Honor Thy Parents : Respect for the Elderly, an Ancient Imperative Among Asian-Pacific Families, Is Feeling the Strain of Modern Life in L.A.
Tom and Wendy Teng, who emigrated from Hong Kong and South Vietnam, live in a modest, rented Rosemead home with sons Steve, 12, and Richard, 2. Teng drives a tour bus for Asian visitors; his wife is a job counselor at the Chinatown Service Center. Their joint income obviously isn’t overwhelming.
Still, when it was time three years ago to decide whether to expand their household and bring from her native land Khank Tran, Wendy Teng’s 67-year-old widowed mother, there was little discussion.
“We were taught from when we were children that this is something that should be done, that we must take care of aging parents,” said Teng, whose oldest brother watches over his parents in Indonesia.
Throughout Asia and the Pacific islands, respect for the elderly--what sociologists describe as “filial piety"--has been a cultural imperative to be revered and adhered to. But in Southern California, where Asian-Pacific peoples constitute a major and exploding part of the population, the deep-rooted value system is undergoing a modern test.
As they grow increasingly Westernized, Asian-Pacifics say they feel squeezed between the needs of their children and those of their parents. They are caught in an emotional tug between centuries of tradition and the pressures of the 1980s.
Should they preserve the customs, large and small, that govern relations between the young and old? Should they try to maintain their extended families in a Western society focused on nuclear families? What should the elderly themselves expect in terms of housing, economic security and independence?
Will Be Closely Watched
How the 900,000 Asian-Pacifics in Los Angeles County resolve these and other questions about the aged will be closely watched not just in the United States, but also overseas and particularly in Japan--a graying society in which as many as 70% of all the elderly now live with and rely to some degree on their families.
“We are constantly giving answers to scholars who are increasingly coming over from Japan to find out about housing and nutrition programs here for the elderly,” said Emi Yamaki, director of the Senior Nutrition Group in Little Tokyo. “A lot of the elderly there aren’t used to independence but it may be forced on them.
“More and more (in Japan and in Southern California) you hear about ‘the problem of the elderly.’ ”
The problem of the elderly. The mere suggestion of that thought represents a sort of cultural revolution, experts say.
Though it is hard to generalize about Asian-Pacifics’ experiences, if for no other reason than that there are more than 20 of their cultures represented in Southern California, it is largely true that in their native lands, “there has always been strong emphasis on the extended family,” said Stanley Sue, a UCLA psychology professor and a Chinese-American.
“With the Chinese, for instance, the roots come from Confucian values many centuries old, whereby the elderly are not only given respect, but often reverence,” Sue said.
Many Asian families immigrate to this country intact, meaning they bring their elderly with them, said Louise Kamikawa, director of the Seattle-based National Pacific/Asian Resource Center on Aging.
“In most agrarian cultures, which is the case with many of the Asians, the families are accustomed to taking care of their elderly,” she said. “Then, all of them find themselves in a culture in which this isn’t always followed.”
In contrast to the West, where the emphasis is on the nuclear family--the husband, wife and children--many Asian cultures have traditions in which at least three generations of a family live together. This is true for Southern California’s major Asian-Pacific groups: the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos and Vietnamese.
But once Asian-Pacifics immigrate to the United States, they may face greater financial pressures to keep their extended families together, Sue said. “Perhaps the generations are no longer all under one roof, and perhaps the wage earners in the middle may face a dilemma as to how the resources should be allocated between their children and their parents,” he said.
Sue said he perceives three types of Asian-Pacific families now in the United States. There are those who still cling to traditional Eastern values, those in transition and those who have become completely Westernized.
All of the groups have made or are making adjustments in their views and attitudes about the elderly.
Some Asian-Pacifics already have been rudely introduced to some American ways with the old.
Jose C. Cruz, an 82-year-old Philippines native, clearly remembers the discovery of the body of an elderly woman who had lived alone in the adjoining duplex in Pasadena.
“She had been dead there two or three days,” he said. “She had several children living elsewhere, but apparently no one had been around her. That’s the way it often is in the United States. When you become old, in many cases, you will be alone.”
Cruz, who came here six years ago and is now part of the county’s estimated 350,000 Filipinos, said that not only were he and his late first wife rearing six children but they were responsible for four grandparents.
“There was no question about it: You were expected to care for the parents in your home until they died,” he said. “I had to sell real estate and life insurance on the side to make ends meet. But we had been trained that it was an obligation, so there was no surprise about it.
“There is no such thing as nursing homes in the Philippines. Nor do the elderly live alone.”
The lonely lives some American seniors lead also shocked Quang Tran a 72-year-old widow who came to Los Angeles from Vietnam 13 years ago. “For a time, I lived in an apartment with some American elderly women,” she said through a translator. “I was surprised to find that some had nobody who wanted to care for them.”
Why? “For centuries, the Vietnamese have believed that a person’s highest loyalty was to his parents,” said an adviser to the Vietnamese Elderly People Assn., who asked that his name not be used.
The Vietnamese number an estimated more than 60,000 in Los Angeles County, and most of these first-generation immigrants were taught that loyalty to the old came before even loyalty to the state or any religious group.
“In some cases,” the adviser said, “the law expected a son or daughter to leave his work to go home and care for his ailing or feeble parents.”
Those who grow old in Asian-Pacific cultures have, by custom, come to expect to certain formalities to be followed.
“We believe that if you respect the elderly, you yourself will live longer,” said Trach Trinh 80, a widower who came to the United States in 1975 from South Vietnam and now lives with his granddaughter, her husband and their four children. “Respect for the elderly is taught in the schools.”
Such is that regard that when shaking hands--as common a greeting custom for Vietnamese as it is for Americans--seniors first are bowed to, with the shake following only if offered by the elder, Trinh said through a translator.
His companion, the 55-year-old adviser to the Vietnamese association, sat at his side and said he notices that his children sometimes forget this custom.
Trinh mentioned another traditional practice he sees his great-grandchildren neglecting as they grow more Westernized: “When they leave for school, they rarely stop to bow or say ‘Goodby,’ and they sometimes come home without saying ‘Hello.’ ”
In Vietnam, he said, there is a saying: “When you go, you have to tell. When you return, you have to report.”
Tran reported that she has noticed in Los Angeles a change in what she said was a common custom among older Vietnamese women: “Where I came from, the elderly women would take care of the little children. Here so many (youngsters) are sent to nursery schools.”
Still, some Asian-Pacific elderly still receive little marks of respect that their American-born counterparts rarely get to savor.
Chao Yu Hsu a 70-year-old who immigrated 47 years ago and is part of the county’s 170,000-member Chinese community, said he still enjoys a courtesy common at mealtime among Chinese families: “The most elderly person starts eating first.”
Other niceties? “On anyone’s birthday, and on New Year’s Day,” he said, “the old person is bowed to.”
The demographics tell much about changes affecting Asian-Pacifics and their elderly.
First, the basics: according to a 3-year-old estimate (the most recent) by the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, the county’s total population was 8,018,200. Of that number, 827,720 were Asian-Pacifics, an estimated 55,120 of whom were 65 and older, said county research analyst Terry Bills.
The U.S. Bureau of the Census reports that Los Angeles has continued to boom; more importantly, a third of all legal immigrants coming to the United States and the county now are from Asian-Pacific nations.
As they have settled into Los Angeles, Asian-Pacifics have fared well in their personal finances.
According to a study by the United Way, median household income of Asians in Los Angeles County was $20,160--the highest of six ethnic groups mentioned. (Though in the survey’s breakdown of Asians, the Vietnamese had the lowest median household income: $9,610.)
(The No. 2 median household income by ethnic group was recorded by white non-Hispanics, $19,830; the lowest--blacks at $12,190.)
The United Way study, “Pacific Rim Profiles,” also showed Asian-Pacifics shifting from maintaining extended families: “Of the total households in Los Angeles County, 4% have one sub-family. Asians have a slightly higher rate at 6%. Among Asians, Filipinos have the highest percentage of households with sub-families, 11%.”
The lowest percentage: the county’s Japanese at 1%. That may be because the 190,000 members of that community have been in Los Angeles the longest as a group and likely are the most Westernized.
But ironically, the rapid changes they are experiencing in dealing with the elderly also put them on the cutting edge in handling an issue that, among Asian nations, will most affect their native land.
Because of their emerging economies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to compare how the various Asian nations handle the issue of the old, said Richard K. C. Lee of the Population Institute East-West Center in Honolulu.
“In China, for instance, most of the elderly are still on farms, where there is space and where they can live in the home and help care for the grandchildren,” he said. “Whereas in Japan, where crowded conditions are growing and the economy is less directed toward farming, the elderly may begin to find things changing.”
According to a U.S. census report, “An Aging World,” Japan faces potential problems dealing with its elderly population in part because its life expectancy of 77 is the highest among all major nations (the U.S. figure is 74.6).
But as the years go by, seniors around the globe may expect to find attitudes toward them shifting. From 1980 to 2020, the global population 65 or older is expected to grow from 263 million to almost 700 million, reports a study financed primarily by the National Institute on Aging.
The times they are achangin’ in Los Angeles.
Wan Ki Paik a 65-year-old South Korean who immigrated five years ago, said he and his wife have become Westernized to the extent that they live, not in the same house but in the same apartment building as does one of their sons.
Since his son and daughter-in-law both work, his wife looks after their child.
But Paik, who is part of a community of 150,000 to 300,000 Koreans in Los Angeles, said he assumes that, eventually, he and his wife may be on their own.
That is quite unlike what they would have had reason to expect in their native land. Still he said: “You know what? We look forward to being independent.”
Not all seniors would agree. Indeed, said Yamaki--who deals with thousands of them, more than a few of whom live or want to live in the 16-story, 300-room Little Tokyo Towers. There, where the minimum age is 62 and where the manager said there is a 500- to 600-person waiting list, many residents are Issei, the first-generation of Japanese to move to the United States.
“When the possibility of moving into such an apartment building is first mentioned by children they may be living with, some Asian seniors are resentful,” Yamaki said.
She said the angry seniors, though they do not necessarily wish to move in with their children, still think of a rough expression that translates to mean the elderly are being cast off.
But she said: “Later, what you hear is: ‘This is great! I never want to go back to staying with my children. Now I am with friends my age, and I have independence--I don’t have to make a deal with my grandchildren as to what we will watch on TV.’ ”
There is more, however, to the seniors’ independence than their television viewing habits. “Some Issei tell us that while they enjoy the independence, they get lonely at times,” said Yamaki, who noted the seniors then “come to the center as much for the companionship as for the nutrition.”
The United Way Inc. of Los Angeles--in an “Asian/Pacific Needs Assessment” published in June, largely through the efforts of local executive Lilly V. Lee--recognized that the Asian-Pacific elderly do face problems.
The study reported that, “Elderly members of the Asian/Pacific community were found . . . to be among the most underserved of all age and demographic groups. Increasing economic pressures and the weakening of extended family ties have slowly eroded the capability of many Asian-Pacific families to care for parents and grandparents.”
Some older Asians already have seen what this could mean for them. Not only will their senior years not follow tradition but they also may find themselves caught in a situation all too common in the West--They may have to fend for themselves in their old age.
At the seventh annual Mature Workers’ Job Expo in Los Angeles last month, there was a first: At three of the nine sites where information was provided on how to seek employment and meet prospective employers, workshops were conducted in Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
They were among the more heavily attended sessions at the event sponsored by the National Council on the Aging Inc.
The turnout, said project manager Natalie Gold, “suggests Asian elderly have income needs and stereotypes about their needs being met by family members that need to be examined.”
Pei Han, a 69-year-old immigrant who came from Taiwan six years ago and lives in West Covina with a daughter, Cecilia, attended the job sessions.
“It isn’t so much the money,” he was seeking, he said. “But now that I am in America, I want to have a job, maybe in an office, and stay busy. I don’t want to be at home and do nothing. Where I came from, however, that was proper for a man my age.
“Things are different here. In this country, if you call someone old, that person gets mad; where I was, it meant respect.”
Otto Chan--a 71-year-old who came to this country seven years ago from Hong Kong and lives in Monterey Park with his wife, Lisa, and son, Oliver--went to the job fair seeing work in the nutrition field.
With his son interpreting, he explained that he thinks there are more opportunities in Los Angeles for seniors than where he came from. And he wants to take advantage of that.
For Asian-Pacific people in Los Angeles, is growing old to be an opportunity or a problem?
The Tengs, who have opted to keep a tradition, find strength in maintaining their extended family, as they were taught to do since they were in kindergarten, said Wendy Teng.
Still, she glanced at her preteen son, wearing his Oakland baseball cap, and said in jest: “We teach Steve the same thing--but we don’t know how much is sinking in.
“We wonder whether, when we become old, we will be put in a nursing home.”