‘Does your son give you money?’ I asked. I was interviewing Betsy, 81, at her Housing Commission home for my PhD in the 1990s on money, marriage, and banking. Her life had not been easy, but she was grateful she and her husband had their home. I had earlier interviewed her son in his affluent home with a swimming pool in northeast Melbourne.
Betsy said she was grateful she did not have to ask her sons for help. ‘They’ve got their own homes,’ she said. She was proud of her independence and felt fortunate she had a pension and they ‘were not starving.’
This interview shook me; I regularly sent money home to my mother in India. My mother had retired as a principal of a woman’s college and could manage, but she would boast that her daughters sent her money. It showed that she was a good mother and had filial daughters.
I thought I had done wrong to migrate to Australia. When I went home, I told my 20-year-old son that if he wanted to give me money when he was older, I would be delighted to accept. It was only when I analysed my data that I recognised the clash of cultures.
Betsy’s son was not immoral. He showed care by cleaning the gutters, taking his mother shopping, going to the ATM, paying the bills, accompanying her to the doctor and other ways. In middle-income Anglo-Celtic culture in Australia, money is not the primary medium of care or gifts. In India as in much of the Global South – Asia, Africa, the Pacific, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean – we gift money as an expression of relationship.
In Australia, money flows one way from parents to their dependent children. Money does not usually travel back from children to their parents. In the Global South money belongs to the family and is more broadly defined. Money also flows two-ways across generations within the family.
According to the World Bank, international remittances were an estimated US$626 billion in 2022. This was about three times greater than official development aid. Except for China, international remittances were greater than foreign direct investment.
Cultural notions of proper and moral ways of behaving with money within the family influence the way we think of families, independence, and dependence. It shapes the way we talk of money.
In Australia, Anglo-Celtic concepts of money, morality, and family underlie welfare payments, the definition of who is counted as family, as well as family law dealing with financial settlements in divorce and separation. However, the rising cost of home ownership makes it difficult for children – both of migrants and native-born Australians – to buy a home without their parents’ financial assistance.
This clash of cultures is at the forefront when Indian parents migrate to join their children in Australia. Most of the Indian parent-migrants I have interviewed sell all or most of their property in India to help pay for their permanent residency visas. They give nearly all the remaining money to their children. There is still a preference to stay with a son, so more of the money goes to the son.
Many of the parent-migrants say, ‘The children are very good to us.’ They are comfortable they have fulfilled their responsibilities. Now it is the children’s turn to look after them.’ Economic dependence becomes a threat only if relationships sour.
For many migrant families, family is broader than a couple and dependent children. Money flows two-ways across generations as a medium of care. These are the cultural constructs of family, money, and morality for the more than 700,000 Indian-born migrants in Australia. Expanding our understanding of this cultural clash will not only benefit Australia’s current engagement with migrant Indian families – the second largest overseas-born group in Australia – it will also allow Australia to successfully compete for skilled migrants from the Global South in the future, ensuring the country’s economic growth.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Professor Supriya Singh is a writer and a sociologist of money Supriya Singh | Writer and Sociologist. She was born in India, grew up in Delhi and moved to Malaysia in 1967. In 1986 she migrated to Australia and now lives both in Melbourne and Dharamshala. She has written The Girls Ate Last (2013) which tells the story of her mother’s search for education before and after the Partition of India in 1947. Her latest book is A House over the Diamond Creek: A Whimsical Journey through Gardens and Life (2021: Brolga Publishing). The story moves between her life and gardens in Melbourne, Delhi, and Dharamshala.
Supriya’s academic writing revolves around gender, migration, money, and women’s empowerment. Her books include: Domestic Economic Abuse: The Violence of Money (2021); Money, Migration and Family: India to Australia (2016); Globalization and Money: A Global South Perspective (2013); Marriage Money: The Social Shaping of Money in Marriage & Banking (1997); The Bankers: Australia’s Leading Bankers Talk About Banking Today (1991); On the Sulu Sea (1984); and Bank Negara Malaysia: The First 25 years, 1959-1984 (1984).
Supriya bases her advocacy for women’s empowerment on her academic research. She is an Adjunct Professor with the Department of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University. She is also an Executive Member of the Steering Committee, Multicultural Women’s Alliance Against Family Violence.