When I took this job far away from Switzerland, I knew that there may be times when I would have to go home on short notice because someone in my family would need help. My parents are very fit, but over 80 years old and my only sister also lives abroad, so one of us will always have to travel if something comes up. As my mother is currently not feeling well, I’m on my way back to Switzerland as you read this blog post.
My Indonesian colleagues were surprised to hear that I was going to Switzerland because my parents were still living on their own and that neither my sister nor someone else was living with them to take care of them. This would be unthinkable in Indonesia. The family structures vary from region to region, but the principle of someone in the family living with the parents is the same everywhere.
In Papua, especially in small villages, the family structures are very open, and children often stay and sleep with other family members or friends (which most of the times are related too…), without their parents worrying about them. They know that the kids are being taken care of. And the same works the other way around. Old people are usually integrated in some kind of family structure and looked after. But «taking care of» doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as back home. It may just be food and making sure they are ok. Not the kind of care that we would expect in my country with medical help and integrating them in our daily life.
In Java, I was told, the youngest daughter is supposed to stay with the parents when they get older and take care of them. Sometimes, it may also be the oldest daughter, depending on the situation. The other siblings may live and work somewhere else, but they are expected to support the parents financially (and the rest of the family as well, but that’s another story). It gets complicated when the youngest daughter marries, because she is then expected to live with her husband and – if he doesn’t have any sisters - take care of her parents-in-law.
Looking after your parents is simply normal here and not considered a burden. On the contrary, it’s supposed to bring good luck and as an adult, it is your duty to give back to your parents what you received from them.
How different from my culture! Not many people in Switzerland would consider «sacrificing» their career or their freedom to live with their parents and look after them. I never really considered it either, to be honest, because I will still need to work quite a few more years to provide for my pension. But my current situation and talking to my colleagues here got me thinking. Is it right to be so selfish? After all, our parents did sacrifice a lot for us. So, do we owe it to them to give some of it back?
I don’t think it’s such a simple equation. Our parents raised us to be independent and live our own lives. Many of them would feel like a burden if their children were to take care of them. And we also have our own children to look after, so most of us are already busy juggling job and family at the same time. How could we add the parents on top of this? Because we feel that we would have to be perfect if we took the wellbeing of our parents into our hands. But do we? Maybe, it’s just about giving them the feeling of being part of the family again? Even if they are still able to take care of themselves, they would be less lonely, especially if one of them has already passed away. If the current Corona crisis shows us one thing very clearly, it’s that many people are lonely – young and old. But especially single elderly people who still live by themselves and are not advised to leave the house because they are in the high risk group.
Maya, my boss, has her 87 year old mother on the island and takes care of her every day. And she says she enjoys having «Oma» (as the rest of us call her) around as long as she can. If she took her back to Switzerland, she would have to place her in a nursing home because Oma is not able to live on her own anymore. Even though, it is quite a bit of work for Maya, they both seem to enjoy being around each other, and it looks like a wonderful arrangement.
I must say, I still hesitate. How would I feel if my children were to take care of me? I know I would feel like a burden to them, thinking that they have enough on their back already. And I think, my parents feel the same way about me and my sister. But things may change as we go along…
I’m not there yet and hope my mum will feel better soon, so that I’ll be able to go back to Pulau Pef. But the situation definitely started a process in me. Who knows where it will take me, but for now, I’ll be back in Switzerland for a while.
I never even dreamt of working on a remote island in Indonesia, but life has a way of taking care of itself…