Caring at a Distance

Insight in Dr Julian Lee’s story, and the impacts of migration on families.

The feeling of waiting at the airport for my father to arrive is such a familiar one to me. Try as I might to do as he suggests and to not get to the airport too early, I inevitably do. I don’t want him to emerge from customs and not find someone he knows waiting for him. Equally inevitably, he takes ages to get through immigration, baggage and customs, and seems to be the last person on his flight to come out. And when he does, there’s always that little acknowledgement, that slightly awkward walk to get around the barriers until we hug at last.

A colleague who recently saw a new short documentary I was involved in the making of asked me about my plans to look after my father who lives in Malaysia, should he need help one day. I said that I hadn’t any such plans, and that what happened on that front would greatly depend on how well he continues to age.

The film in question is Caring at a Distance, directed by Dennis Hasangapon and Mahatma Putra of Anatman Pictures, with myself as Executive Producer. It examines how three families across Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia stay connected despite being dispersed across different countries. Various processes associated with globalization have increased the likelihood that families will be spread across continents, just like my own has.

My nuclear family has members in Australia, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. Globalization in diverse forms, including a globalized economy, an internationalized workforce, the spread of neoliberal values, and ease of migration, have meant that many families are now separated by national borders. Among the challenges that this poses is that it is increasingly easy for an aging population to be neglected by their offspring, should they have any. As well as becoming an issue for families to grapple with, this situation is ‘alarming policy makers’ as the cost of looking after neglected people will naturally fall upon the governments (Ikels 2004, p. 8), which are everywhere endlessly cutting budgets and rolling back social welfare. As a consequence, laws have been introduced in various countries to require children to care for their parents, most famously in China (e.g. Wong 2013).

During the conception of Caring at a Distance, these issues mingled with my own personal concerns around ‘filial piety’. Filial piety is the social value of respecting and caring for one’s parents. It is said to be a value that is shared across Asia, irrespective of culture and religion (Lee 2017; Jahaberdeen 2017), although it is most commonly associated with East Asian societies. The written character for filial piety is the same in Chinese, Korean and Japanese writing. It is pronounced xiao in Mandarin, with the top character being lao (old) and the lower character zi (young). ‘When combined to constitute xiao’, writes Charlotte Ikels, this ‘ideograph communicates multiple messages of which the officially preferred one is that the old are supported by the young(er generation)’ (Ikels 2004, p. 3; parentheses original).

Caring at a Distance attempts to examine the evolution of filial piety in the context of globalization by seeing how three families have sought to maintain their familial bonds despite the distance, as well as to see how they talk about and envision how they will fulfil their filial duties. Although the short film does this in an understated way, two kinds of contact seemed important. The first of these forms of contact are those which are maintained by regular contact using applications such as Skype. In my mind, I see straight lines of transmission signals bouncing from devices to communication towers, to satellites and then back to earth.

However, such contact cannot replicate the second important kind of contact: in-person interactions. Physically flying to visit family for special occasions plays an important role in renewing bonds. Although the occasions which bring people together can be sometimes called ‘empty rituals’, they are far from empty. New year celebrations and weddings are extremely meaningful for those separated by large distances. Therefore, although the straight lines of data streaming from device to tower to satellite are what connects families across the world much more frequently, as important are the flight paths taken by airplanes, as they arc from airport to airport, reuniting people with their kin.

Watch Caring at a Distance

Originally published in Here Be Dragons, 2017.



Ikels, C. 2004. Introduction. In C. Ikels (ed.) Filial Piety: Practice and Discourse in Contemporary Easy Asia. Standford: Stanford University Press.

Jahaberdeen, M. Y. 2017. Be kind to parents, enjoins the Quran. Malay Mail 12 June. Available at: (accessed 13 June 2017).

Lee, J.C.H. 2018. Globalization and Filial Piety. In A. Farazmand, R. Roy, P. Battersby, and A.E. PoolFunai,
A.E. (eds). Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance. New York: Springer.

Wong, J. 2013. When filial piety becomes law. New York Times 2 July. Available at: (accessed 13
June 2017).

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