Alzheimer’s disease may be known to some as one of the most painful mental diseases one can go through, not only for the individual, but often more so for his/her loved ones. It is a progressive disease that destroys one’s memory, makes it challenging to solve problems, causes confusion with time or place, leads to behavioural changes and sometimes impairs one’s ability to walk, sit and/or swallow. As something that slowly erases the identity you’ve spent your life creating, it leaves everyone questioning the essence of personhood – are you still a person if you don’t have the memories that have formed who you are?
Generasian’s former media director Jeffrey Wu was sadly faced with the realities of Alzheimer’s disease when his grandmother fell victim to its tragic effects. In November 2014, he embarked on a journey back to Beijing to visit as her condition was getting progressively worse. Knowing very little about disease, he knew he needed to capture these moments to remember and eventually share his perspective of being faced with the fragility of memory and humanity.
Unfortunately, his grandmother passed away 3 years ago, but her love and spirit are still alive and well with him. The short documentary film he’s created in her memory, 6,248 Miles, (我們之間的距離) has been selected as part of the Culver City Film Festival in Los Angeles (and hopefully more to come!!!). We thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with him and dive deeper into the harder conversations on mental health, loss, grief and finding unity amidst the pain. (Writer’s note: please watch the film via link first, and remember to have some tissues on hand)
Hey Jeff! It’s so nice to hear from you again! Thank you so much for sharing this intimate part of your life with us and the greater community. Can you tell us what 6,248 Miles is about?
6,248 Miles is a dedication to my grandmother: the woman who raised, fed, and cared for me growing up. Wrapped in a tale of reconciliation and self-discovery, the documentary seeks to explore complex family relationships separated by physical distance, culture, generations, and languages. While 6,248 Miles is about my family struggling with my grandma’s dementia in China, I dived deeper to explore my feelings and reactions as the only family member born outside of China. What role did I play as the American grandson? What could I have done to help? Did my family want my help? How does a family stay together when the distance seems insurmountable?
Preparing for this particular trip to Beijing, what was your mindset like?
I didn’t really know what state she was in, so I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew she was very mentally sick and could speak coherently occasionally. I had just started realizing what Alzheimer’s was, and knew I had to capture this experience for myself and my family.
Through this experience, how has your understanding of mental health/illness changed?
I’ve learned how tragic this illness is and how something needs to be done about how families understand and talk about this disease. I hope people can open up and talk about it more candidly, but this does require more education and vocabulary about the illnesses. Everyone internalizes the reality of the situation differently and it isn’t healthy to keep it hidden under the rug because we’re too afraid to address it. Something people may not realize is that mental illness in Chinese is called 精神疾病 (jing shen ji bing), which is a colloquial derogatory phrase we also use to describe someone who is “crazy” or “mentally out there”. The lack of productive language surrounding mental illness doesn’t help the cause of understanding and empathizing with those who suffer directly and indirectly from it.
In your director statement, you question what role you should play in the family, what you could do to help, etc. Do you think this film has helped you find some clarity?
I’m still in the process of answering these questions, but I’ve learned to not be afraid to lead into awkwardness with my family anymore. There are so many unsaid things that have built up over the years, and this experience helped open up many emotional floodgates. I always thought it was my parents’ responsibility to bring the family together. However, I’ve come to realize that I’m in the sweet position to do so because I can speak both languages (English and Mandarin), and I understand the cultural struggles my parents’ have as immigrants and the boundaries they think they need to uphold. They’re here because of me, and so being able to identify this emotional need, I’m willing to do the tough emotional labour on their behalf.
What would you want to say to your grandma that you would want her to remember?
The things I want her to remember the most are all the stories I never got to hear. As someone who didn’t know better at the time, all I wanted to do was play my GameBoy and watch TV when I was around her. She’d try tell me stories about her early childhood on the farm or her first time riding a train in rural China, but I wouldn’t listen. By the time I actually was interested in her life stories, her occupation, her family, and her values – it was too late. Alzheimer’s was setting in and the stories I so badly wanted to know she didn’t remember.
If there is one thing you wish your grandma could remember about you, what would it be?
I wish my grandma could see me now as an adult. Many of my regrets after she passed had to do with not saying or doing enough for my family and her. Not that my grandma ever saw me in this way, but I was always an ungrateful good-for-nothing kid while she was alive. I felt as if I was never able to contribute or give back in any way. All I did was take, take, take the entire time she was alive. So I often wish she could know the person I became instead of remembering the person I was.
What’s your best memory with her?
My favorite memory of my grandma was in elementary school. Our house was walking distance from the school so while all my classmates were eating string cheese and microwave pizza, I would get freshly-cooked fried rice delivered by my grandma. She’d drop it off with a hug and light push back to my friends at school as she waited 30 minutes for me to finish. I’d lick my lunchbox clean, picking up all the individual pieces of rice like my grandma said I should, and rush it back to her. She was the only person still waiting by the gates. No one else had the luxury of home-cooked food for lunch. I really didn’t know how lucky I was.
How has this whole experience changed you and your outlook on life and death?
For a long while after my grandma’s passing, I felt death was this static binary state. A person passes on and therefore they don’t exist in our reality anymore. They don’t bear any effect on our current existence and they never will again. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t true.
I had to realize that a person’s existence, energy, soul or whatever you want to call a person’s presence – persists in different ways after they pass. The people they loved, the homes they built, the tasks they accomplished, and the communities they nurtured all bear their indelible mark.
So in a way, I feel like my grandma never left me. She’s always with me – in the way that I carry myself, in the way that I speak, and most importantly in the way that I love. How I love today and how I express that love is a living and breathing testament to my grandma’s unwavering and uncompromising spirit.
We hope this film comforts those who are going through a similar experience and inspires you to start those hard, yet necessary conversations with your loved ones before it is too late. Here is a more comprehensive summary on his film and project.