Why Respecting the Elderly is So Important

From the youngest age, I was taught to respect those who were “older” than I was, and this “rule” or tenet was very curious to me.  Why should I show respect to someone simply because they are older, even if I didn’t know anything about them and especially if didn’t particularly like them?  This is a cultural tenet that is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and in many other cultures.  

When I visited China in my early 20’s, I saw something that has stuck vividly in my mind ever since –  the parks were filled with old people who seemed happy and content. They were exercising, playing chess, playing instruments, singing opera… Some were just sitting there, watching or chatting.  They didn’t particularly pay much attention to me as a foreigner because they were ok with whatever they were doing and enjoying the moment.  It led me to think hard about why old people in America seemed so much more isolated and lonely (at least, that was my impression at the time and still is in many ways).

To be happy, most of us need to be active and need social interaction.  As human beings, we recognize that other people are ourselves in some way – whether they are of a different race, a different color, a different culture, young or old.  But when it comes to old people, many of us shy away because we don’t want to see ourselves getting old, losing our physical strength and beauty and losing certain abilities to do what we did before.  It may feel more inviting to want to take care of a child because you can influence their growth and because they are naturally less inhibited and new to many experiences.  But I feel lucky every time I meet an old person.  It doesn’t matter if they are set in their ways or old or crabby.  And whatever their stories may be, they have something to share and to give, pieces of wisdom and of life.  

We all have difficulties.  But when we are young, we feel invulnerable. We know that we are physically fit and beautiful and have our whole lives ahead of us.  And then, as we grow older, we realize that our parents are visibly growing older.  We also realize that our parents have made mistakes.  They’re not invulnerable.  We may feel angry and disappointed when we realize that our parents are not the perfect people who we wish them to be and that they have a lot of say in our lives.  We also recognize, on some level that someday we will also be old, and, for many, find ourselves confronting our own emotions about our parents and about ourselves when we have children.  And some of us may had to confront our mortality, disabilities or limitations for other reasons.

I have met many old people who have very rich lives, whether they are rich or poor.  It is true that many of them struggle with loss of hearing or sight or have difficulty carrying their groceries, simple things that a lot of us take for granted.  Some of them reminisce a great deal about the past.  But their past and present is important.   I will tell you why – old people have lived and survived.  They have witnessed a great deal of change, whether in the larger world or on personal levels.  They have experienced many joys and disappointments, and they remain, in spirit, young and timeless. Despite their physical limitations, they are, in many ways, more accepting and wiser and have something to teach us.  

Perhaps you have observed that older people often become more childlike.   Sometimes they have less control of their emotions.  In some ways, they become like children again. I have observed grandparents with their grandchildren, and, often, it seems to me that grandparents are much more free in spirit and less uptight than the child’s parents. They care less about other people’s opinions.   They have learned to accept on many levels what simply happens in life – past, future and present – and recognize that the world changes, people change, in whatever way, that their parents and friends grow old and sometimes die.  And if you listen – they all have incredible stories to tell.  

But why is this important to us?  We can learn from older people’s stories and spirits so that we can recognize and become more accepting of change and that change in our lives is inevitable.  Most old people have worked very hard.  Many have sacrificed for their children. They have suffered, for better or for worse.  But if we don’t respect the elderly, in many instances, many feel their lives are empty and unimportant which also has an impact on their physical and emotional health and on our society. Isn’t it better if we help take care of the elderly so that they can continue to feel valued, stay healthier, share their wisdom, stories and spirit?  To do this, it is important to help people as they grow older.  We all need help during our lives but especially as we find our capacities diminished.  

In China and other cultures which place an emphasis on respecting older people (as opposed with American culture which tends to glorify youth), this respect for the elderly gives them a sense of well-being and makes for a more beautiful, rich and happier society.  When a person has a sense of respect and well-being in society, it makes everyone else around them feel good, whether you are young or old.   When I saw the old people in the parks, I was amazed and felt hopeful and good.  

I have to come to the conclusion that older people in China receive a great deal more respect from society (along with other factors, such as continuing to be an integral part of their children’s lives), and this respect helps make them feel less marginalized and healthy in all ways.  Unfortunately, for many elderly, this sense of well-being, which is good for all of society, is threatened in the face of the fast-paced demands of modernized society.  (Here is a link on the increased rates of suicides amongst the elderly in South Korea due to modernization.   I want to emphasize, by the way, that I don’t mean to post this out of any disrespect for Korean culture.  Much of the same is happening in China and elsewhere in the world where people are facing similar challenges.)  

Old people are often stubborn and often don’t want to accept help.  But it’s our responsibility to be proactive and take care of them because they have taken care of us. And for ourselves, in our old age (which someday, hopefully, you will be lucky to experience), as stubborn and independent as you may be, wouldn’t you feel healthier and better if you knew people respected you as an important part of society, for what you have given and can continue to give?  This helps elderly people to remain healthy and productive.  And this helps all of us.

In practice, this only means that we spend more time with elderly people.  That’s all it takes.  And society, not to mention our own persons, is better off because of it.

What is Qi?


Traditional Chinese character for qi

The concept of qi plays a central role in Chinese culture, traditional Chinese medicine and the martial arts. According to traditional Chinese medicine, people often fall ill because qi becomes unbalanced or gets blocked in the body and does not flow well. Acupuncture, massage, the administration of herbs and other medicinal techniques are aimed at helping to restore the balance and flow of qi.  In the martial arts (also known as gong fu), one’s qi can be cultivated through training of mind and body, leading to agility, strength, stamina and increased awareness and longevity.

Tai qi (or tai qi quan)* is one form of Chinese martial arts which has become popularly practiced around the world due to its purported health benefits.  It emphasizes bringing qi into balance through focus on a systematic coordination of postures and breathing exercises.  You may have seen people practicing tai qi in the parks, their mind and bodies engaged in a series of slow, circular movements as in a dance.  In China, millions of people, young and old, practice tai qi or qi gong** daily in the parks or public squares.  At many workplaces, people gather together and start off their day by practicing tai qi or qi gong exercises.  Tai qi and qi gong have been known to help improve physical coordination, stamina, strength and flexibility, improve circulation, as well as help bring about improved emotional health and a sense of calm and clarity.  In relaxed movement, our minds also relax.  This is why many people refer to tai qi as meditation in movement or as mindfulness in motion.

Qi is also the underlying concept in feng shui 风水 [fēngshuǐ], which is literally translated as the words, “wind, water,” and, in ancient times, literally meant “the Tao of heaven and earth.”  Feng shui attempts to bring about balance in qi as it relates to our environment and surroundings and is believed to impart good health and fortune.  As a simplified example, we can position ourselves in light and space to feel good.  We know, for example, that a dark, cramped room doesn’t make us feel as good as being in a bright and open space.  

In the end, I don’t have a good answer for what qi is.  To me, it is the energy we receive and project.  Applied, it is the practice of bringing about balance and harmony with all things around and within us.  Children are full of “good” qi because they are natural and in harmony with themselves.   When we grow up and become adults, however, we tend to find many conflicts inside and outside ourselves due to our environment and experiences.   Application of a basic understanding of qi can help bring about a greater sense of harmony, lower stress, increase positive energy and allow us to become more vibrant.  

Here are a few ways to practice this in our daily lives:  

  • Eat and drink in moderation.  It is good to have the belly half-full and not until you feel stuffed.  Chew slowly.  Enjoy the flavor and texture of the food you are eating.  Also, try to keep a balanced diet and avoid eating fast food or eating too many processed foods (eating processed foods adds strain on your liver).
  • Sit and stand relaxed and comfortably.  Try not to slouch and maintain good posture.  This does not mean you need to force yourself to be rigid and straight! Enjoy silence, and feel yourself and your surroundings.
  • Try to go to bed early, if possible, and get regular sleep.  Our bodies go through processes throughout the day at regular, natural intervals, usually in 24 hour cycles,  These include changes in melatonin secretion, body temperature and bowels, as well as others.  In the West, we call these “circadian rhythms.”  In Chinese medicine, regular sleep cycles and deep sleep cycles should coincide with the Chinese clock or calendar (based on the movement of the sun, moon, stars and planets) to help increase kidney and liver functions, aid in digestion, as well as to help keep hormones in balance.
  • Keep your home clean and organized.  This gives us sense of peacefulness and helps reduce chaos around us and within us.
  • Try not to rush through tasks.  When you wash the dishes, feel the warm water and the bubble suds.  Or when you fold clothes, be aware of the smell of the clothes and the warmth of the cloths.  When you do each task, be aware of your body and your senses as you are doing it.  This is called mindfulness.
  • Try not to expose yourself to unhealthy or polluted situations.  If something does not feel good or feels uncomfortable, try to remove yourself from it or pull back.  Enjoy nature as often as possible.
  • Exercise regularly.  We all know that exercise is good for our health.  If you have some physical limitations like arthritis, try to take daily walks which is not as stressful on the bones and ligaments and can be very therapeutic for both mind and body.
  • Watch less tv.  Watching tv can be relaxing, but it is completely passive.  If you take half an hour out of watching tv every day to enjoy tea, take a walk or do almost anything where you can practice mindfulness, you may find not only that you feel better but that you also tend to get more done.
  • When it comes to work, don’t push yourself too hard so that your work feels painful.  If you stare at the screen too long, your eyes will become tired.  Turn off your screen or look away and take a break.  Look out the window and see the trees, animals, buildings, or whatever catches your imagination so that you temporarily remove yourself from the hustle and bustle around you.  If you learn to take these few moments to relax, you will find yourself able to focus longer.
  • Don’t think too hard.  Go with the flow.
  • Finally, try to keep life simple.  This is easier said than done, but with practice, you can learn to brush away distractions and see that many things are not as important as you thought.  Meditation and practicing mindfulness can help you to achieve this. My father once told me, keeping your life simple is like polishing a mirror.  If you don’t polish the mirror regularly, the mirror becomes dirty.  At some point, without regular cleaning, it will take more work to be able to see clearly.  Start by taking an effort to slow down.  Stop what you are doing and take 15-20 deep breaths.  At first, for many people, this may feel difficult because we are so caught up in rushing and doing things without being aware of our bodies and ourselves in our environment.  Feel your body from head to toe.  Be aware of the silence in and around your body.  Practice this once or twice a day.
  • Even if it is just one thing out of many things you do every day, try to do it mindfully.

*Note: the Chinese character for qi [jí] in tai qi is actually different from the character, qi, as we have discussed in this piece, and means “supreme” or “ultimate.”  Tai qi quan can be translated as “ultimate supreme fist” or “ultimate supreme boxing.”   

** Qi Gong (气功 [qìgōng]) uses the same basic principles as tai qi and plays an important role in tai qi training.     

The Game of Mahjong

MahjongI look at the tiles in front of me, 16 in all, arranged in a straight line like Scrabble tiles. The type of mahjong I like to play is a bit like Rummy 500. You either create sets of three of the same suit in linear numbers (like having a 7, 8, and 9 of spades) or sets of three or four tiles of the same number or character (like having 3 or 4 aces). The tiles are big and thick, like little bricks. They have weight. There are four players at the square table, and each of them has a wall of bricks in front of them – two layers of tiles, arranged face-down in a long, horizontal row.

Chinese people love to play mahjong. It’s a a lot like playing cards but with tiles. There are so many different games you can play, but the most popular ones I know of are ones with 13 or 16 tiles in a hand.  The one with 13 tiles is a bit more difficult and takes more thought. With each one, of course, there’s always an element of luck involved because you never know what tile you’re going to pick. Everybody starts by first deciding how much money each point will be worth. Then eight arms stretch out towards the table, and you hear that kwala, kwala! sound of the mahjong tiles being shuffled in circular motions. Each person constructs his or her own wall (this is all done very quickly), and the game begins.

After I have picked my 16 tiles, I start arranging them in order, usually by the same suit. No one else can see my hand.  There are three suits – sticks, numbers and biscuits, and then there are a full set of three characters, which can be considered another suit. There are often two or more tiles that go together, like 3 and 4 of sticks.  I may have one 3 stick and two 4 sticks, which means I have 3 possible sets I could make (2, 3, 4 of sticks, or 3, 4, 5 of sticks or 4, 4, 4 of sticks), depending on whether someone else throws out the third tile to make my set. If someone throws out the right card, I yell out, “Peng! (hit!)” or “Chi! (eat!),” and everyone stops as I reach out to take the tile which I then match up with the pair from my hand. I then lay the entire set on the table in front of me for everyone to see.

Now, when people yell out “Peng!” or “Chi!” everyone gets very excited. You start watching as one set, then two, then three, start appearing on the table. As a person lays out more sets, they end up with less and less tiles in their hand. Other people around the table start to lean forward to examine the tiles on the table more closely, and you start hearing rumbles of, “Watch out!” or “Be careful…” or “Don’t fang pao! (don’t lose, or, figuratively, don’t blow the cannon!) Just because a person has many sets in front of them doesn’t mean they’re going to win. If you pick a tile that completes a set in your own hand, you don’t have to lay it out for everyone else to see. And sometimes, you can win without having Peng’ed! or Chi’ed! a single time. 

Each person takes turns in leading a hand in the game, and each hand takes about 5-15 minutes. As the minutes tick by, people start getting more and more alert because every person is completing their sets. Eyes start darting. Sometimes, the winning hand comes as a total surprise. 

When you win, you yell out, “Hu le!!” (won!) usually with a great deal of excitement on your face, and everyone else’s faces get excited, too. No one wants to throw out the losing tile because if you do, you have to pay money to the person who won. The person who throws out the losing card usually lets out an expression of their own and starts reaching for their stash of money which is now about to get a little smaller. Now, every so often, a person yells out, “Zi mo!” (self grab!), and this gets everyone very excited because it means that the person who zi mo’ed was lucky enough to pick his or her own winning tile. When someone zi mo’s, every person at the table has to pay the winner (and zi mo is worth an extra point, so the winner usually gets paid more than triple).

Taking the lead goes around in a circle to the left. A complete game goes for four rounds and usually takes 2 hours. In between rounds, some people get up and drink tea or go to the bathroom or get a bite to eat. It’s time to take a break. Oftentimes, when friends come over, people play two games in one afternoon or evening.

The money isn’t the reason people play, usually. There are, of course, many who play mahjong to gamble. But as a social game, the money’s just something that makes things a bit more exciting. If each person starts out with $10 in their purse, you could end up winning something like several dollars to $20 for the night (or lose a similar amount), depending upon how much everyone has agreed each point is worth. Some winning hands have a lot of points, and some hands have only very few points.  

During hands, people chat a bit and talk about their friends, families or whatever it is that they want to share. It’s not a quiet game like poker. There’s lots of Aiyas! (when someone has made a mistake) or Zhenmebang’s (What do I do’s? when people are wondering what their next move will be). Sometimes, people even slam down a tile onto the table in their excitement. There’s a lot of laughing (usually coming from the winners, but sometimes also from the losers or anyone else). It’s loud, from the tiles to the expressions. And then there are the frequent moments of silence in between, when people are concentrating or waiting, or when everyone is holding their breath to see what tile is coming out next onto the table.

In China and elsewhere, many older people like to play mahjong, and it’s very common for people to play mahjong in elderly homes and in the parks. They say that it keeps their brains nimble and helps to fend off dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It makes sense, in a way. Mahjong doesn’t require too much thought (like Chinese chess), but it keeps you on your toes. For each new hand, you physically have to stretch out your arms and move them around in circular motions to shuffle, and then you have to reach out to get the tiles to build your wall. You have to stretch out your arm each time you pick up a tile or throw one out. And you usually sit up straight when you play. So mahjong is physically good for you, too. You end up chatting and laughing and making all kinds of expressions throughout the game. When you add all these things together, no wonder many people think mahjong is healthy for mind, body and spirit.

If you win, that’s even better. You can treat your friends, perhaps, or just keep your winnings in your pocket. But by the end of the evening, everyone usually leaves satisfied, knowing they just had a good time.