America is often described as a Judeo-Christian country, meaning that even if many citizens are not practicing Jews or Christians, our culture is derived from the basic values of the Jews and Christians. Of high importance is the Ten Commandments, found in the holy scripture of both religions. The fifth of those commandments states: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Generally speaking, the fourth through the eighth commandments deal with people’s relationships with each other, and honoring Mom and Dad is one of those important concepts.
Self-reliance, or as we often call it, freedom and independence, is a very important part of the American culture. A good case could be made for it being the most important element of our culture.
Most American parents raise their children to be independent by the age of 18. One should be finishing high school, or working a job, or going on the college when you are 18 - - but you should not be living with your parents. One of the worst insults is to be called a “mamma’s boy”, meaning a young man is dependent on his parents. The parent of an American teen-ager may tell his off spring to “figure it out for yourself – you’re almost an adult.” We let our children fall down as they learn to walk so they will walk sooner and therefore, be independent sooner. For most American parents, they look forward to having an “empty nest” when the children are grown and on their own. They want their time to enjoy life without the demands of family. They want their own independence.
The American and Asian cultures are very, very different in the ways they look at honoring Mom and Dad. My Vietnamese students made it very clear that merely sending money to their parents was not considered to be caring for them. To my students (mostly female) “caring” for one’s parents meant cooking for them and being physically with them at all times. Of course, the concept of a nursing home is almost unheard of in Việt Nam. (I assume some Viet Kieu will introduce that idea to Việt Nam, however.)
My current situation is that my elderly mother lives near me, but she does not live in my house. Even with her diminished mental abilities, she would not allow herself to live with me – she wants to live independently. If we were Vietnamese, she would never have thought of living by herself – she would grow old and live with her oldest son, and cared for by the son’s children. With four generations in one home, there would never be any idea of letting Mom live by herself.
Hence, the dilemmas of our “sandwich generation” of Americans. We have raised our children, yet we are the ones with elderly parents who need daily care. We yearn for the day when we can retire and travel or do whatever we damned well please. Our culture has raised us to be independent, yet somebody must care for Mom and Dad – we must honor our father and mother. We are caught in the middle. We are the cheese in the sandwich.
Not being raised in an Asian culture, I am not adjusting quickly to the concept of having to care for my mother in an Asian way. This is not to be confused with my not loving her – it has to do with filial piety in our culture. She was very successful in raising me to be independent, and now I am conflicted between my desire for that independence and my obligation to honor my mother.
Maybe the sandwich is that I know a little about being Vietnamese, yet I’m totally American - - and I’m in the middle.