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Taking Care of our Tough Immigrant Moms Across Four generations

Roles and relationships shift quickly as parents age

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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's 78-year-old mother (left, bottom), 96-year-old grandmother (center, bottom) and her aunties at a family reunion.
Hao Hao Wang

My mother almost accidentally complimented my cooking when she was sick.

"Kai-Hwa's youfan is very gggoo. … OK."

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She turned that sentence around on half a syllable, but my daughter Mango and I both heard it.

That was the first and only time she ever almost complimented my cooking.

She once told my children, “No one could possibly be such a terrible cook; she must be doing it on purpose."

Note: In real life I am not a terrible cook. I am actually a very good cook. I even teach Chinese cooking classes at the community college.

But my mom is better.

Like that half-syllable twist, our roles are shifting too quickly.

Whereas my friends and I used to stand around at children's birthday parties and soccer games talking about diapers and day care, now we are, well, standing around at high school graduation parties and talking about them again.

And we complain about how our parents are so feisty and strong-willed (shout-out to those of us with immigrant and refugee parents) that they do not listen to any of us, because — what do we know? — we are just children.

For almost as long as I have had children, I have been counting down the days until my youngest graduates from high school so that I will finally be free to move wherever I like. I live in a small college town, which is nice, with good schools, but very quiet. Finally, my three daughters have graduated from high school and gone off to college, and I have only one child left at home, my 15-year-old son, whom we all call Little Brother.

Three more years and I am free.

But instead of looking forward to the big-city excitement of San Francisco or New York — finally! — I am quietly investing in my education and checking out work possibilities in my mother's extremely quiet and very rural small town. Population: 2,253.

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My girlfriends ask, “Won't you be bored out there?” And I insist, a little too fervently, that once I am out there, I settle into the quiet and do not mind. I swim. I write. I go to sleep at sunset, with the neighbor's erhu music wafting in through my window; I wake at dawn, with the other neighbor's chickens pecking in our yard.

I am lucky to have a portable career. But she does live very far out.

And I am not yet ready to retire.

I am afraid.

Everyone always finds my mom, at 78, so cute and sweet, but I try to tell them that my mom is also the daughter of a four-star general, the oldest Chinese daughter of seven and a second-grade teacher — in other words, the toughest of tough immigrant moms. I get no sympathy.

Two years ago my mother had a pinched nerve and spent the summer immobile.

My children are troupers and spring into action every time my mom rings the old school bell on her bedside table. My children are used to working with me as a team from a childhood full of Asian American cultural events. Together we cook and clean with precision timing. We feel the water temperature before she bathes. We try not to kill too many of her beloved orchids. We track her medications and take notes at her doctor's appointments. There is also an ambulance ride to the ER and two airplane trips to the big hospital at the capital. Many phone calls with my brother and my cousin the doctor. Our neighbor Howard installs handicapped rails in her bathroom. So many aunties and uncles show up at our door with fresh Chinese vegetables from their gardens. I service her car, pay her taxes downtown, argue with her health insurance and cook a lot of chicken soup with ginger and Chinese medicinal herbs.

spinner image Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's mother and daughter sitting in the living room going over bills to be paid.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang's mother and daughter going over bills to be paid.
Frances Kai- Hwa Wang

Whenever we go out, we always have to leave one person behind because my mom keeps trying to escape in her wheelchair.

My mom complains to her friends that I keep trying to guan, or manage, her, tell her what to do.

When I thank my children for helping, they laugh. “I'm just doing my filial duty,” Niu Niu says while Hao Hao recounts the gruesome Chinese parable manga they read when they were little. You know, the one about the filial child who cuts off a piece of his own flesh to cook and feed to his poor, sick elderly parents so that they do not starve to death.

Sorry! It was a manga. I thought it would be light and fun.

Many years ago my father was 18 months away from full retirement benefits when his mother, my nai nai, became ill. No one could believe it when he quit his job and moved into her house to help his siblings take care of her in her last months.

He told me that those were the best six months of his life: “You don't get that time back."

Ever since my dad passed away unexpectedly, five years ago, it has been a delicate balance helping my mom learn how to live on her own and how to do many new things, both big and small. Facebook messenger. Fixing the car. Financial matters.

And how not to be afraid.

My mom is recovering from a second surgery, and walking is still painful for her. But now, her 96-year-old mother, my po po, is sick and starting to show signs of dementia.

My mom wants to go see her. To just sit with her for a while. But to do so, my mom needs to be able to make the long plane ride there and back.

As my mom makes the decision to go see my grandmother, I see the determination flash in her eyes once again, and I realize that she and I are both going to be OK.

"Your po po is afraid,” my mom tells me, “afraid that I am going to guan her — tell her what to do."

This story is a winning essay from the AARP and AAJA Caregiving Contest. Learn about the contest and the other winners >>

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