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Mina Choi Tenison

Looking At Old Age

Contrasting Korean and American cultural expectations of eldercare

When I lived in Korea as a young child, I heard many tales and fables that were repeated over and over. In my memory, one went like this: One day, the king of Korea decreed that all the decrepit old people who are useless and cannot contribute to the nation’s development must be taken to the mountain and abandoned there. One hapless farmer had no choice but to follow the imperial edict. He placed his tiny elderly mother upon a traditional wooden shoulder rack and carried her up the mountain. He put her down when he found a suitable sheltered spot to leave her. As he turned to go, his mother said, “Son, I didn’t want you to get lost returning home, so I spilled some things on the ground. Make sure you look for these things and you will find your way home.”

The story ended with the son putting his mother back on his shoulder rack and taking her home, defying the edict.

It’s a story that had mystified me for years. But as I get older, I’ve begun to understand the nuances of this story. My mother used to tell me how many of her fellow elderly Korean ladies who had immigrated to the U.S. would say, “It’s great that I’m living in America. I don’t need my filial son. I have Social Security. Social Security is my filial son.”

In traditional Korean society, the eldest son received the lion’s share of the inheritance, whether it be land or assets. But the unspoken rule was that he had to look after his parents in their old age. As someone who was raised in America, with the institution of Social Security firmly in place, I never understood the underlying economics of this deal: the parents raise the children while they are fit and able and leave assets that they have built up; in exchange the children who benefit from the assets look after the elderly when they become feeble. This very personal familial commitment has been institutionalized in the U.S. – the elderly are supported by the state with the taxes levied during the beneficiary's younger working years.

But often in America, I've seen extreme implications of this American idea of individuality and self-sufficiency. Some of the richest people we know in America have fine-tuned their old-age projection into perfection. They have put in provisions to make sure that they will never run out of money; that they will never have to burden their children with having to look after them. Retirement communities with 24-hour nursing and catering are all the rage—where the cost of entry is too formidable for the average American. One client of my husband’s told him: “I think it’s the best gift I can offer my children—they never have to worry about us. We have set up our retirement so if we’re ill or disabled, that we have 24-hour nursing and services in a beautiful environment.”

I found this comment sad. Is it really too much to ask for one’s children to look after them a little? Yes, I would never ask my child to give me 24-hour care, but one only lives for so long, and is it a lot to ask one's children to come and visit, and perhaps offer occasional care and attention, even if it’s a little inconvenient?

(more to come...)

WALL STREET JOURNAL CHINESE, Digital Edition, April 22, 2013

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