I chatted with O’s friend NM last Sunday over leftover Chinese food and spinach dip at the Las Vegas airport while we were waiting for our flights to San Francisco and Connecticut, respectively. NM had seemed friendly enough over the weekend but we hadn’t hung out one on one, so I wasn’t sure how much we had in common.
As it turned out, we did have a few things to talk about. We discussed dating standards, college social life, jobs, and our friend O. And finally, we discussed Asian families.
NM is Korean-American and had complained intermittently throughout the weekend about working for his parents, comparing his job to slave labor. I learned, in the course of our airport conversation, that his parents own a grocery store in Connecticut that requires him and his family to work 7 days a week. His dad, who is 72 years old, wants to sell the store and retire but is having a hard time selling it at the price he wants.
“Right now, he can sell it for $100,000,” NM said. “But that’s not nearly enough to retire on. You can spend $1000 just like that. Like, if your air conditioner breaks, that’s $1000 right there.”
“Yup. My parents spent $4000 on new furnaces for their house last month.”
“I’m starting to realize how hard life is when you get older.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I changed the subject. “How much do you work?” I asked.
“12 hours a day, 7 days a week. I get paid $360 a week. So like, nothing.”
“Wow. Does your sister work there too?”
“And you both live at home?”
“Well, it saves you rent, I guess.”
“Yeah, but it gets irritating.”
“Tell me about it. I could never live at home again. Not at my age and with parents like mine.”
“Seriously. But my parents need me around the house. They don’t talk to each other. Like, they live in the same house, but they don’t talk. I don’t want to get into that, but basically, without me, the house would fall apart.”
“That’s tough. Asian parents are a lifelong trap. You think you’re home free when you get to college, but no. They never let go. Ever.”
“I know. They don’t let go until they die.”
“You think that’s funny,” said NM earnestly. “But every Asian kid, on some level, feels an immense relief when his parents are dead.”
I thought about what he said. I thought about my parents’ expensive semi-annual (and at one point thrice-annual) trips to China to check up on their aging parents, all that vacation time accrued and spent. I thought about my dad’s mother living with my parents and my mother’s initial resistance to the idea. Most poignantly, I thought about the fact that my parents (especially my dad, who is an only child and doesn’t have the option of splitting filial responsibility with anyone else) never complained about performing their filial duties–not once in the 25 years I’d known them.
NM’s opinion about relief and death made me wonder about things that had never crossed my mind before. Did my parents secretly harbor resentment about having to take care of their parents? Did they, on some level, look forward to the day when they would be free of it all? And how would I feel when it came time for me to take care of them? What expectations did they have? It was too uncomfortable an idea for me to consider for more than a moment, so I changed the subject again.