Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Upstream vs. Downstream

Recently I've become aware of a distinct cultural difference between Americans and Mongolians. Perhaps it's true of the larger groups--Westerners and Easterners--but I wouldn't presume to know. My knowledge of the East is limited to my experiences of the last 11 months, three weeks in Japan in 1998, and what I've read or seen on TV (which isn't much). While some Americans grow up with or discover a fascination for Asian food, or Anime, or tea ceremonies (something unique from the East), that was not the case with me. Throughout my life, I've encountered/interacted with very few people of Asian descent. Not intentionally, of course, just as a result of where I lived and the people in my spheres of knowing. 

That said, now I live in Mongolia and I'm learning much about this Asian culture. I've talked a few times here on my blog about differences in how we view things. For example, I discussed the different perceptions around forgiveness and how Zorig and I have opposite views about preparations for worst case scenarios in life. Or rather, planning for the unexpected or unfathomable. This new topic is a cousin of that. It's about WHO a generation works to provide for and what happens to their wealth/belongings when they pass. 

In America (generally speaking, of course), a generation works to provide for and rise up the generation ahead of them. Parents work to provide a good education, often trying to pay for their offspring's college years (This is not something I fully agree with, but that's another post), and to have money to send their fledglings out into the world. While some youth embark on this journey at 18, some do it later, after graduating college at 21 or 22, or perhaps a little later than that. Insurance companies allow children to stay on their parent's health insurance plans into the mid-20s, if the child is in school and/or living at home. 

But then, one is generally expected to make their own way in life. They go where their advanced education or career takes them. While they should and do appreciate what their parents did to get them to this step into full adulthood, from a certain point they make their own money and are then responsible to pay their own bills. Generally they do NOT provide money to their parents, nor do they participate in the regular care of their parents or grandparents. Depending on proximity, they may visit from time to time. But the sense of obligation felt from children to their older generations is less, I think. Each family is unique of course and I speak only of my experiences and those of my friends over the years. 

Parents feel pride when they can talk about their independent grown children as they pursue marriage, careers, further certifications or degrees, all INDEPENDENT from their parents. The cord is cut and it's up to the individual to make it. Parents do not expect their children to care for them or assist them in day-to-day endeavors. In my family, we are ALL together only once every 5 years for Christmas in Michigan (which began in 2001). There are six of us (two divorced parents and four siblings) and we reside in six different states, or I should say, five states in the US (from east coast to west coast) and one country abroad. I work for my life with my husband and stepson. I do not send money home or provide for my parents. I DO have an authentic relationship and connect with my parents multiple times each week. We email, facebook chat, iMessage, and FaceTime or Skype. Strangely, I connect with my mom and dad MORE despite the fact that I am 6K miles away and an ocean apart. 

In addition to my parents providing for the beginning of our lives, they also worked to save money for their retirement and old age years. Some have greater success at this than others and there are unexpected events that can affect the amount saved for this part of life (not to mention the ups and downs of the investment market). When elderly Americans become unable to care for themselves, they do one of a number of things. They may live with family. They may move to a retirement community that provides varying levels of support. In their end days, they may live with family or, more commonly, live in a nursing home or hospice care center. Family members visit. Depending on the family and geography of where people live, this can be often or rare. 

So, my summary of American culture is that we send our money, wealth, belongings DOWNSTREAM to our progeny or the offspring of our fellow family members--but almost always to the younger generation. This became markedly apparent to me in a conversation with Mongolian friends. I was explaining that I had updated the beneficiary on my stateside retirement accounts to my new husband (from my three siblings). One friend reacted with a level of surprise and asked, "Why wouldn't you leave it to your parents?" I was equally shocked by this question--but also appreciated the opportunity to get inside the Mongolian mind on this topic. 

I explained that we leave things to spouses or children as they are expected to outlive us. In a natural world, parents die before their children. My friend said that for Mongolians, the wealth should go to the parents who had brought them into the world and provided for them in their childhood and youth. While I can't disagree with the reasoning behind her thinking, I could not see the value in leaving money to my mom and dad. Of course, if an emergency came up and they needed financial assistance, I would do what I could. But in the event of an untimely death, my worldly wealth and goods should fall to my husband and progeny (if they exist). This is logical to me. For my friend, leaving money to parents was logical.

I do not know the state of retirement planning for Mongolians. I suspect it is not as common or institutionalized as it is in the U.S. Mongolia has only been out from under Russian oversight since the early 90s. They are working to get their feet firmly planted as an Independent nation. While reports say that Mongolia has about a 10% unemployment rate, I would argue that is grossly under-reported. I know many people that struggle to find regular and consistent work. Therefore, I suspect it is difficult to plan for retirement or old age when NOW is what is facing you. 

That said, I have continued conversations with Mongolians around the topic. Younger generations are generally expected to stay AT home (living with parents) or CLOSE to home (if they begin a family of their own). There is a sense that you OWE money, care, and often interactions (arriving to share meals, assist with errands, pay bills, etc) with ones' parents and grandparents. I can't say that statement is wrong. But I do struggle with the perceived chains this can put on a young adult in this country. Rather than feeling free to go forth into the world (perhaps abroad to study or work), there is a sense of obligation or duty to stay close to home. I hear young Mongolians share about their internal conflict--they want to go and pursue, but are held in a place by a host of SHOULDs. IF one does go abroad to work, then it seems that many of them send support home--to their parents. This is an UPSTREAM channel of support. I wonder if there is not more stress on a young couple that might be trying to build a life for themselves and young child AND for their parents/grandparents. 

Even my own husband thinks it strange that I provided him with the information about my retirement accounts--in the event that an accident occurs and I am taken to soon. This harkens back to my previous post, but he flatly says he couldn't take my "money." I explained that if I am dead and gone, I would want him to be taken care of. The money needs to go SOMEWHERE. For him--it's wrong to talk about such strange events because he perceives it as inviting them to happen. So....we simply disagree.

I believe we should leave our wealth and belongings to those replacing us. But this does not mean I don't think we should respect or care for our elders. This is an endearing quality--IF it is authentic and not simply a product of obligation. Actions that result from obligation/duty may serve a need, but they do not serve the feeling between people nor do they create an authentic and real relationship or connection. 

Recently I read a book titled The Three Questions to my students. The book is based on an original short story by Leo Tolstoy. In it, the main character has three questions he wants answers to (obviously!): When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? 

Before reading the story I asked some students to answer each question for themselves--and to share aloud--saying that there was no wrong answer. For the second question--Who is the most important one?--I got a host of answers that included: myself, God, friends, the teacher, the president--but more than 70% of the answers were FAMILY MEMBERS. Some children answered with mom or dad, some with sister or brother, some just said "the family," but there was also one or two in every class that answered immediately with--my grandma/grandpa. I can't think of a single child in America that I've met or known that would list their grandparent as being at the top of this list (who is the most important one). I admire Mongolian culture for the fact that grandchildren KNOW their grandparents AND spend time with them. Perhaps it used to be that way in America--but we've all scattered to the wind and blood family is not as tight as I think it once was. Though I've been married twice before, I did not feel like family with my spouse in those previous unions. I did enjoy time spent with their parents, siblings, and other family members. But I often felt separate from. I didn't know how be integrated into one family--perhaps it was a product of the lack of intimacy and connection between me and my partner (and had nothing at all to do with the family members. 

But I AM learning how to be family with a man now. I see myself with him until the end. He is the closest person to me--in mind, heart, and soul. While this connection comes easily and naturally for us--it does require work and communication when trying to rectify two very diverse perspectives on a topic (such as the one discussed here). I have to accept that we may never agree on some things. We have to settle for comprehending (not always understanding) and accepting the differences that were built by our families, our history, our experiences, our nations and cultures. This is the nature of an international love affair and marriage. Holding space for something you can't understand or follow or believe--and standing strong in the love you create. 

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