He looked at me through drooping eyebrows and dread eyes and in a slow choked voice whispered, “You have to. It’s your duty, you understand? There’s nothing more important in life.” My father-in-law had just asked how I intended to care for my aging parents in Canada. I gave a flip response, because everything I do is flippant, it’s part of my charm. I may have made some reference to that time-honored Canadian tradition of taking your aged, no longer productive, parents and putting them on an ice floe and setting them adrift. I’ve always thought the practice a marvelous piece of Canadiana. Of course I was joking,… probably, but it worried him. The unstated question was what are you going to do to me?
His fear gets to the heart of one of the traditional impediments to intercultural marriage. What’s going to happen to me? Will my foreign son-in-law or daughter-in-law care for me the way I expect? Often I’ve heard Taiwanese say that foreigners are too independent, using the word as a pejorative. They mean that many foreigners are only concerned about themselves and not their family. Like most cross-cultural beliefs this is a half-truth built upon a misunderstanding.
Most Westerners are relatively more independent from their families than the average Asian. Most Asians think it unilaterally the child’s idea, so they can selfishly pursue their own life, their own goals, their own pleasures. That’s not true. Traditionally Europeans lived similar to the Asian ideal. A large extended family living in close proximity, ideally under the same roof, caring for each other. The goal in Taiwan is still to have three generations under the same roof—all beaking off simultaneously. In North America that changed around 4 to 5 generations ago? Of course this varies by family and geography. In my family it was my grandparents who started the change. My great-grandparents would have liked to live with their children as they aged, but my grandparent’s generation did not want this. Their reasons undoubtedly were multivariate, some selfish and some altruistic, but it was a sea change in family life.
Here’s the part many Asians don’t get, when my grandparents generation became elderly, they didn’t want to live with their children. This is perhaps more a North American attitude than European. In the New World, rugged individualism was of paramount importance. On the frontier you needed to fend for yourself, children were raised to be independent for survival. These pioneers did not want to live in their children’s house in their twilight. It would have taken away their dignity and independence, the most important human attribute—what made a man a man. A short trip on the ice floe was preferable.
Also, the quality of care provided by family, though well-intentioned, is not the best. If grandma moves into the home and needs special care most families are ill-equipped to handle it. They have neither the skills, nor the time. The system was adequate for an agrarian society, but Asia has very rapidly urbanized. [See: My Parents Are Nuts]. Who takes care of grandma while mother and father work? The grandchildren? The whole situation is a untenable.
Here’s an anecdote showing the stereotypical differences between a Westerner (me) and traditional Taiwanese (my Favorite Student). One day I walked into class and he was behaving a little strangely. His chest was puffed up and had that cock-of-the-walk look. He was explaining his mother had moved into his house. Everyone was praising him as a good son. I walked in and immediately shat a triple-coiler all over his parade, when without thinking I rather pissily said, “Why are you doing that?”
He replied, “Well, she’ll be able to live with us and take care of the kids. Won’t that be nice?”
I was FOB and vehemently replied, “Nooo. Grandma is old, don’t stuffed her into a back room and expected her to care for your children. Child care is hard work. Grandma’s done enough work in her life. You made them, you take care of them. Let her enjoy the time she has left.” With hindsight I might’ve been a little too real. [I wasn’t always the paragon of cultural sensitivity I am now]. It shocked my favorite student and most of his classmates, but I did see one young woman nodding agreement. Things are change, society has no choice.
As for my in-laws, when I was getting married I had the foresight to insist that no Chen would ever live with us. The wife readily agreed, though she was in love back then, so who knows. I have two parents-in-law and a brother-in-law that require medical care. Will they ever live under our roof? Never say never—but never.