Sunday, October 4, 2020

Differences in Respect

 I have an uncle from Venezuela.  He came to the States for college.  It was during this time that he started dating my aunt.  They married, moved to the Bay Area, and started a family.  He got a job at Hewlett-Packard doing international sales.  He mainly traveled to Central and South America to develop business.  


To help travel, HP asked my uncle if he would be interested in working from his home country Venezuela. So my uncle agreed to a 2-year contract to live and work from his home city Caracas.  HP moved my aunt and uncle to Caracas with their two kids.  They paid for a very nice 2-story penthouse condo just outside of downtown Caracas.  


My grandmother, great aunt, and I went to visit them.  I was 12 at the time.  School had just ended, and it was the start of summer break.  


We left my grandmother’s house in Sacramento, CA, and drove to San Francisco, where we stayed the night in a hotel.  The next morning we boarded a Pan Am flight that took us to Miami, FL—there, changed planes, and then off to Caracas, Venezuela.


Arriving in Caracas, it was late, sometime around 9pm.  Going through customs was crazy--a mad house.  People were everywhere, suitcases being opened by customs officials, clothing being tossed to the ground, and the noise of people chattering in Spanish so fast it sounded like they were yelling at each other.  My grandma was tense and told me to stay close to her as we made our way through customs.  


My aunt and uncle met us outside of customs with hugs and greetings.  We got in their car and drove straight to my uncle’s parent’s house.  


I was taken aback by the news of going to his parent’s house mainly because I knew how late it was.  


My uncle informed me that his grandfather was staying at his parent’s house.  He grandfather was not doing well--more or less he was expected to die within a few days.  My uncle said that his grandfather wanted to meet me and he wanted to say goodbye to my grandmother before he passed. 


I was surprised.  I asked my uncle, “What do you mean he wants to meet me?” 


My uncle said that he had told his grandfather all about me and he wanted to meet someone from Alaska.    


My uncle’s parents lived in some city district in Caracas.  It was a city neighborhood different to any that I had seen before. 


We parked the car about a block away from their house.  Walking towards their house, I noticed all the front yards to the houses had 10-foot tall adobe style walls dividing the yards, making the front yards more into courtyards. All of the houses had some kind of a fence across the front of the entrances of the front yard/courtyard. 


We came to my uncle’s parents’ house and their fence was black wrought iron, about 8ft high.  A wrought iron gate under lock and key was the entrance to their front yard.  My uncle’s father met us at the gate with hugs and smiles.  He led us through their front yard along a long narrow path that twisted through their gorgeous garden--tall trees, tropical flowers, fresh cut grass on ether side of the path--it was beautiful. 


Looking up at the tall walls that boarded their yard, I saw the top of the wall was lined with broken glass bottles the whole length of the wall.  I asked my uncle, “Why is there broken glass on top of the wall?”  


He said, “To help prevent people from trying to get in.”


As we got closer to the house, I noticed wrought iron in front of all the windows and front door. I looked at my uncle pointed towards the wrought iron.  “Let me guess.  The wrought iron is to prevent people from breaking in?”


“Yep,” he replied.  


My uncle’s father opened the front door.  His mother was standing in the living room, and she met me with hugs and more loving Spanish.  


I felt my uncle push past his loving mother and me.  I watched him beeline straight to his grandfather who was lying in hospital bed on the other side of the room.  My uncle dropped to his knees taking his grandfather’s hand into his and kissing his hand.  My uncle began whispering to his grandfather in Spanish.  This went on for a good, few minutes. 


I was blown back.  I had never seen so much outpouring of love in person.  My uncle who usually always hugs his mother rushed right passed her.  


My uncle turned to me and asked me to come meet his grandfather.  From across the room I could see his eyes tearing up.  


Nervous, I walked over to the bed.  His grandfather was extremely ill, he had a rattle in his breathing that became more deafening the closer I got to him.  His hair was long and very thin, a mix of dark and gray, mostly gray.  I looked him in the eyes.  I could tell he was trying to focus on me.  His eyes were glassy, like he had thick contacts in, but I later learned he had really bad cataracts.

He raised his hand for me to shake.  I put my hand into his.  He squeezed my hand and said something to me in Spanish.  My uncle, still on his knees, looked up to me and said, “My grandfather welcomes you and is pleased to meet you.”


He held my hand for a long time.  It was warm and comforting.  I was still very uncomfortable.  We all knew he wouldn’t be around for much longer and I didn’t know how to take it. 


I was thinking to myself, “This morning, I woke up in San Francisco.  Had a late lunch in Miami.  Spent all day flying to get to South America.  Spent an hour going though customs and watching customs officials go through my suitcase.  I was nervous that they might keep something of mine.  Now, I’m shaking a dead man’s hand, and my uncle is kneeling next me crying, showing his grandfather love and appreciation.”  


It wasn’t until I was much older, I reflected on this.  I had to go through a few deaths in the family to compare the cultural differences I notice when it comes to dealing with elderly and death.


Latin American and Asian cultures seem to have so much more respect for the elderly and sick.  


Why is this?  


Why is it that here in our American culture the sick and the elderly are treated as an inconvenience?


Where is the family love in putting grandparents in assisted living?  


I know I’m generalizing but the love and respect my uncle showed his grandfather is like nothing I’ve seen before.  My uncle’s grandfather held on for a few more weeks.  He passed shortly after my visit to Venezuela.      

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