I met an old friend of mine the other day for the first time in 20 years. A white working-class man, from a working-class area of Birmingham, England.
He said, “I’ve moved back to Birmingham to look after my parents. They’re old and frail. I’ve reduced my working hours as well, so I can look after them.”
I asked, “Do you get paid for that?”
He said, “No.”
I said, “But you’re white.”
“White people are not renowned for looking after their elderly. On the contrary, well known for putting them in an old people’s home and seeing them once every three months.”
“I know,” he replied. “But I don’t want any regrets. I don’t want to regret not having looked after them.”
I thought this to be admirable. Excuse my prejudice but this is a white working-class man. Wasn’t he meant to have moved to Spain with his girlfriend for lots of sea, sun and sex and then just turn up for the funeral and cake?
It put some of my Indian and Pakistani friends to shame. A lot of them have certainly packed up their bags and moved away to pursue flash cars, numerous wives, casinos and illicit weekends in Dubai hotels.
Saying things like, “Oh, my parents are not old, they’re only 85, they’ve got at least 10 years left and they don’t really need me yet”. Obviously, they will be there just in time for the chicken biryani and jalebis.
This must be a new development because it is our culture to look after our parents. It goes without saying – love them or hate them. No matter how irritated or annoyed by them we are, there is no question about it, when they’re old you just have to do it. It’s in the Asian contract when you’re born.
Or, that used to be the case.
When I was a kid I used to go to people’s houses for dinner where they would make jokes about white people sticking their parents in homes. It was a running joke that white people didn’t value their elders the way we did. Now, it seems the tables have turned.
My parents have been such dominant characters in their children’s lives. Larger than life characters that have their noses in all our business, had our lives planned out before we are born, always know best, are always right, can find you a better husband than you can, know much more than we’ll ever know, and their favourite line, “If you don’t look after us now, you’ll pay for it in the next life”. This makes us all so scared that we immediately start doing the washing up and helping them up the stairs.
I can’t imagine my parents ever not being alive. They have always been alive. I think I take their being alive for granted. I can’t imagine a life without my mother saying, “Why have you brought those dirty shoes inside the house?” and, “Where are my grandchildren?” and my dad saying, “Are you sure your male friend is gay?”
I don’t think about them not being here, because I can’t see it. I can’t imagine it, but there would probably be no worse feeling than living with regret. You can’t hug your parents after they’re dead. And nothing will ever prepare me for that loss, with regret thrown in as well; it might just be the most awful way to live the rest of your life.
Asians often think of themselves as a superior race, “we make good doctors, good husbands, loyal wives, well-educated children; we work hard, we know all about respect and are top of the league in judging other races and cultures,” but maybe all that is a thing of the past.
My generation and those coming after me are turning white and the real white people are turning Asian. We’d better watch out, otherwise soon people will be saying, “God, those Asian people have no respect for their elders, no family values. They’re lazy, immoral and way too liberal!”
We could learn a lot from the white man who we thought would throw his parents to the dogs.
The author is an award winning stand-up comedian and writer. She has performed all over the world. A columnist for The Guardian UK, she was named Columnist of the Year at the prestigious PPA Awards. Find out more from her website.
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