If you had a fatal disease, would you want to know? This question lies at the heart of a 2016 This American Life segment called "What You Don't Know" by Lulu Wang. Her 80-year-old grandmother, known as Nai Nai, had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and given three months to live. The doctor wanted to put Nai Nai in the hospital and start aggressive treatment. Instead, her family decided not to tell her she was sick at all.
Wang's family was divided into two camps. The relatives in China (where Nai Nai lived), who spent more time with her and took care of her, didn't want to tell her because they thought she would give up on life. They worried Nai Nai would get overwhelmed with fear and depression. They saw it as a kindness not to burden her with this knowledge, and they believed it would actually prolong her life. The relatives living in the United States, including Wang, thought she should know—they had been inoculated with the American belief of the rights of the individual above all else.
I thought about myself: Would I want to know? I believe we are entitled to feel our own way about our own circumstances without others deciding for us what that should be. I probably wouldn't appreciate being lied to. And it doesn't seem fair for other people to know something essential about you and keep it from you. At the same time, not knowing sounds very restful.
I decided to get my Chinese stepmom's thoughts on Wang's predicament. When I asked if she had heard of this sort of situation before, she answered, "All the time. Chinese hide these things, they are not up-front. Americans just want to let out the truth and they wouldn't consider the old woman and how she would take the news. The Chinese don't do that." When I postulated that a person has the right to know what's happening in their own life, she responded: "That's your perception. Chinese people are not like that. If there is a problem in the family, they don't blurt it out. It is the culture you have to navigate." In her view, the family was protecting the grandmother.
Now Wang has written and directed a film, The Farewell, based on her family's experience. It features Awkwafina, the wonderful rapper ("My Vag") and actor (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean's 8), in her first starring role.
In order to keep the diagnosis from the grandmother but still allow loved ones to say goodbye, the family in the film stages an elaborate ruse of a wedding. Everyone can come see Nai Nai one last time without having to tell her the truth about why, and they can hopefully create a positive situation to uplift her. But there is some concern that the relatives won't be able to keep their emotions in check and spend time with Nai Nai without blowing the big secret.
At the end of the conversation with my stepmom, I asked her if she'd want me to tell her, and she exclaimed: "No! Why would you?!" It makes me wonder: Are we happier not knowing about bad things we can't change? Or are we better off having full knowledge of ourselves, even if it is painful? Well, anyway, being kept in the dark seems to be working for Nai Nai: In an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, Wang revealed that her grandmother is still alive—and still hasn't been told about her diagnosis.