more—China or America? Billi hesitates: It’s different. At a family dinner, Billi’s father says, We’re Americans, then falters and says, I mean, we have American passports.

Billi and her family are people who struggle with, and yet simultaneously redefine, home, Americanness, Chineseness. I admire the fact that The Farewell never feels the need to explain a correct state of identity to me. It seems like neither I nor Billi knows all of the answers to those questions—and while The Farewell meditates on them, it doesn’t tell us how to feel. All I know is that Billi and I came back to China after a long time away, where we found an extended family and a home. 

I know that America is my home. America is my permanent residence, the name printed on the front of my passport. But I think about all those long and hazy days spent in Changchun, all those times I ate ice cream with my grandma in the apartment. Changchun is a place where I feel comfortable, a place where I have family that loves me, and isn’t that a home, too? 

Can our homes exist in two places at once? I think they can. 

I landed back in Pittsburgh four nights ago. I’m saying “Pittsburgh” instead of “home” because this was the first trip from which I returned feeling like “home” was no longer only a place in Pennsylvania, but also a city in China. 

I tell all of this to my mom now, and she says, Well, you can always come back. 

I want to ask, What if things change? 

But I don’t. Because I know it is unrealistic to expect everything in Changchun to stay the same. The Farewell reminds me, reassures me, that I have a home there. And that no matter what changes, I always will.

By Julianna Chen