This is a post about my changed perspective about life in America. From ever since I could think for myself I had been under the impression that we Indians value the wisdom of our elders and are pretty much family oriented.
I thought that in the West - particularly the US - children branch off (read break off) from their parents and families early in life and neither parents nor children intrude into each others domain. Children take responsibility for the choices they make, struggle through college, are burdened with loans and mortgages even before they start earning and as a result they do not feel inclined to be part of their parent's lives in their twilight years.
On the contrary in India and other Asian countries (in Italy also according to a book I read) parents worry themselves sick about the well being of their adult children who may well be employed and married. Children never really branch off and are very much part of their parent's lives till they die. As a result life for the elderly is less lonely in India.
A book that I am now reading - Another Country by Dr. Mary Pipher - has changed my perception. So has my interaction with my son's friend Curtis.
Curtis came over for lunch last Friday. My son had warned me to be prepared for his heavily accented American English and his preference for the Republicans. I expected to meet a formal, tight lipped American and wondered what his reaction would be to our Indian set up. Curtis was no fan of vegetarian food, I was told. But since I am a vegetarian he would have to bear with me, I thought.
When Curtis arrived he did not appear to have grown horns and seemed very much like my own son. He shook hands with me and sat on the cushion beside a low center table that double up for a dining table. When food (roti, dal, vegetable pulao, cauliflower sabzi and cucumber raita) was served he politely asked my son how the items on the plate had to be mixed and matched. Initially he tried combining dal and roti, pulao and raita but later placed the pulao and veggies on the roti, rolled it up and made it into some kind of Mexican burrito and consumed it with practiced ease. My husband who does not like eating with a spoon and ate his food using his hand felt relieved. The atmosphere was informal and relaxed.
We spoke on a variety of subjects including the family life of an average American and his interactions with his parents and children. He spoke of the emphasis given by his parents to his education and how they were careful about the facilities they gave him while he was at college. He spoke of having saved his pocket money to buy his first mobile phone while in college and rued the fact that school going children these days preferred to be picked up and dropped at school and parents being scared of denying them expensive electronic gadgets like i Pad and smart phones. He felt that parents gave in to their demands because they had themselves been denied a lot when they were growing up. This in turn was making a whole generation irresponsible and demanding.
His parents lived close by and though he had an establishment of his own he dined with them at least four times a week. He fondly called his dad a smart man who drew a pension from two sources and joked about the tricks employed by his mother to make him eat mushrooms and the way he amost always outsmarted her. By the time he left he became comfortable enough to give me an affectionate hug and embrace my husband the way my son would have. I was left wondering if there was any difference between the Indian and American cultures if Curtis had an upbringing similar to that of my son and if the way children are being pampered by indulgent parents in the Indian sub-continent is the same as in USA?
Mary Pipher's book talks of the problems that affect the elders in America. She quotes umpteen examples of children caring for their parents in the best possible manner and of the unfortunate shift from a communal culture to an individualistic set up. I have not finished the book but from the examples quoted I see that it is not as if the older generation is abandoned by their children. Job opportunities and better transportation and communication facilities have sent them to far away places and increased the Geographical distance between parents and children. Children alternate between their responsibility towards their job and children and a sense of guilt and helplessness for being unable to do their best for their parents. At times, parents too do not wish to be intrusive and prefer to suffer in silence. I was surprised that the older generation in India too face a similar predicament as mentioned in this post with more and more children opting to take up careers in foreign countries.
I think we like to paint our culture as being the best but it is not superior or different to any other. We also face predicaments and dilemmas like any other race. We too have children who are caring and others who are self centered. Similarly, we too have parents who have sacrificed their life for their families and others who have squandered money and brought their families to the streets. The equation in families have also changed because a man is no longer the sole provider nor is his wife solely a home maker. When such shifts take place in societies is it not natural that the family structure also get altered?
Mary Pipher predicts a return of a community based set up in the near future. The importance of having grandparents to monitor the welfare of grandchildren is already being felt and there is a gradual realization that no amount of money spent on child care can substitute it. A few of my cousins talk of forming colonies where like minded people can live in an apartment complex so that they can be there for each other and their children can lead their lives in peace.
So let us not lose hope. Human beings are the same world over and one need not fret that times have changed. Changes in society, like fashion, is cyclic not linear.