Spending the Golden Years in China

Filmmaker Keva Rosenfeld recently traveled to China to visit his partner's mother who retired there. Rosenfeld looks at why his mother-in-law decided to spend her "golden years" in a foreign country.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

Filmmaker Keva Rosenfeld directed a cult picture called "Twenty Bucks." His romantic partner for 20 years, Karen Murphy has producing credits that include "This is Spinal Tap" and "Drugstore Cowboy."

On a recent trip to visit Karen's mother, they learned a difficult truth. Sometimes even if you come from the same family, it can be tough to communicate. Here is a story about that revelation. They call the story "A Trip to Mom."

Ms. KAREN MURPHY (Producer): We're all worried about our parents not making the choices we need them to make for ourselves to be reassured.

Mr. KEVA ROSENFELD (Filmmaker): Karen's mom left America five years ago, when she was 70. She's been living abroad ever since.

Ms. MURPHY: My mother's watchword was you don't want to be like everybody else, do you? And so, I never have been. I've always been different.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Divorced and having a difficult time living on Social Security here, she moved to China.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MURPHY: My mother is getting older and - it's a tough choice to be living there.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Whenever we tell someone she lives in China, they always ask why China? And we never have a good answer.

Ms. MURPHY: I just want to see what's it's like for her.

Mr. ROSENFELD: So, we thought we'd go there to find out.

Ms. MURPHY: I'm glad you're coming with me to share the experience.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Seeing China, for us, was both foreign and familiar.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

Mr. ROSENFELD: (Unintelligible) to go. Yeah.

Unidentified Man: Yes. We used to take her to the reflex zone.

Unidentified Woman: And (unintelligible) tea.

Mr. ROSENFELD: It was exotic, yet it also looked like a movie set. Almost no one speaks English. That's overwhelming enough, but then, Karen was also a little anxious.

Ms. MURPHY: My mom's always been a bit of a bohemian. She's someone who I love and respect, but hadn't that really warm, close relationship, except at moments when, you know, we really have a deep talk.

(Soundbite of doorbell)

Ms. MURPHY: Hello.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Karen's mom lives in a high-rise, not so different than any of the other 4,000 or so apartment buildings in Shanghai.

Karen's Mother: Just sit there or here.

Mr. ROSENFELD: Four hundred dollars a month buys her a two-bedroom with a tiny kitchen.

Karen's Mother: The gas heating hangs on the wall and the meter hangs on the wall, so it looks sort of grimy.

Mr. ROSENFELD: It seems a little dark and dismal. We'd hope the money would have bought her a little more.

Karen's Mother: It's clean. There's no bugs.

Mr. ROSENFELD: But she was proud of it.

(Soundbite of Chinese music)

Mr. ROSENFELD: As a child, Karen's mother had this romantic notion of China, after being introduced to Chinese culture in the third grade. She always dreamed of seeing the country and now, though it's less romantic what she had envisioned, she still approaches it like an adventure.

Karen's Mother: I was in a bus station. I couldn't find any sign that said where the toilet was. I went and asked one of the women, I went to a security guard, I tried to say what I wanted, nobody understood. Finally, I squatted and they said, oh. They understood I meant looking for the squat toilet.

(Soundbite of Chinese music)

Karen's Mother: (Unintelligible)

English students: (Unintelligible)

Mr. ROSENFELD: Karen's mom augments her Social Security income by teaching English to young Chinese workers who want to be part of the new global economy.

(Soundbite of machine)

Mr. ROSENFELD: We visited some of them at a factory that makes, of all things, lingerie.

Karen's Mother: This is G-jing(ph). G-jing.

(Soundbite of bell)

(Soundbite of song "Rose, Rose I Love You")

Mr. FRANKIE LAINE (Singer): (Singing) East is East and West is West, our worlds are far apart. I must leave you…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENFELD: It's a complicated relationship, the one between the East and the West. Like a parent and a child, they have two separate personalities, two different ways of seeing and living - yet these two worlds are very much attached.

Karen's Mother: Let's have a look at the Starbucks to see who the people are who inside it.

(Soundbite of people talking in foreign language)

Ms. MURPHY: My grandmother was 75 when she died, and here's my mom just touring around Shanghai at 75 like, you know, she's going to live forever.

(Soundbite of people talking in foreign language)

Mr. ROSENFELD: I guess, if there's one thing we learned from this trip, it's that even in the world that is so interconnected, there's still plenty of things that are really, really foreign.

(Soundbite of Chinese music)

Ms. MURPHY: She's gotten used to living in a country where she can't really communicate and doesn't have very many close friends. I would find that really difficult, but she seems not to be so concerned about that thing.

Karen's Mother: Once in a while, when the day is very frustrating, I'd wish that I lived in a culture that was easier, but not much.

(Soundbite of song "Rose, Rose I Love You")

Mr. LAINE: (Singing) East is East and West is West, our worlds are far apart. I must leave you now but I leave my heart.

(Soundbite of cars beeping)

Mr. ROSENFELD: When we finally said goodbye, we didn't know when we'd see her again.

Ms. MURPHY: (Unintelligible) in your heart, you keep it.

Mr. ROSENFELD: It was then that Karen realized that her mother fit in better here in China than she ever had in the United States.

Ms. MURPHY: The hard lesson for me to learn not to apply my standards to her life, but I just have to be reminded that she's always been okay and she's got good instincts and she can, you know, take care of herself.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENFELD: That is beautiful. Thank you so much, that was beautiful.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: "A Trip to Mom" was written by Keva Rosenfeld and produced by DAY TO DAY's Steve Proffitt.

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