“Love your parents and treat them with care, for you will only know their value when you see their empty chair.”
That was a quote I first came across when I was a newlywed and had just moved to the United States, leaving my parents behind in Kuwait, where I grew up. Time and time again, I would read this quote and reflect on whether or not I loved my parents and treated them with care. The answer was always affirmative. Even though I had moved far away from them, my feelings were clear to both my parents and me. I was quite confident of that.
Two years later, a coworker whose background was totally unlike mine lost a parent, and when I took her to lunch to try to lighten her mood, we got into a deep conversation about her parents.
“I was never really close to my dad,” she said. “I don’t know why I’m feeling so sad and down. He never spent a whole lot of time with my sister and me. He left my mom when I was only 4 and didn’t really look back ― even during the holidays. As a teenager, I would secretly wish that he were dead, so I didn’t ever have to think about him again. You know that quote, Roma, ‘Love your parents and treat them with care...’ doesn’t hold true for most Americans. I don’t have a single friend who ‘adores’ her or his parents. What is your relationship with your parents like?”
Not wanting to hurt her feelings by rubbing the adulation I had for my parents in her face, I gave her simple answers: “It’s great for the most part. Of course, we don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but they’re always there for me.”
“You have a hard time talking bad about your parents, I can see,” she said. “I actually admire that about your culture.”
Was it “my culture?” I remember pondering. Love for parents is not cultural, per se. We don’t love our parents because it’s part of the culture. I completely disagreed with my friend but didn’t think it was the right time to open up a debate.
As the years went by, I, my husband and our children were surrounded by both sets of parents and siblings. Our parents were always there for us and their grandkids, and we did what we needed to do for our parents without giving “culture” much thought. I was a firm believer of “what you put in is what you get out,” and I didn’t think that culture had much to do with it.
This issue came to mind again on a recent family wedding trip to India. When we got the invitation, our entire family in the U.S. couldn’t help wondering, “why hold a wedding in the summer?!” With temperatures at 110 degree-plus and 90 percent humidity, no one was excited about attending a summer event in New Delhi. Within a few days, we had a message from a cousin in Delhi who told us that the bride’s elderly grandmother was unwell, and the girl wanted to have her wedding as soon as possible so the older woman would be part of the festivities. We were all touched by the gesture.
When we arrived in Delhi, we also found that all the rooms in the wedding house had been assigned to elders from out of town, whether they were close family and friends or not. Those guests had the comforts of homemade meals and in-home assistance, regardless of their relationship to the families of the bride or groom. And no one—not even those of us who had traveled from the U.S.—complained or even commented. We were all in a hotel and were completely fine with that.
Right before the wedding, a number of us hiked to a temple in the Himalayas. On the way, I couldn’t help but notice, once again, how many people were escorting their parents, who were young, old, disabled or in wheelchairs. I even saw a 25-year-old carrying his elderly, frail grandmother on his shoulders. As we all cheered him on, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Her last wish is my command.”
Once the wedding started, all the ceremonies, rituals and traditions commenced with the blessings of the elders. I know this is common throughout the Indian culture. In fact, every wedding invitation is extended by the elders in the family. Even if they are deceased, their names go on the invitation.
On our way back to Los Angeles, I saw another example of this mind-set in the way a Korean family traveled with their elderly father and grandfather. First the husband sat next to the gentleman in order to take care of him. Later the wife took her turn, and they switched back and forth between their kids and the older man. The kids would come over to give their grandpa a hug or just keep him company every chance they got. The six-year-old girl kept asking him, “Are you ok, Grandpa?”
Clearly, our culture does play a big role in how we honor, celebrate, and respect our parents. As South Asians, we should be very proud of this rich heritage: They are made to feel that they are still heads of households even when they have given up those responsibilities. Before big decisions, parents are consulted and informed so they feel like they are still part of the family. Their experience and wisdom is valued and respected. Placing elders in care facilities is still highly uncommon in our culture; we do not consider taking care of our parents an obligation or a duty, it is our responsibility. We take care of them because we have to—actually, because we get to—and we consider it a privilege.
This can definitely be hard and challenging. I should know. I have lived with my mother-in-law for 30 years now. And yes, this infringes on our lifestyle and invades our privacy, as our parents’ care for us undoubtedly infringed on their lifestyle and privacy when we were growing up. But what we learn from being around our elders is priceless. Because of my mother-in-law’s presence in our household, we are all more empathetic, compassionate, and kind. Those are values that we all know are best taught by example and life experience.
In our South Asian cultures, we do not just have respect for our elders, but we also have a certain reverence, piety, and devotion for them. And that is a value to be proud of and worth passing along to our future generations.