Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Empathy, Filial Piety

I just had a conversation with Bongsrei (literally "older sister" in Khmer), the owner of Angkor Famous restaurant, who also has a provision store where I get my Coke Light and Italian food supplies (olives, tomato paste etc). Actually I do know her name but I find it hard to call her by her name because she is an elder. I am very Asian that way - I find it almost impossible to address older people, especially if they are Asian, by their names instead of "uncle", "aunty". In Singapore we call everyone older than us "uncle" or "aunty", as we do in Cambodia, where we say "ming" (aunty) or "bpoo" (uncle).

My Scottish partner had to tell me "Please don't address my parents as "aunty" and "uncle". They'll find it strange. Where I come from, an aunt is a relative." I found it so hard addressing his parents by their first names, I ended up saying, "Hello, Mr [last name]". Alan is very private and does not understand blogs. If blogs are diaries, then they should be private. So I try to keep him out of it. Even in press interviews, I don't mention him, so people have told me they imagine I am this eccentric woman. ("Diana lives with her five dogs in a 16,000 sq feet bungalow" was how one magazine put it). Then they meet me and all their suspicions are confirmed - haha!

Still, he is such a big part of my life it is impossible to keep him out of this blog completely.

Alan has spent the last 10 weeks away in Scotland because his mom passed away and he is keeping his father company. I am able to write about it now but it was a very traumatic time for us because he did not manage to arrive in time.

This is also why I am blogging more often because it is something to do. I also force myself to work in the shop so I meet people. I am the sort of Internet junkie cum misanthrope who could easily live as a virtual person cum hermit if given half the chance. (Yes, yes, I know - what is a misanthrope doing helping other people improve their lives? I don't know either. This is me, "walking inner turmoil" is how a friend described me when we were in junior college. It must be that I don't hate all people all of the time.)

Anyway, Bongsrei and her husband have been very kind to both of us since we moved here in 2007. They have been very generous with discounts, free food and advice. We repay them by taking friends and buying our supplies there.

They are very concerned I am alone and suggested I get someone to live with me, like a maid, but I prefer being alone. They are always asking when Alan will be back. Bongsrei keeps telling me to get Alan's dad over here. "He can have one girl, do everything for him." Err....

Of course she means get a helper for him, who will look after him in his old age. Helpers here earn less than USD100 a month. (Many earn USD50 and do so because of the free food and lodgings which means they get to save the salary.) Alan's dad is in his 80s and is not interested in moving to the other side of the world.

Today, Bongsrei said "Give him [Alan] time." She told me how when she was living in the US, American children would leave home when they turn 18. This happened to a neighbour. One day the old man fell and was unable to get help or food. She said for three days he laid there. He was discovered only because another neighbour smelt something bad and called the police after realising it may be the old man, since they'd not seen him in a while. (The urban legend would be the cat eating half his face).

Horrified that something like this could happen, Bongsrei said she told her American neighbours, "My country no like this. The children never go far from the parents."

This made me pause. What I am doing here in Cambodia? Should I, too, be like Cambodians who never leave their families?

It's something I think about often, especially since Alan's mom's death. I play it out in my head - if any of the Bloom women were to die, of course I would feel sad. But how much more I would feel for people I grew up with, for people I love, for friends and family.

Bongsrei's words made me pause because she is Khmer. What must Khmers think of foreigners who leave their families to come to Cambodia to do something for the Khmers? Do they think I am a bad daughter and Alan a bad son? Some of the Bloom women have told me they do not understand me (join the club). If they were me, they said, they would stay with their families and take care of them. Yet the women know what I do makes a huge difference to their lives and that of their families. The women are always saying to me "awkoon bongsrei thom thom" (thank you elder sister big big) and they are grateful for the help from NGOs and foreigners. I wonder if they see the double standards irony?

How can you have your cake and eat it is the question I'm asking. How can I balance being there for loved ones and being there for others? To what extent does one live for herself and to what extent for others? Ultimately, the question is "how should one live"?

"Personal relationships are important," said a British friend who has since left Cambodia after living here with her family for more than 5 years. She tells me anytime I want to pack up and leave I should do it, because I have given the women skills and self-esteem which will assist them in life. It is not so cut and dry for me. I feel a sense of responsibility to the women - how often have foreigners made promises and then abandoned Cambodians? We have passports and options so can leave anytime. I am thinking of how during the advance of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh, foreigners were evacuated or could take refuge in the French embassy while Khmers, even Khmer spouses of Westerners, were turned away at the embassy doors. No wonder then the Khmers have a saying: "There is no point loving a foreigner, because will a foreigner be at your funeral?"

"Empathy, once granted admission, has a way of multiplying its demands," writes one of my favourite authors, Zoe Heller, in her New York Times review of Ian McEwan's Saturday.
"While buying the ingredients for a fish stew he plans to make for supper, Perowne Saturday's protagonist] ponders the latest scientific research indicating that fish have a higher degree of capacity for pain than has previously been assumed. ''This,'' he thinks, ''is the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy. Not only distant peoples are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice, and now the fish.'' If empathy is the antidote to cruelty, the essence of what it is to be human, how far to extend it? To fish? To foxes? To jihadists who wish you dead?"
I read Saturday last year and had started writing a blog entry on the idea of empathy. I never got around to finishing it because it's such a difficult topic for me with so many questions unanswered such as can one be too empathetic? Today's conversation made me think about it again.


Unknown said...

Dont you think that the "stay at home" sense of obligation is just a somewhat dated custom?

You know that you honor your parents my what you do and how youo conduct yourself in the world no matter where you or they are and you know that you are a good and loving duaghter even when you are far away from your parents.

At least that is how I feel (son not duaghter in my case).

I think it is comparable in many respects to the acceptance and tolerance of secularism.

The notion that filial piety includes a mandatory obligation to stick around mom and dad seems to me to be a "not quite modern" idea.

Please don't misunderstand me, I'm not putting it down at all, just trying to get more perspective since I am not Asian and cannot imagine living with my mom for an extended period of time.

Also as practical matter in modern times, if you have the cabability to earn a significantly larger and more secure income for your own family you will be in a much better position to help out your [parents economically. Witness the large numbers of workers from Indonesia, the Phillipines and other countries who work abroad and send home billions of dollars ayear to their families.

In fact isn't it probably true that at least some of the basis for the sense of obligation to stick around mom and dad was actually economically driven? Just asking, not prmoting my own theory or argument.

Curious to see your response...

Diana Saw said...

Hi Steve, thanks for this. It's hard to generalise - it depends on your relationship with your family. I know one guy who hates his parents so much he faked his own death. Another woman turned down a lucrative expat job to be near her aging parents because time with them, she figured, is worth much much more than money. "All my possessions for a moment of time" - last words of Elizabeth I.

I think children moving away from their parents is a modern *state of affairs*, driven, of course, by globalisation. As you note, it makes financial sense to many to move overseas to work.

I am not sure moving away from the family is an outmoded *idea* or custom. The Chinese and Cambodian peasants who leave the countryside to seek work in the cities do so because they lack choice. So many Khmers have told me if they could, they'd go home to their province. It's often a cruel, hard life working in the cities, away from familial support (as well as childhood friendships).

Westerners, too, appreciate the importance of family, hence the effort to get together on special occasions such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Birthdays, Anniversaries etc etc.

For many people, rather than celebrate these relationships only on special occasions, why not celebrate it everyday while you can?

Perhaps it's less a question of culture and more a question of your relationship with your family. I just spoke with an Australian who will be moving home to spend time with her aging father, not out of obligation, but out of love.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin