In my home country of Taiwan (and probably in many other cultures), your elders are not to be questioned. Whatever they say goes. There is no discourse, no discussion, and you are most definitely in for a world of hurt, both physical and psychological, should you dare question that line of thinking. You just live this way, with these values.
The only L.A. Times story my parents ever clipped out and kept for me to read was about a Vietnamese-American girl who served her father first at dinner and then stood behind him as he ate, before eating her own meal. My parents said they wished I could be this obedient, this good.
Now, I know a lot of Asian kids who might yes-ma’am-yes-sir with the best of them. I also know these same kids did things like hiding their live-in relationships from their parents. (Whenever the phone rang–this is in the days before Caller ID–the kid with the parents who might care answered the phone, and not the relationship. If the parents came to visit, the relationship moved out.) These kids lived double lives. They might have done like me, and changed clothes in the school bathroom twice–once before going to school, once before coming home. They might have dated behind their parents’ backs. They might have pursued a Creative Writing degree while blithely telling their parents engineering classes were going great, thanks.
But they never, ever, would have raised their voices to their parents, to hear my parents speak of it. Rolling their eyes would be, like–Wow, you’d better duck for the slap that was surefire coming your way. They would never have questioned anything. They would just go along with, and know that it was for the better.
This is a lesson I never learned. Whether by innate personality, rearing, or perfect storm of circumstance (or perfect storm of all three), I cannot abide it when someone tells me something my gut knows is wrong. Or says something I’m hurt by. Or remarks on anything in a way that is rude and unseeming. Even if it comes from someone older. I got into a lot of trouble with my parents, growing up.
Here in America, there seems to be a kind of respect for elders. But I’ve also seen–and watched, and read–a lot of media portraying kids as talking back to their parents, or even shouting at them. These kids are portrayed as standing up for themselves, thinking for themselves, having healthy debate and discourse with their parents. I’ve seen such a thing happen in real life, even. And in the American media my parents watched growing up as kids in Taiwan–think James Dean, think Elvis, think Steve McQueen and others–there was always the kid who talked back to adults, who treated them with disrespect, calling them outdated or in general showing elders just what they thought of them, just because they were older, less strong in body.
The adults in American culture were not respected, is the message my parents walked away with. Not so in Taiwan. And therefore, their children would be raised according to Taiwanese traditions.
This did not work for them. It probably didn’t work for a lot of parents who had kids who wanted to be “more American.”
I really, really longed for an American-style relationship with my elders. I craved discourse, conversation, learning from them in a fashion other than being lectured at.
When I was in Taiwan last winter, I bought my SIM card from a MyFone store in the village center. I was with one of my elderly aunts. The girl behind the counter was maybe in her twenties. My aunt asked her if she was married. The girl said, “Nope! No time.” My aunt said, “You should make time.” The girl grinned and nodded.
My aunt then said to me, “She’s so cute! Look at her hair!” The girl had a messy mop of curls cut short on the sides, so her whole head fluffed at the top, kind of, and the whole thing moved exaggeratedly with her every movement. “You look like a little rooster,” said my aunt to the girl, and the girl obligingly bobbed and nodded her head, and the whole thing moved, and my aunt laughed, joyfully, and the girl smiled with her eyes and a little quirk of her lips. She bobbed again, just to make my aunt laugh again.
A few minutes later, an old woman who had once worked in our household when I was a baby walked into the store. My aunt introduced us, or re-introduced us, I guess. I didn’t remember her, but she knew me when I was still pooping my pants. “Your aunt says you’re married,” she said, by way of introduction.
“I am,” I said.
“Nope,” I said, girding myself.
“Have some, why don’t you?”
“Too late!” I said, maybe a little stridently.
“You’re still young. You can do it!”
“My ovaries are shriveled!”
“It’s better if you have some. Try.”
“I’m too lazy!”
At this point something popped in my head. What the hell was I doing? Why was I struggling? Why not just tell her okay, and move on?
- I probably was never going to see her again.
- No one really has any stakes in this conversation.
- No one’s mind was going to be changed about anything during our interaction.
It struck me then that I’d be a lot better off in a lot of my interactions with my parents if I could just stop taking everything like it was criticism. And, maybe, if I cared just a little bit less. If I were better at “live and let live.”
In the case of the interaction with this particular elder, in my parents’ parlance, if I had just respected this woman more, maybe it’d be easier. Instead of arguing with her, the answer was to just nod and say, “Yes, uh huh, okay.”
But it’s not about respect, you might say. And yet, in my home culture, it is. No matter what you think, or feel, treating someone with respect looks like you’re giving them their due, letting them have their say, giving them the room they’ve earned.
Later, my aunt told me that this woman’s own daughter had run away. That they don’t speak to each other.
Earlier this week, the Indigenous Peoples’ March happened in Washington, DC. Nearby, the March for Life was also going on. You all know what happened. Some people from a Kentucky Catholic school stared down, shouted over, and in general were disrespectful to some Native American elders who were singing a traditional song. (There is another interpretation to this, and if you watch an entire two-hour video, or even just read this post, you can make your own decision. But I don’t think that changes, much, what I’m saying here.)
The teenagers apparently mocked the elders. In one portion of the tape, one can be heard saying, “Yo, this is deep,” and others are shouting to drown out the elders’ song, making tomahawk motions and some other stupid shit.
We should all agree that this is disrespectful behavior. And disrespectful behavior towards our elders is on my mind a lot lately, as I spend more time with my parents and look ever inwards to my culture and my own behavior. Where does the urge to roll my eyes come from? Where does the need to second-guess my elders and their frame of reference come from? Where does the need to meet them head-on, like an angry bull, come from?
Sometimes, second-guessing is healthy curiosity. But most times, I think, it comes from a need to defend myself, a need to prove that I Have Degrees and that I’ve Learned Things and Been Places. This fragility leads me to act as someone not myself; it leads me to be mean where I don’t need to be mean.
Perhaps most importantly for my own sanity, it leads me to be angry when I don’t need to be.
More germane to this conversation: I have been this young man, at least to my own parents. I have mimicked them behind their backs. I have stared them down. I have openly, flagrantly, confronted them.
I have been intolerant of their views.
I’m not equating myself with these young men. I’m certainly not calling for you to understand them, or give them a pass. And I’m definitely not equating what happened this weekend to what happens in my own head and heart on a day-to-day basis. The parent-child relationship is deserving of more than this simple comparison.
But what I am saying is this: When we speak of disrespect, we must know that, at any given minute, we are a hair away from being just like these young men. You might think it’s different because we’re not disrespecting people from another culture, say, or disrespecting someone from another age group, or of another body type or of a differing level of ability, but it’s disrespect, all the same.
I still struggle with this, when it comes to my own family. I still think everyone has a right to their opinion, and that there is a moral, humanitarian right and a corresponding wrong. At some point in my life, I told my dad that it was because I respected him that I wanted to have what I termed “the good fight.” But he didn’t see it that way, and he still doesn’t.
Families are one thing; society is another, but we still must, at a minimum, tolerate each other. We must practice this tolerance. We must understand that respect for each other also doesn’t always come naturally, especially when it is countered by intolerance. So we must practice this as well.
Practice with the people you naturally respect. Listen to all they have to say. Then carry that through, to people you don’t always agree with, or even respect.
Practice tolerance. Practice respect. Head off the simmering desire to disregard someone else’s point of view; to shake your heads mournfully at their ignorance.
I work on this every single day. Now, more than ever, I work on it. Maybe it’s the right thing to do; maybe something bigger and stronger is needed. But the sorrow I experience from seeing the smug, awful look on that young man’s face only makes me wish that he had had parents and a culture like mine, one where elders were never, ever to be disrespected.
Ultimately, I want to live a life where I’m not as angry; where I’m not as frustrated, by things I don’t have to be angry and frustrated by. This means a lot of heading things off at the pass. When I first lived in New York in the mid-90s, it took me ages to realize that getting angry at the subways being late was only not useful; it was downright silly. I couldn’t do anything about it in that moment. If I was going to get angry, it should have been years ago and on a larger scale; campaigning for more straphangers’ rights, say.
Letting go of that anger did wonders for my state of mind.
Not swearing as much unless I really meant it (another long project) was a part of that, too.
This is way bigger, obviously. It has huge implications, this letting the elders have their say. Yes, they’re wrong a lot of the time, but so am I. And anyway, I think the point is to not react to so much with anger, so much defensiveness.
I have a friend whose default questioning expression is, “Hmmmmm.” This expression accomplishes so much. It tells you she’s mulling things over; it buys her some time; it doesn’t express one opinion or another.
(For contrast, my default questioning expression is one raised eyebrow, or a squint, and a relatively explosive, “Hunh!”)
Moreover, I think my friend’s expression is very, very respectful. By the same token that it tells you she’s mulling things over, it tells you that she’s giving what you’ve said or done some thought, letting it knock around in her head.
I’m not sure that she means all of that in that one long, drawn-out syllable. But at the very least, “Hmmm” takes a lot less energy than “Hunh!” and my raised eyebrow, and expending less energy can go a really, really long way towards a happier, less angst-filled life.
I tried it on my parents at dinner the other day. It made for a much more pleasant evening, took the charge out of everything.
I think what happened is that my parents felt heard, rather than challenged.
Who knows? Next month I may discover a more worthwhile coping mechanism. But for now, this, this thing I had formerly lumped in with other unfortunate side effects of colonial lag–this I think is something I can put to good use.
What’s your preferred method for defusing charged situations? Tell me below.
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