by syaffolee

An Older Generation

My grandmother is a very stubborn woman, but I suppose being in her mid-80’s that does give her some entitlement. However, this behavior gives my mother fits and she complains to me that she’s being treated like a teenager. It’s not surprising; occasionally my grandmother would pat my hand and say in awe: “You’ve grown so big! You were just a small child before.” I suspect that’s why she doesn’t try to control me or argue with me. I’m still a baby in her eyes.

My grandmother gets upset when my mother doesn’t indulge in her every whim and instead tries to do things for her own good. This sort of stubbornness or disappointment that one’s children isn’t following one’s commands stems from an ancient Chinese cultural belief of hsiao (or in Cantonese, hao). In the Chinese-English dictionary, hsiao is defined as “filial piety or devotion,” but my mother just shakes her head and tells me that the simple English translation doesn’t even begin to describe what it means for the traditional Chinese.

One of the basic Confucian teachings is to respect one’s elders. Because you were born from your parents, your hair is their hair. Your bones are their bones. Your flesh is their flesh. Hurting yourself would only hurt them. But somehow, this teaching had been twisted so that the head of the family is all that matters. Two parables illustrate the change. One is that of a little girl who sleeps outside of the hut and lets all the mosquitoes bite her instead of her parents. Another is that of the boy who must lie in the snow and go ice fishing because his sick father suddenly has the desire to eat fish. “This,” traditionalists would say, “is how all children should treat their parents and respect their elders.”

I don’t understand this sort of extremism. In a way, it’s like living ancestor worship where the elders are treated like demigods and the younger members of the family must sacrifice themselves for whatever whim they come up with. This runs counter to my own thinking: shouldn’t children be cherished or at least taken care of until they reach reproductive age? Why should the older members be indulged like kings when they’ve already reproduced? My question is, “If the elders are wrong, do you still have to do what they say?” According to hsiao, yes, even if it’s your own life on the line.

But I’m not saying that we shouldn’t respect our elders at all. However, I think there is a line that you have to draw between respect and blindly following foolhardy orders. When one grows up and has his or her own family especially in a western society, it’s natural to somewhat exclude the elders from meddling in how to run the household and life in general. There are also people who simply don’t have the means of taking care of their parents. But I still think that western society can do a lot better than dumping the elderly into a nursing home.

Western ideas about the elderly have trickled back east. In Taiwan, for instance, along with the McDonald’s and Hollywood movies inundating every street corner, people have begun to not care about their parents. There have even been cases where siblings have sued each other for not taking care of the parents. But just as younger generations are starting to exert their independence for better or worse, the members of the older generation are growing due to today’s better health care and lifestyle. So I don’t see the problem changing any time soon.

My mother once told me, “I hope I’m not that stubborn when I get that old.” I’m not so sure it’s the problem of stubbornness so much as that of independence. Although my relationship with my parents is quite different than the generations before, I expect no small amount of difficulty when it comes my turn to take care of the parents.