Living At Home: Cultural Perceptions

May 7, 2013

I feel ashamed. Like a failure. Broke, though I have some money in the bank. Inept, though I’m qualified to do many jobs. Lazy, though my routine isn’t really too different than that when I’m living in my own apartment. Unattractive to women, a source of mockery. Shorter, smaller. Sheltered. Mollycoddled.

It’s only been a few weeks since I came home.

As a traveler, I’ve often had to use my parents’ house as a stopover point between countries. When I returned from living in Japan after two years, I stayed in Dallas for several weeks before moving down to Austin. Before I headed to South Korea, I needed a place with a mailing address to get all my visa paperwork processed.

Each time, after a few days sleeping in a room that bore my childhood belongings, I felt the aforementioned.

Intellectually, I know there’s nothing wrong with someone with my lifestyle using his parents’ house as a temporary base of operations. I’m saving money on accommodation, putting things in storage, retrieving others, and enjoying the lifted burden of living in the real world. After all, I know I have ways to escape; I’m not going to stay here indefinitely. I’ve done it before.

Emotionally, there’s nothing anyone can say to me that will make me feel like less of a pathetic loser manchild. I choose my words carefully.

(The audience’s reaction is telling)

That is the American (and one could say western) cultural perception of someone over the age of thirty living at home. Our entertainment reinforces it. One could say (for men) it’s perpetuated by the idea of gender stereotypes, i.e. the man must provide a warm, safe place for his lady.

Q: When a young man has his own place, what do you think of him?
A: It shows he’s independent and can take care of himself and that he is able to be a provider

Yahoo! Answers

To this, I ask: what difference does it make? If you’re raised in the US and find yourself back in your childhood bedroom in your 30s, there’s always going to be a social stigma attached. It doesn’t matter if your parents are incapacitated and you came back to see them in their final months… and that’s just sad, that we built up this idea to leave one’s family behind is a sign of maturity. Independence, certainly.

Little in Japan

Let’s go back to this idea as represented in pop culture, specifically, The Big Bang Theory. Following the lives of four nerds, one who lives with his mother. Though she isn’t necessarily infirmed, she does lack companionship. Hence, her son lives at home. But are we to believe this? Of course not. We’re dealing with entertainment! And who in the US wants to be entertained by a filial obligation to see that one’s mother remains happy, healthy, and cared for? Obviously not the writers at BBT.

At first, we believe Howard to simply be an otaku incapable of leaving the nest, satisfied to sleep under his lightsabers and in his Spiderman sheets. But he has a master’s degree, and a job at a respectable university. Eventually, he even gets married. And then and only then, five years after making fun of him nearly every week, do we start to explore the idea of why a child would remain close to his or her parents.

(Skip to 3:14)

Howard is a bad example of a good lesson, i.e. the writers choosing a nerd to demonstrate the importance of staying at home. I’m not speaking of those otaku who have never left home, settle into their caves for the long haul, and do nothing but play episodes of Battlestar Galactica on Blu Ray; they have to figure things out on their own, or get many friendly nudges. But one can be independent and still live at home. I am. I’m not relying on my parents for food. I’m not asking for an allowance on Saturdays to buy toys at the grocery store. I don’t spend my days doing worthless activities (unless you consider this blog worthless).

I help out when I can. I do the dishes when they’re tired. I cook when they don’t want to. I stay out of everyone’s way so my presence doesn’t affect their day-to-day life. I work online. I search for jobs.

Yet, I will always feel guilty for imposing, and I will always feel like a shell of a man as long as I remain.

I have no doubt this problem is all in my head. No one can make me feel inferior without my consent. But there are many practical reasons why one shouldn’t live at home, as an American. By all means, take care of your family. Ignore those dating partners who feel you’re too immature for them. But what if you do meet someone and want to share a quiet, romantic evening with her? What if you’re an artist, or any kind of creative individual, and your living situation doesn’t reflect who you are? Let me tell you, that can take a toll on one’s inspiration (maybe even eventually one’s sanity). What if you want to maintain the diet with which you’re comfortable, but feel helpless in front of your mother pleading you to “just eat one more piece of pork… you need fattening up”?

It’s a reality of living in the US I’ve just had to accept. Like the threat of being shot. Or seeing people over 200 kg. Or witnessing complete and utter stupidity. No man is an island, after all.

But it’s hardly a universal rule. In Asia – Japan, in particular – the conditions are reversed. Young professionals do often have their own 1DK apartments, but many still claim residence at their parents’ home.

“…I am living with my parents, but soon I am moving. Next month.” With his parents? I was surprised, but as I later found out, Yoshi was the chonan – the eldest son – which meant that even in a family as wealthy as his, he’d been born with a filial duty to provide for his parents and live with them in the same house.
90-Day Geisha, Chelsea Haywood

Far from being a source of shame, it’s simply seen as a duty, neither to be despised nor appreciated. This is not to say that all Japanese in their 20s are perfectly happy sharing space with their parents (some things are universal), but I can say with absolute certainty the social stigma does not carry the same weight as it does in the US. Why not?

Getting a place to live in Japan is more difficult, for starters; “key money”, a mandatory and often non-refundable deposit, is paid on top of first and last month’s rent and an additional deposit. In countries like South Korea and Japan, this can mean upwards of 10,000USD to move into a simple apartment. Because almost everyone in their 20s is in the same situation, financially speaking, many don’t have the means to pay such exorbitant costs right away. After working and saving for a few years, and once they do marry, then yes, a new family home is possible and socially acceptable.

What about dating? Asia has that covered as well, with cheap “love hotels” in major cities offering singles a private place to get away from prying eyes; in most of them, you can simply press a button and anonymously pay someone cash behind a screen to receive the key… no words exchanged, no records of the encounter.

So which is better? Neither. Both. As always, it comes down to you. As much as I’d like to believe I’m different than most Americans, in truth, I can’t escape my upbringing.

Hateful images and words will always swirl through my head when encountering a minority; I can control my actions, but I can’t destroy the origins of those thoughts. Such is the result of being raised in the southern states. What I wouldn’t give to just wipe them from my mind. Pretending they don’t exist will have to suffice. This works primarily because the world is on my side. Acceptance and love will always defeat hate.

By the same token, nothing can stop the feelings of shame from flooding in when I come home to stay for a spell. From an early age, I was aware of the difference between success and failure, and the latter will always be associated with lack of money, employment, and a domicile. The difference is: the majority of people are not trying to dispel this belief; they are content to laugh at children being forced to return home and care for one’s parents. Until that changes, I’ll do everything in my power to be on my own.

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