Cultural Differences: Respecting Your Parents


Note: old post, updated
As I’ve mentioned, my father has come to Germany to spend some time with me. Given that I only see him once a year, and usually only for a few days, I am both excited that he’s here and newly reminded of how very, very different our relationship is, compared to the one I have with my American family.
I have not spoken about my father much on this blog, and that is primarily because we do not have any real conflict, especially compared with the tension I have with my mother. However, given this visit, it reminds me of a weird moment I had when I was visiting my mother’s side of the family in the States, and highlighted a deep seeded cultural difference that may go a long way to explain why I clash so badly with my mother.

So I was sitting in the living room with my uncle, my cousin and her boyfriend. It was a little awkward, we don’t really have so much to say to each other, but my uncle used to be really good friends with my father and is always curious to hear what he’s up to. Given that my father now lives in Brazil, he was kicking it under the sun while I’m freezing my butt off in December in Seattle. He teases me by sending me the occasional picture of gorgeous palm trees, beaches and crystal blue sea while I’m curled up on the couch inside. So I say to my uncle “hey, look where my dad is now! He just sent me this picture. What a dick! I’m so jealous”. My uncle’s reaction was one that I would have never anticipated. His face dropped, he gave an awkward laugh, turned to his daughter and said “[daughter], don’t you ever ever call me a dick. No matter how much time passes or how far away we are from each other, I hope we don’t ever reach a point in which you think you can disrespect me and call me a dick”. She looked terrified at the mere thought of it. “No dad, I would never do such a thing, no way”.
She’s 20, by the way.
Well, that lighthearted conversation-starter just got hella intense. I was not trying to disrespect my father, far from it. I tried to explain it, saying that if anyone sends you a picture from a remote gorgeous sunny place while you’re freezing and wishing you were there, don’t you call them a dick? Like teasing? He dismissed it, saying “I know you have a weird relationship with your father, but I would never tolerate something like that”.
This is where I realized that, as much as I love my US family, we just cannot see eye to eye about basic human interaction.
I’m 28 years old. As such my father has, for quite a few years now, treated me like an adult, like an equal. He will tell me about the drugs he took (and still occasionally takes), a dirty joke he heard, or a funny embarrassing situation he got himself in. We are adults, and we are equals. The idea that my uncle will forever hang on to this parental reverence, this respect me because I’m your father no matter what or else, that my cousin will forever fear calling him out on anything because respect, is heartbreaking to me. When I repeated this story to my Italian grandmother, who is 92, she was just as ready to call my dad a dick for sending me that picture and just as puzzled at my uncle’s reaction.
I was raised by an Italian family which believes that parental respect is earned in adulthood. One that has never uttered “do this because I said so” to a child, because children need to understand why certain actions are wrong, not just blindly follow authority. My mother, clearly, was raised in a completely different culture, which is probably why she had so many problems battling with me as a child, and why we still clash to this day.
Yes, I called my dad a dick, and I wouldn’t trade the relationship I have with him for anything, especially not for the one my uncle has with my cousin. The fact that I can talk to him like a person, like a peer, is infinitely more valuable to me than forcing myself into a paradigm in which I am expected to revere a paternal figure which is obviously just a fallible, flawed human like everyone else. Being forced to ultimately respect someone without question because blood, because family, because parent, to me is something that is putting a heavy strain on their relationship. I do respect my father, I respect the hell out of him, but I respect him because I love him and he deserves my respect, not because he made a biological contribution to me 29 years ago.
And for my relationship to be called weird, given that alternative? Fine, I’ll take weird over normal any day. In the meantime, I plan on having a bitchin time with my dad in Berlin this weekend!

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