Saturday, August 1, 2009

Parents playing God

I was watching Ramen Girl the other day and something strikes me about the movie. It wasn’t just a romantic story where boy meets girl in a foreign country, they fall in love and live happily ever after. It’s a movie about breaking away from family expectations and finding your own path in life.

Brittany Murphy plays the character of a lost (by lost, I mean uncertain about what she wants in life) American girl, who while in search of her love, ends up in Tokyo. She loses her love but instead finds a purpose in life. For the first time, she realises what she wants to do and that is to be a ramen chef.

Defying her family expectation of her in becoming a lawyer, she studies under the tutelage of someone who appears as a mean and tyrannical Japanese ramen chef in a small but popular ramen restaurant. During this time, she learns and adopts what is considered as the epitome of Japanese culture; responsibility, discipline and commitment towards achieving one’s goal.

Inevitably, like many other movies, she finds love with a local guy, whom unlike her, sacrifices his dream of becoming a musician by working as a corporate executive in order to fulfil his family’s wishes. So, the movie is basically about how the two individuals from such diverse cultures learn from each other; her by learning responsibility and him by pursuing his dream.

The movie’s theme reminded me about how I used to think (sometimes I still do) that my whole life is about fulfilling my family’s expectation. Sometimes I feel guilty for breaking away from the tradition my Father started by building his own business and then expecting my brother and I to take over from him. There is a huge dilemma of wanting to do something for myself and yet feeling remorseful for disappointing my Father since I owe him so much.

Thankfully, albeit being disappointed, my Father only wishes for our happiness. As long as we’re able to lead an honest and respectful life, we’re given the blessing to do whatever we wish for. Unfortunately, not all children are bestowed with understanding parents.

Many years back, I met a girl who was nice and kind in my A-Levels class. She was the kind of girl who would never harm another person. She was sweet, soft-spoken, polite and warm. We knew each other for about a year and then one day, she stopped coming to class. I found out later that she had committed suicide. Words had it that she aspired to be a dancer but due to family pressure, she was forced to study medicine. She must had been very unhappy and yet nobody knew or suspected anything until she met her death in her own hands. If the rumours were true, I wonder how her parents must had felt, knowing that they were partly responsible for their daughter’s death.

In university, I met many interesting, intelligent and nice Malaysian students. Since we were studying abroad, we all felt a special kind of bond and solidarity towards each other. We would sometimes hangout together, share a Malaysian meal or participate in cultural events.

Naturally, being away from home, we were free to be ourselves. We were allowed to dress however we like, do whatever we want and fall in love with whomever we believed we could be happy with. We were living unadulterated lives and sure enough, we made mistakes, we got hurt and so, we paid for our actions. Above all, we learned to grow up through trial and error and making our own decisions.

A few years after I graduated, many things have changed. Some of us have taken up completely different styles of dressing while others have settled down with life partners who possess completely different characters and personalities from their exes. It was almost as if the people I used to know have reverted back to a generic or mainstream lifestyle.

I hope that what I said doesn’t come across as me being judgmental. After all, being a student is far from being a working adult with different sets of responsibilities and priorities. However, I do question whether people change because they want to or merely because they are conforming to family and society’s expectations.

Do we choose a specific profession because that’s what our families would be proud of? Do we choose our life partners because they fit the profile of who our families would be happy with? Do we express ourselves in the way our family and society would be comfortable with? It would seem that we often do.

Many people have condemned how doctors seem to play God by determining the life and death of a person. However, less people have questioned whether parents are doing the same thing. I believe that I understand what it means to make our families proud and happy simply because we owe them our lives. It took me years to break away from the guilt of not fulfilling their wishes because at the end of the day, we don’t choose to be borne. They chose to give birth to us and decided on their own paths but it doesn’t mean they have a right to expect us to live the life they want. If they were to determine what road we should take and who we should become, isn’t that playing God or perhaps worse because God allows us to have freewill.

However, I do have a disclaimer for this. While I am a strong proponent of freewill, I believe that we do owe our parents a lot for bringing us up and we should never forget this. We can show our gratitude by respecting them, attending to their needs and be grateful for what they have sacrificed for us. Their happiness means a lot to us but at the same time, it should be reciprocal.


  1. Hi there, interesting post on parents playing god.

    Actually none of us chose to be in this world (or so it seems at least), so just by being parents, we could already be playing god in a sense.

  2. Yeap, that's my theory anyway. Parents get to choose, children don't.

  3. Hi Ka Ea thanks for the quick approval.

    So would you say you agree with the somewhat controversial view of anti-natalists? I wonder how popular such a seemingly logical but extremely radical view is...

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    there's no easy answer to this question. I try not to see things as black and white. I know people who are anti-natalists and I can understand their reasons for feeling that way.

    But it boils down to choice. I think people should have the choice but the whole problem is whether it's an informed and responsible choice or not.

    If parents can bring their child/children up responsibly and not as a selfish act (eg. to live the life that they want/ to compensate for what they didn't have/ the child is merely to continue the family's lineage or to take care of them when they're old), then I don't think it's wrong.

    What is your thoughts on this?

  5. Hi Ka Ea,

    Thanks for letting me take up more space on your blog haha...

    I'm not sure if I can say having children is wrong, but for me the problem lies in that, like you say, the child does not get to choose whether or not they would like to be here.

    While there might be an off chance that our children could end up living happy fulfilling lives, we cannot guarantee that. Live is unfair, unpredictable and bad things happen to good people. The reality for most people is that life is generally crappy. Our default state is death. I guess you understand this better than most due to your involvement in humanitarian work.

    However I feel that the crux of the issue is not about the odds of living a great life, but rather that having children is like forcing someone to gamble in a casino without an easy way out. The fact that the odds of winning are poor just makes it a worse thing to do.

  6. No problem at all for taking up space! I welcome it.

    Now, I'm not sure whether we're entering a conversation on the theory of fatalism; vis-a-vis, if something is meant to happen, there's nothing we can do to stop it.

    We're clear on the fact that a child has no choice when it comes to their birth. Now, I'm not religious; I don't subscribe to any specific religion, but I personally believe that there is a reason why people are able to procreate. If you can, then surely it means something and I would really like to know the reasons behind it.

    I think it's important that we don't look at this world as all bad. There is always two competiting forces; evil and good. They are many people who suffer and live a crappy life, as you said. But there are many others who tend to live a pretty happy and successful life as well. Maybe we don't see it because the media prefers to report on the bad stuff.

    In this sense, I don't agree on this fatalistic theory that there's nothing we can do to change things if it's meant to happen. The thing is, it's harder to change someone else than to change yourself.

    This is what I think parents should be aware of. There comes a point where the child is no longer in your "possession" as soon as he/she develops his/her own personality and characters. Many would wish for the child to live a good and happy life but fear that this may not materialise.

    For me, everybody (in an ideal world) is a free person who doesn't belong to anyone. Parents are just the "medium" to bring the child to this world.

    So, whether a person's life turns out to be bad or great, it depends on the person itself. And to allow a person to determine his/her own life is to acknowledge that they are free individuals. Parents tend to formed great attachment to their chilren that they beat themselves up when something happens to them. I think that's because they see their children as part of them or as their possession.

    In the end, do we stop living because there is a risk of things going bad? Do we stop loving because we might get hurt?

    I think we tend to look at things from the perspective we stand.

    For those who are miserable with their lives, they certainly question the purpose of life.

    But for those who have lived a purposeful life, they would question why death is necessary.

    For me, life is fair itself. Happiness and sadness do not discriminate. It's up to each of us to determine our lives.

    You will most definitely ask me why then good people get murdered since it's obviously not their choice. Well, I don't know why but I do know that these bad things happen at random and usually indiscrimately. (I suppose, it's a matter of being at the wrong place and at the wrong time.)

    The only difference is, we tend to question it more when it happens to someone close to us. But what we don't realize is that they are happening all over the world.

    Sorry for giving such a long explanation. I think it's an interesting topic which deserves a much better and longer discussion.