A year ago, as I rushed onto a plane leaving the U.S, I put “talk to parents more” at the top of a to-do list for the coming year of isolation.
Surely, I thought, three people stuck together daily under the same roof will develop some sort of in-depth communication.
With this in mind, ‘No Crying at the Dinner Table caught my eye. It is a fifteen-minutes documentary film exploring the intergenerational gap of communication in Asian immigrant families. The Vietnamese Canadian director, Carol Nguyen, was born in Toronto and currently based in Montreal. Her parents immigrated to Canada in the 1980s.
In the film, Nguyen interviews her sister, father, and mother on memories of loss, grief, and hardship that are never openly talked about within the family. Interviewing each separately, Nguyen retraced their shared hardship of immigration and loss of loved ones. The interviews are conducted in private spaces within the house, where each scene feels so distinct, it was hard to believe they are in the same home. She then reunites the family at the dinner table and plays the recording of their intimate interviews.
For Nguyen, who was taught not to cry at the dinner table from a young age, grief was always an emotion to be gently suppressed and a weight to be carried alone. “Although death was very prominent in my childhood, I never had the tools to understand and express my emotions,” Nguyen wrote.
While in the West, a shared sense of loss often brought people together, the habit of mourning in private erected walls between Ngyuen’s family members. This experience was mirrored with the settings of her interviews.
“For me, it was important that, in their first sequence, they are physically separate from each other, to convey an isolation of their thoughts and a distance from each other emotionally,” Nguyen wrote.
Yet, the interviews also created a way to break down these walls and access the memories and emotions left unsaid.
Under familiar warm lights and round table signature to dining rooms of Asian families, Nguyen’s family is brought together again to listen to their own voices. Sharing of food as a gesture of reaffirming a bond has always had a special space in traditional Asian culture. Business meetings, friend reunions, family gatherings, festive feasts are almost always conducted around the dinner table. Similarly, the making of a meal is integral to the reciprocal duties of the parent and the children to take care of each other at different stages of their lives. By choosing the space of the diner table, Nguyen reveals her desire to close the gaps of communication and reaffirm their relationships to each other.
“After the shoot, my family started saying ‘I love you’ to each other – a really big step in our relationship. It took my dad a while though. I feel like he was trying to split it out for months, until he was finally able to get those words out there,” wrote Nguyen.
The film is a powerful commentary on the disparity between the ways of expressing love in Asian and Western cultures. In traditional Asian families, love is expressed through quieter actions and services: the hours of hard work parents unconditionally put in, the willingness to support their children’s education, the reciprocal duty to care for their elders.
I am unsure if there is a universally “correct” language for love. I suspect that it may differ from family-to-family. While a lack of physical intimacy does not necessarily translate to a lack of love, it can create gaps and cracks in understanding that, in the long term, can erode any relationship.
“In Vietnam, the way parents express their love to children isn’t through physical intimacy,” Nguyen told the New Yorker. “You get used to it.”
I believe this is partly a result of the absolute authority parents command. Growing up in China, my childhood was saturated with tales of xiao (duty to your parents) that seem ridiculous: a son using his own body to warm his father’s bed in the winter, a man walking miles everyday to buy rice for his seventy year old father, etc.
This gap in status becomes a gap in communication and a gap in understanding.
Combined with the high pressure from parental expectations and a lack of acknowledgement for mental health issues in contemporary Asia, it is understandable that generations of parents and children who love each other unconditionally are nevertheless driven apart to wordlessness.
The documentary “No Crying” opens up on an important yet often overlooked issue of communication in Asian families, as a result of both traditional values and popular culture. Eventually, I realized the idea of “unconditional love” is, to some extent, an excuse to not put in more effort. It is easy to say that a relationship is eternal and take it for granted, but family, like all other relationships, needs to be maintained and nourished.