I remember summer from thirteen years ago, days where I spent endless hours playing in the green grass outside my apartment: getting dirt on the bottom of the sundresses my Chinese grandmother had painstakingly made, scuffing my shoes, stepping in mud, and hiding behind bushes. My best friend was the girl who lived directly above me, who wore her long hair in pigtails and chased me around the building; we’d climb over fences, hide from our parents, and sneak food from the kitchen to eat on our adventures. We were best friends, close enough to be family. While we were discovering this lesson hiding behind thorny bushes and smashing red berries, my parents were learning the same from one of the greatest movies of American cinema: The Godfather.
For nearly every year after their first viewing, they tried to get me to watch the movie with them. When Harry Potter became popular, they watched the films with me and swore that The Godfather was a thousand times better, deeper, and more exciting than a boy wizard could ever be. When I became interested in the silly teen romance novels that silly young teenagers often read, they told me to watch The Godfather and report back to them about love, and how the bonds between families, nations, and ethnicities were infinitely stronger than the temporary lust of adolescents who barely knew how to drive.
I didn’t listen to them, because I was convinced that their fascination was old-fashioned and boring, and that my generation’s storytellers have perfected filmmaking and novel-writing, which was still rough and being polished thirty, forty years ago. I procrastinated in watching the movie, pushing it off for years upon years until the winter break of my sophomore year in college, when I was suddenly struck by a sudden desire to watch the movies that I’d shirked from for a long decade.
They were worth the wait. For three hours I sat before the television, my eyes glued to the screen, afraid to blink for fear of missing some subtlety in the actors’ motions that would have ruined the rest of the plot. My mom sat by my side, pointing out the motivations behind the Godfather’s actions that I didn’t understand. For example, when Sonny Corleone publicly disagreed with his father before others, he was warned to “never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”.
It’s a common theme for Asian parents that their children, the newer generation, don’t understand the bonds of families and the strength of nationalism. For the most part, this is true. As I watched the members of the Corleone family willingly sacrifice themselves and put their lives on the line to defend their family’s honor, I respected them for making the sacrifice that I know I personally could never choose.
I now understood. The movie was perfect for them: a Chinese couple who had recently immigrated to the United States in search of the American dream, but faced the challenge of overcoming a language barrier, discrimination, and struggling to synthesize the closed and conservative Chinese culture with the open and liberal American mindset. They found their answer contained in the plastic tapes of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, where the opening scene beckoned them in, and the charm of Michael Corleone kept them watching.
They understood why the Families depended on Don Corleone. He had made the sacrifices necessary and dirtied his hands so his children could live happy lives, just like how my parents gave up a comfortable life in China – their social circle, their homeland – to raise two Chinese-American children in the nation of dreams. This was the ultimate love, beyond any pretty words from fluffy novels. And this was the first time I understood this.
My parents watched the interactions between the characters evolve from loyalty, love, and care to cold, merciless business transactions, and felt themselves moved in ways they’d never expected – especially by an American film. And I, through an Italian family, came to understand my own Chinese roots.