When my American mother turned 18, her parents gifted her a suitcase.
It was a symbol of her new independence. She was old enough to go out into the world and make her own way. And she did, eventually moving to Mexico and building a life there for more than 20 years.
When Gaurav’s Indian father was of age, his parents begged him to remain in India. Who would take care of them in their old age? They asked. The decision he made to stay was a symbol of a debt repaid: his parents had born him, raised him, and sacrificed for him, now he needed to sacrifice in turn.
Though that concept might seem outdated and difficult to grasp for a Western mind like mine, it still persists on some level today. Indian families are close-knit in ways that can be hard to understand, and it’s always fascinated me how Indian adult children juggle expat life with the needs of aging parents living on the subcontinent.
There are definitely more pressures placed on Indian children to look after their parents once they reach a certain age. And these days, with people moving around the globe at a faster and easier rate, looking after parents from afar is becoming more and more common amongst Indians of our generation.
It could be said that there is a brain drain of sorts going on in India as some of the best and brightest pack up and seek opportunities overseas. In fact, India is the top country of birth for immigrant scientists and engineers. And while I can’t think of a single person I grew up with who has moved and stayed overseas, Gaurav doesn’t know any childhood friends who haven’t. The majority have settled in the U.S., though many have gone to the U.K. and Canada as well.
Which begs the question, how do they balance the cultural demands to take care of parents with their ambitions and desires for a life abroad?
When Gaurav’s mom passed away three weeks ago, it brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings that had been simmering beneath the surface for a while. We’ve wondered if we did enough, visited enough, called enough. And we’ve also asked ourselves what is considered ‘enough’?
Gaurav and my approach to being expats with aging parents is as diverse as our differing cultures. Even though I grew up in Mexico (where families are often just as close-knit as those in India), my mindset tends towards American in this regard. My parents have often told me that they don’t need me to look after them. And I’ve always viewed them as independent adults who don’t require any meddling on my part.
Gaurav, on the other hand, has been intimately involved in his parents lives—from bills, to booking travel, to doctor appointments, he knows it all. I don’t even know the names of any medications my mom might be taking, not because I don’t care, but because our dynamic lends itself more to the idea that you don’t tell people these things unless you absolutely have to.
Gaurav manages living abroad with daily phone calls home to check in, while a phone call a week is about average for me. It’s a huge mystery to me what Gaurav could have to talk about to his parents every day, and the idea of trying to hold a conversation when there’s nothing to tell is anxiety-inducing. But then Gaurav and his parents are well-versed in the art of mundane daily chit-chat, while I and my parents feel the need to have ‘something’ to talk about.
Watching Gaurav and other Indian friends work hard at being good expat kids—from phone calls, to sending money, to having parents come stay overseas with them for months at a time—has definitely been an inspiration to me. I pick up the phone a lot more often now to call my parents, and I’m learning more and more how important it is to prioritize the people I love.
And after witnessing Gaurav go through losing his mum, I think we’ve both learned a hard lesson: our parents won’t be around forever, so why not pick up the phone and talk to them whenever we can?
It will always be a difficult line to walk, that feeling that we’re sacrificing time with our parents for a future and life abroad. I have to keep reminding myself that our happiness matters too and that quantity of time doesn’t always equate to quality. And, I’d argue, children who live abroad often go the extra mile for their parents because we’re working to make up for not being nearby.
Even then, as expats we’re left with the sense that it’s never enough. Never enough phone calls, or visits, or trips together. There’s always going to be that guilt that you didn’t do enough.
Grief is funny that way, isn’t it.