Cheng Zhang

It was in the fall of 2014 at Stanford. We were asked to make a three-minute short documentary with a 16 mm film camera. Trying to find a local topic for this project, I kept reading news articles everyday about the Bay Area for about a month. Then I saw a story about an elderly Chinese immigrant who committed suicide at his house. It wasn’t obvious why he would do so in that article, but I searched more and found that many elderly asian americans struggle with suicidal thoughts, and that the language barriers and cultural stigma make them reluctant to seek help. I thought to myself, “there’s a black hole for discussion here.”

So I contacted numerous Psychology professors, local therapists and senior centers, trying to find someone whose experience could speak to this issue. Giving away names were very difficult for many of them due to confidentiality agreements. As the deadline for pitching ideas coming closer and closer, I was about to get desperate when suddenly I received a call from the director of a senior center in San Francisco.

Then I went up to the city and met Zili. He was the one the director said I should talk to.

We talked in Mandarin; actually he talked, because most of the time I was just there listening. He told me about his immigration stories, his families, his work and life – all very touching and personal. I tried to find a good entering point for the discussion about suicidal thoughts, but he seemed emotionally unstable especially when he talked about his late father. I decided to wait. But there was no time for me to find another potential character – this project had to be about Zili.

The second time I interviewed Zili was at his home. As we talked more and more I realized I never felt even the slightest sense of pessimism or desperation from him despite the fact that his life story was not one filled with joy and happiness. In fact, what was most special about Zili was his attitude towards the sad moments in life. A very wise man once said courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. To me, Zili’s life was not the absence of sadness, but the philosophy of looking at it.

I will never know whether or not Zili’s positivity has been the promoted result of the recording devices necessary for making a documentary, and I will never see the differences (if any) between the Zili in the film, the Zili in real life without my presence, and the Zili that he himself wanted the world to see. But with all possibilities aside, what I hope is that the Zili in the film represents a health way to get through difficult times.