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Why Are the Elderly So Revered in Asia?

Confucian philosophy gets better with age.

Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin

When I first moved to Beijing four years ago, I guiltily counted my blessings every Tuesday and Thursday when my Mandarin teacher arrived with dark circles under her eyes, complaining about her “crazy” grandfather’s latest nocturnal escapades. It seems her yeye slept all day, while she and her parents were out of the house, rising every evening well after dinner, just in time to wreak havoc during the family’s normal sleeping hours. 

Because the three of them worked during the day, my laoshi and her parents took turns staying up with the senile patriarch, attempting to distract him from his more destructive activities, which ranged from throwing all the family’s clothes out into the shared alleyway of their hutong house to banging on the pots and pans in the kitchen with wooden spoons into the wee hours of the morning.

“But why don’t you stop him when he does these things?” I asked incredulously.

“We cannot tell him what to do. He is old. We must respect his wishes,” she replied with didactic patience. “All we can do is try to refocus his attention on something else.”

“But don’t the neighbors get angry when he makes so much noise?”

“Oh yes, of course. They are not happy and complain very bitterly to my parents, but even they know we cannot stop his behavior. It would be disrespectful.”

“It’s a wonder no one has called the police.”

“Why would they do that?” she asked, puzzled. “Everyone knows the police would never interfere in family matters.”

“But how do you get any sleep when it’s your turn to watch him?”

“I don’t. I just walk around exhausted the whole next day. What else can I do?”

Whenever she spoke of her grandfather, I thought of my mercurial father, who had recently and rather suddenly moved with my stepmother to Southern California in an impulsive attempt to improve his health and her failing memory. Aided by a distant male relative who quickly arranged the move for them, Dad and Gamma (as my children called her) were soon ensconced in a retirement community, less than a week after telling me they were moving. Apparently my request to live with his latest plan for a month before we acted on it had gone unheeded. I was left to clean out their house and sell it for them ASAP because, in my father’s words, “time is money.”  

When I asked this relative how he could do such a thing without consulting me, he replied matter-of-factly. “Your father is an old man. He should be able to do whatever he wants. He is the king of his household.” Given that he and my father were born many years ago in Korea, a country grounded in Confucian values, I understood where he was coming from. And while I worried that my parents would have trouble coping on their own, I was quietly grateful they hadn’t accepted my offer to come live with us. As devoted as I am to my father, I didn’t relish the thought of living as one of the king’s minions in my own home.

Dad didn’t want to live with me either, saying that he didn’t want to be a burden to my husband. Since surviving my teenage years together, when I was basically forbidden to do anything fun, we had maintained a very respectful and loving relationship. When our children were born, my father became the most doting of grandfathers (despite being a strict taskmaster throughout my childhood). He was also an adoring father-in-law, praising my husband at every opportunity and defending him at the smallest perceived slight on my part—usually imagined by Dad. Perplexed for years as to why he felt the need to constantly sing my husband’s praises, I suddenly remembered he once told me that when he was growing up, women were considered to be possessions of their father’s family. When they married, they essentially became the property of their husband’s family.

“We really have a wonderful, solid marriage, Dad,” I assured him. “But if somehow we ever ended up not together, I would never move back home with the kids.”

“Ohhhhhhhh,” he exclaimed, almost gleefully. “That’s good to know,” he added, not even bothering to hide his relief! I guess being the king isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I thought.

                                                               -----

Many years ago, my father explained to me that the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius taught that society is a social hierarchy comprised of people and their relationships to one other, instructing people to behave according to their position in life. “Probably you don’t agree with this because you are a woman and a woman’s position is always lower than a man’s. Still, this philosophy helped maintain a peaceful and tranquil society for centuries, since a lot of problems just didn’t exist in Confucian society.”

“For example, a lot of fights start with harsh words right? Well in Korean language, a man speaks in the familiar form down to his wife. But his wife has to speak to him in the honorific, showing respect. It’s hard to start a fight with your husband if the words you are using are respectful and polite!” (I might be able to find a way, I thought.)

“It was the same for other relationships too: ruler-ruled, teacher-pupil, mother-child, elder-younger, and so on. Always the man and elder person are in the higher position and must be given due respect through language and custom. In return, they must be a good and virtuous example to everyone below them. So what’s to get mad about?  Everyone just accepted the position they were born into.” 

                                                               -----     

When my husband and I moved to Tokyo, in 1984, the summer was sweltering hot. I often waited for the bus at the nearby stop, rather than walk several blocks to the closest subway station to take the train to work. Every day, at least two or more ancient, bent-over people would march to the front of the line and cut right in front of everyone. The first time it happened, I was flabbergasted, although no one else seemed to notice. Then I remembered that for many centuries, Chinese culture entered Japan by way of Korea. In this way, the Japanese have been greatly influenced by Confucius. Deferring to older people was and is the custom, and when I thought about it, a lovely one at that (or so I told myself every time I had to wait in the withering heat for the next bus.)

Of course it’s not so lovely when it’s your own husband barreling ahead of everyone else. Fast-forward several decades to five years ago, when we moved to Tokyo for the second time. My husband had been living there for several months before I was able to join him. I had gone to his office to meet him for lunch, and we were waiting for the elevator. As soon as the doors opened, I stepped forward and was nearly knocked to the floor by my gray-haired spouse, who had forgotten his Western manners and was hurrying to get on first, so as not to hold everyone up. “I’m so sorry,” he said sheepishly, as all the office ladies covered their mouths and giggled at us. “I got so tired of futilely insisting the ladies get onto the elevator before me that I finally gave up. I’m a senior partner, one of the older men in the office. There’s no way they’re going to go against custom and get on before me. It just saves everyone so much time, and we are in Japan, after all.”

For the last three years, my parents have been living in an apartment in a managed care facility in San Diego. (Yes, I had to move them again and sell their condo when they could no longer manage on their own.)  For almost a year now, the powers-that-be have been trying to move my stepmother into the skilled nursing wing, as her condition has greatly deteriorated. But every time they insist on moving her, my father becomes distraught and they relent. Several weeks ago, Dad turned to cajoling and bullying, when tugging on their heartstrings seemed to be losing its force. He even threatened to sue them, although he knows they have the right to decide what level of care she needs. And while keeping her in managed care creates much more work for the nurses and aides, who are mostly Southeast Asian, they've been taking it all in stride, saying that we have to respect my father’s wishes, even though he's becoming increasingly frustrated and grumpy. Many have even told me their fathers are just like him.

When at last Gamma absolutely had to be moved because she required a much higher level of care, it took my father about a day to realize that having her in skilled nursing is much better for both of them. He’s now free to concentrate on himself, yet he can visit her as many times a day as he wants.

But when I questioned why he didn’t want me to tell anyone he’s very happy with their new living situation, he looked at me incredulously. “I can’t admit they were right, not after I fought for a year to keep Gamma with me! Then I would lose face!” 

Of course, I thought to myself. Losing face would be a fate worse then death! 

But that’s a topic for another time…

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