Ethnic parents: navigating the cultural divide

Ethnic parents: navigating the cultural divide

The usual Asian-Australian trajectory is this: you spend your teens resenting your otherness and wishing that you had a pronounceable last name; you then spend the rest of your adulthood awash with ethnic guilt from your parents and feeling like the world is tugging at you from all sides.

As I have settled into my twenties, I have become more comfortable with my identity as an Asian-Australian. But the more I grow to accept that part of me, the greater the sense that I am straddling the line between the Eastern sense of familial obligation and the Western lure of freedom and individualism. This is especially the case as my parents get older and the dynamic between parent and child starts shifting.

In the 1970s and 80s when Vietnamese refugees made their way to Australia, many Australians reported being baffled that these people, who had just fled war with nothing but the clothes on their backs, would send the pittance that they made in their factory jobs back to their family home in Vietnam. In my own family, my father sent all his earnings from his work as a factory hand at BHP back home to support his mother and siblings, all the while surviving on the bare necessities. I am sure for others like him, living the basic life in Australia was more than plentiful compared to the postwar poverty that engulfed his homeland and all the family members he left behind.

In interracial relationships, the tension between the East and the West becomes even more pronounced, particularly when the issues of family arise. I never realised how deeply I had internalised my parents’ lectures about sacrifice and family obligations until they were recently tested by my partner and his family. For them, just like the Australians in the 80s, it was difficult for them to understand why anyone would willingly sacrifice their own immediate ‘happiness’ for the sake of their family, namely their parents and why one would willingly accept the ‘burden’ of responsibility for their parents.

The South East Asian approaches to family are largely shaped by Confucian philosophies that place an emphasis on filial piety and collectivism. Filial piety refers to the idea that parents are expected to act in their child’s best interests and in return, children are expected to return the favour for their sacrifices by showing them respect and obedience, a routine that is passed on from generation to generation. In practical terms, it also entails that children are expected to care for their elderly parents in the same way they were cared for as a child.

Confucian philosophy is so pervasive in South East Asian societies that it creates a number of practical reasons why family members have to take on greater responsibilities for their ageing family members. For instance, there is a lack of adequate social security (if any) and limited infrastructure to care for the elderly that is independent of family support. In Australia, the concept of culturally and linguistically diverse nursing homes is only now emerging, but many will still prefer to live with their families as this is consistent with their cultural beliefs and easier than overcoming language and cultural barriers that may arise in a nursing home setting.

And so arises the guilt for Asian-Australians like myself who have been raised between the Eastern-Western cultural lines. Which approach is best?

My mother told me that the best part of migrating to Australia was that was an opportunity to form a new identity through the ability to pick and choose the best of each culture. In response, I agreed: the notion of filial piety should not be a universal assumption and parents cannot assume their kids will always ‘give back’. Rather, for parents who have done the hard yards, who have sacrificed so much for their children and raised them with love and compassion, those parents will be the ones who will get to reap the benefits of their children coming back to them. And for my parents, it will not be an obligation, but an active and informed choice made possible by the freedom of being raised an Australian.


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