Cultural wars: the parent trap

Last Friday night, a bunch of us journalists slash bloggers slash entrepreneurs — and, in Shanghai, who isn’t these days? — were sitting around talking about cultural differences.

We had a guy from a Chinese province who had moved to Shanghai, who was worried about taking care of his parents. A young guy who moved to Singapore, who was probably trying to get away from his parents. An older guy from Taiwan who had moved to the U.S. before moving to Shanghai and who was very concerned about taking care of parents well, and me, daughter of Russian immigrants, who was planning to be taking care of her parents someday.

The guy from Taiwan said that a big difference between Asia and the U.S. is that Asians care about their parents. He mentioned something about “family values.”

Now, we all know that Americans are prone to stick their aged relatives in nursing homes at the drop of a hat — the horror! The horror! I was mortified when my American inlaws put their grandmother in a nursing home. I volunteered to take care of her myself, just to avoid the shame and embarrassment to the family.

I think they thought I was crazy.

I finally figured out why on Friday night.

For older generations, brought up in times of economic hardship, children are their survival — the family is who will take care of you when you’re old, or sick, or need money, or need a job. It makes sense that my parents would turn to me first if they needed anything like that.

But I, who grew up in the U.S., have no memories of economic hardship — and no economic worries about the future. Sure, I’m worried that the Social Security problems might cause me to postpone retirement, but given the voting strength of the elderly, it probably won’t be postponed too much.

I don’t depend on my children for my survival. The only reason for my family to exist is to fulfill our emotional needs. After all, even if the worst comes to pass, and my kids end up in foster care, they’ll still get food, shelter, and clothing. I have to do better than that — I have to make sure my kids are loved, and cared for, and appreciated, and nurtured.

When I’m old, I’m going to want a good, close relationship with my children. I want them to love and appreciate and nurture me. But I don’t need them to wipe my chin if I drool. Instead, I plan to hire someone who loves wiping drool to do that for me.

After all, there are plenty of people who get a kick out of caring for others. Doctors. Nurses. Home health aides. And, since they’re caring for strangers, they get to go home at the ends of their shifts and leave the worrying for the next guy who takes over.

Children — even caring, compassionate children — would be worrying around the clock. I don’t want them to do that, even if my children do grow up to be doctors and nurses. Which they’ve already told me that they don’t plan to do.

So when I grow old, I want my kids to visit. A lot. I want to see my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But I don’t want them to have to physically take care of me, except to the extent that they want to, in order to help out.

So when it comes to the cultural divide, I’m straddling the economic barrier. On the one hand, I can understand where my parents are coming from — and will do my part. My parents risked everything to get us to the United States. I owe them.

On the other hand, I’ve grown up trusting the broader society to take care of most of my physical needs. I’m comfortable with doctors, lawyers, police officers, bankers — people and institutions that my parents are extremely wary of. I’d rather put my life in the hands of trained professionals than caring amateurs.

It’s not a cultural divide. I share my parents’ culture. I am shocked by how Americans treat the elderly.

But when I get older, I want to be treated American-style. Loved by my family. Kept alive by the pros.

Signing off in Shanghai,