Respect. We all want it. We all demand it. We parents especially demand it from our children. But it can be so hard to give.
I was raised in a Chinese American family (emphasis on the Chinese and the American) with grandparents and a father who still upheld the traditions of the old world and relentlessly passed them down. Of highest importance was respect for our elders.
As we said our final goodbyes to my grandmother this past weekend, we, of course, reflected on her life and who she was. She had a difficult childhood in rural China, growing up during the Japanese occupation of China. She entered into an arranged marriage at 17 to a man who adored her, but it took many years for her to return his love. She worked hard and raised 5 children in California. They didn’t always have a lot of money, but my mom always spoke of the wealth of love. Through it all, I only knew my grandmother as a happy woman who wore rose colored glasses. We were all perfect and beautiful and she was so proud of us. Her life was not always easy, but she chose to only see the good and reflect on the bad with kindness and gratitude.
But my grandmother helped teach me the most important tradition of our family and our heritage: respect for our elders.
My grandparents helped care for my siblings and me when each of us was born and periodically as needed. During one of these times, when I was early school aged, my grandmother told me to put on my shoes. She thought the tiled floor was too cold for my little feet. Being about 5 or so and used to running barefoot through the house, I thought she was nuts. So, I said no. I remember my grandmother’s stricken and shocked face. Such disrespect was unacceptable, even from such a young child. My mom lectured me, punished me, made me apologize properly, and made me put on my shoes. I was hurt and confused, but I learned to respect my elders.
As I grew older, I learned to say no while not saying it. But I also learned to respect my elders because they have the age, experience, and wisdom I lacked. There were a great many things I could learn from them. Even though my grandparents and parents drive me nuts and I sometimes thought they were crazy, I came to understand the importance of our traditions and that I did indeed have many things to learn. Most of all, I learned they always had my best interests at heart. They only wanted the very best for me. My grandmother had only been trying to protect my health.
But with a very Americanized grandfather and mother, respect being a two way street was also stressed. We children had to respect our elders, but they also learned to respect our choices as we were the ones who had to live our lives. They will always pass down their wisdom and expect us to listen, but they also know we will live the way we choose to live.
As a mother myself, I will continue my family’s tradition. I am actively teaching my 4 year old to respect his grandparents, and mommy and daddy. He is learning to listen and be polite. But it’s easy because his grandparents make very few demands and his grandmother, being very Americanized, prefers to spoil rather than teach the old traditions (lucky him!). But he’s also learning we respect him and his feelings. I almost always take the time to explain why we do and don’t do things to him and his little sister. I am teaching him I respect him as a person and his feelings just as I am teaching he needs to listen to and respect his elders. After all, we only have his best interests at heart.