Growing Old In Style


Sunday afternoons during my college days in Melbourne were not allotted (sadly) to chasing skirts in the botanical gardens or to strolling along the banks of the Yarra River (which ran through the main artery of Melbourne). My last day of the weekend was overwhelmed by one particular trial that constantly beseeches a college student – grocery shopping. Seen more as an ordeal than a mode of self-actualization, I would yank the wheeled grocery bag out from the storage compartment where it had been shoved back dismissively a week earlier, and trudge off, seeking to forget the next 2 hours of my life as a vestige of an unsavory Sunday afternoon.

Drowning myself in pity and contempt, I would hop onto the tram and close my eyes, hoping the doors would conveniently open 20 minutes later when we were in the shopping precinct. If not an ideal Sunday, I could at least have a Zen moment to myself. One such afternoon, just as the image of Siddhartha Gautama meditating under the Bodhi Tree started to resonate in my mind, I was hustled into the corner as an old gentleman annexed the seat next to me, triumphantly claiming it as his loot and plunder. My ascent into the world of the great ruminators dashed, I flashed a curt smile (more out of formality than authenticity) in response. If the golden oldie did get the hint, he brazenly brushed it aside.

"Son, this tram has been running on this street for 30 years. When I was a strapping young man, if I may say so myself, I would chat up young sheilas and sometimes even make them miss their tram stop. I had the gift of the gab; I could take their watch off and tell them the time."

"I’m sure trams ran a lot slower back then. Now you’ve got to seal the deal within minutes. You would have had to skip the foreplay and jump straight into the main act. That’s not as easy, trust me." I tried a shock and awe tactic to tell him that times had changed and speed dating was now a thing, let alone an industry.                

"What’s with you and your generation? You all want everything now, on a platter, with no struggle or charm to the matter." Somehow this inter-generational show of machismo had turned philosophical and poetic.

"I don’t make the rules, I just play by them. Women don’t aspire to ‘one-women men’ anymore." I had just generalised the outlook of around 4 billion women – but it was admissible for this battle of youth versus experience.

"I remember my late wife, she was a stunner. She made my knees cave in and my heart pound. It pounded for 40 years before she peacefully passed away," was the gentleman's candid reply.

"I’m sorry to hear that. You must have really loved her. Do you have any kids or extended family to help you relive such fond memories?" I asked, hopeful and somewhat expectant that such a man was given time and attention to regale his stories.

"Can’t say so, son. We had 2 kids and both left the house at the age of 18. They come and see me monthly if that. It’s okay, though. Their visits keep me going."

Shocked, distraught and even angered, I asked the man, "so how do you pass your time, then?"

"I ride the tram every day," he said.

My 20 minutes had whizzed by, and as we parted ways and I got off the tram, I sat down on a bench to take in what had just transpired.

This man had started a conversation with me, to a certain extent from curiosity, but more so because he had nobody to speak with on a daily basis. It was symptomatic of a vicious cycle I had noticed with some of my 'local' Australian friends - they would start paying rent in their own homes at age 16, and either leave their homes at 18 or continue to pay until they moved out. More often than not, due to this arrangement, when their own parents reached an elderly age, they would see meetings as a burden and shirk the responsibility.

Then, they would encourage their parents to move into old people’s homes - a concept still alien to me and to almost all fellow Pakistanis. Yes, these homes have their benefits (such as constant professional care and a community of elderly people), but some of these children would see those establishments as a way of brushing off the responsibility: a transactional exchange of money for care.

Family, to me, was not a monetary contract traded on the open market. In Pakistani culture, parents tend to look forward to retirement and old age because it allows them to spend more time with their family and friends - where their voices are heard and acted upon. It is very common for elderly parents to travel nationally or internationally and spend an allotted amount of months of the year at each of their kid’s homes. This along with their active social life creates a system where the family remains the core and them, the epicenter. Perhaps this is due to Pakistan having poor state infrastructure, making the family the de facto social safety net. Nonetheless, this was a welcome reminder of how fortunate I was to have been brought up in a culture where my parents and I could look forward to their later years.

As TCKs, I believe it is our imperative to pick the best of the cultures we have been exposed to. Being a Third Culture Kid has allowed me to reflect on certain practices which seemed strange - I always thought that even in Pakistan, growing old was sometimes a burden for both children and parents alike. This tram ride made me appreciate how blessed my family really was.            

*sheila: Australian slang for a female