Saturday, July 10, 2010

Of mums and mums-in-law

Today one of my letters to the Straits Times in response to recent discussion on filial piety was published. I would have missed reading it if husband had not pointed out a letter on poorly-mannered Singapore doctors.

When I read my letter again, I realized that a very important sentence was omitted because it is, clearly, not politically correct to even express such a view in a national newspaper. The full text of my letter is here:

When researching elderly Chinese living in sheltered housing in the UK, I was struck by how often daughters-in-law were rendered invisible.

They did not feature in family photo albums nor were they talked about, except negatively, which is probably why these older Chinese were living on their own.

Why, I wonder, would this generation of women who had suffered the wrath of their own mothers-in-law, treat their daughters-in-law so unkindly?

It transpired that before our marriage my husband told his parents in no uncertain terms where I, his wife-to-be, would stand in the event of any future conflict.

And I, from as soon as I was able, had been preparing my son for life away from mum and dad (ie being able to cook and clean) just as my parents-in-law had my husband. I wrote to them soon after we were married, thanking them for bringing up their son so brilliantly.

Unbeknown to us while Singaporeans were agonizing over whether a husband should stand by his wife or mother, we were voicing our fear (in jest) over our son refusing to leave home till he was forty!

Clearly we are talking about different patterns of relating between generations, and in many ways, between cultures.

The cultural shift in residential patterns had been immense in under two generations: from new brides (especially of eldest sons) living with their parents-in-law, to young couples starting married life in new homes (leaving ageing parents to single siblings), to widowed/sickly parents moving in with daughters (instead of sons).

There is no “norm” any more. It is a question of pragmatic arrangements.

Of course my mum-in-law and I have differences. However because she treats me with utmost respect, I reciprocate. And whenever I find her “annoying”, I remember that she is the woman who made my husband what he is, for which I must be eternally thankful.

Filial piety manifests itself in different ways. We come from very different experiences of language, education, history and yes, family conflict. It is futile to expect a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

However if we must be prescriptive I would venture that the flipside of filial piety is respect. And respect – mutual respect – cannot be imposed.

The paragraph in red was the one edited out.

Last week I was also surprised to learn from some parents at school how rude some of the senior boys were. They were allotted the task of helping members of the PTA (equivalent) to set up a stall and there were mumbles and grumbles.

A PTA stalwart said, "I blame it on the parents."

So back to this doctor being ill-mannered by not bothering to introduce himself/herself to the patient before telling him to strip and asking very personal questions. We come back again and again to:

"Is it because we have had a whole generation being brought up by foreign domestic workers?"

Yes, 30 years, a whole generation who probably never learned to say "please" and "thank you" because one is not required to be polite to a paid servant.

I've lost count of the number of times doors at public buildings were slammed on me, because the person in front could not bother to hold it for two seconds for me to come in (and for me to hold it for the person following, etc).

I've despaired at how often I get bumped into on a busy street and the person just grunts and walks away.

Come on, guys, it does not take too much to utter a sincere word of "I am sorry" or "I do apologise".

One morning some months ago I saw my son cross the road and waited to see him approach the school gate. One elderly gentleman was walking towards him. When the gentleman crossed over to my side, he asked, "Is that your son?" I nodded.

"He's very polite," he continued.

I had no idea what my son did to warrant this response from a neighbour that I've seen in the area but whom I don't actually know.

It transpired that when they both came to a point where the pavement narrowed due to tree roots, my son stood aside to let the gentleman pass. That was all. Nothing to it. But I was so proud of my son.

So, do we blame poor manner on parents?

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