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On the Challenges of Filial Piety While Interacting Across Borders

Dr. Frank Hang XU. Photo by Dr. Frank Hang XU.

“You are 34 now, have you considered settling down? When do you think you are ready for a marriage and to build your nuclear family? Eventually, you need to have your life partner and offspring.”

“Last week, your grandma didn’t feel well and was suffering from stomach ache badly. I spent a couple of days taking care of her. She is feeling OK now. [with a sighing tone] When people are getting old, they need to be taken care of. When we are at your grandma’s age, who is going to look after us if you are not around?”

These comments recently have frequented the weekly transnational online chats I hold with my parents, who live in China. The comments urge me to contemplate the meaning of filial piety in my situation, an ever-present matter within intergenerational relationships in Confucian culture.

This personal narrative enables me to unveil the intercultural dilemmas we have faced while negotiating filial piety.

Filial piety
Dr. Frank Hang XU (Photo courtesy of Dr. Frank Hang XU)

FILIAL PIETY, MY PREDICAMENT AND MY PARENTS’ AMBIVALENCE

I was raised in an ordinary family. I had not considered leading an overseas life until the home university in 2011 offered an opportunity to study abroad. Then, at the age of 23, my sojourning experience started in the United Kingdom. After over 10 years, my role shifted from an international student from China to an academic settled in the U.K.

Speaking of my parents, I am generally very pleased and grateful because of their open-minded and democratic thinking on my important life-related decisions (e.g. choice of subject at university and overseas studying) as well as their genuine respect for my significant life events (e.g. career-development route and British settlement).

However, it’s none other than this appreciation that constantly drags me into a peculiar predicament. I was nurtured in a Confucian-led cultural environment and taught the traditional idea of filial piety.

Filial piety usually requires children to meet their parents’ practical needs and take care of their emotional well-being by “avoiding traveling far abroad” or bù yuǎn yóu. *

EXPLORING SELF, FOLLOWING DREAMS

Thanks to the years of post-doctoral training in the U.K., and enriched life experiences with culturally diverse individuals from various countries, I can no longer see life as mere outcomes of the givenness of things.

I was nurtured in a Confucian-led cultural environment and taught the traditional idea of filial piety.

Instead, I believe in my capacity as an agent to construct and attach meanings to my life through the subjective exploration of self and other within given structures.

young Asian family are happy together at home by life insurance concept, child baby and mother
Image via Envato Elements

Following my heart and dreams, I settled down in the U.K. and prioritized my career development in the West.

As an adult child, and particularly as a son, I have somehow failed to practice filial piety in an expected manner according to traditional Chinese values and social protocols.

To alleviate this pervasive sense of guilt hidden at the bottom of my heart, I endeavor to show professional achievements as much as I can, such as scholarship, research funding and publications. In doing so, I hope to “bring affluent glory to the family or guāng zōng yào zǔ. **

I try to convince myself that this practice, partially constituting the Confucian-oriented idea of filial piety, may compensate my parents’ disappointment (if any) of not receiving the filial piety conventionally.

FILIAL PIETY AND ELDER CARE CONCERNS

Comments from our weekly conversations reveal that my parents have concerns about old-age care from both physical and emotional perspectives.

Where do their concerns come from? Based on our weekly chats, I note they are not fully confident about the elderly care/welfare system or the pension scheme in China.

Happy extended Asian family spending time together
Image via Envato Elements

Meanwhile, to a great extent, they look to be under peer pressure in relation to the topic of empty nesters or kōng cháo lǎo rén *** within local communities or during various occasions like wedding invitations for their friends’ children and festival gatherings.

As an adult child, and particularly as a son, I have somehow failed to practice filial piety in an expected manner according to traditional Chinese values and social protocols.

In a great sense, the traditional idea of raising children for old age or yǎng er fang lǎo**** is still evidently mingled with their open-mindedness and democratic thinking about my life-related decisions, which then contribute to their ambivalent states of mind.

In other words, my parents wholeheartedly support my overseas living with modest regrets, concerns and worries. Their regrets appear inevitably strengthened when they regularly attend to my grandparents’ needs.

Along with these sorts of regrets, the inconvenience and vulnerability brought by the aging process intensify their concerns.

Bearing regrets and concerns in their minds, my parents cannot imagine how I could live alone for the rest of my life. They subconsciously express such worries during our video chats from time to time. No wonder key words like “marriage,” “family building” and “grandchildren” appear more often than ever in our recent conversations.

INTERCULTURAL DILEMMAS

Whether it be the predicament I am involved in or the ambivalent thoughts my parents are experiencing, they possibly stem from cultural differences.

Asian family walking on the beach together
Image via Envato Elements

Confucian-directed filial piety is deeply rooted in Chinese values. I carried this idea to begin my life trajectory in the U.K. where I developed an understanding of postmodernism and embraced it to reshape my epistemological views toward life.

My parents wholeheartedly support my overseas living with modest regrets, concerns and worries.

I am not willing to reject filial piety completely as a Chinese son. Nor am I capable of practicing it as socially prescribed in China. In this regard, I am stuck in-between and face an intercultural dilemma.

As for my parents, staying physically in China doesn’t necessarily mean their idea of filial piety is immune to challenges from non-traditional Chinese ideologies such as individualism, equality and self-actualization.

Because of global trends, outcomes of human migration and China’s deepened open-up policy, my parents have opportunities to encounter lived experiences presented by individuals in my generation who are “disobedient” to the filial piety socially constructed in China for the exchange of gaining the life they long for.

Filial piety
Image via Envato Elements

When it comes to discussing these scenarios, my parents agree it is essential and important to find a happy and self-contained lifestyle for each individual and that children should not be bound by all the conventions. Values in China are evolving and it will not exclude filial piety.

However, year by year, my parents seem to realize they have underestimated the cost of the absence of receiving traditional filial piety. It becomes a contrast to what many other parents (e.g. their friends) have in China.

That is to say, my parents’ open-mindedness confronts their wish of having me follow the conventional practice of filial piety. Therefore, my parents also experience an intercultural dilemma.

RESPONDING TO OUR INTERCULTURAL DILEMMAS, WE ARE EXPLORING…

At the time of writing, to be honest, I have no best solution to cope with the intercultural dilemmas my parents and I face.

To me, practicing filial piety is an interplay between what I can act (i.e. capacity) and what society permits. Nonetheless, I am aware all the time that I am never willing to give up the idea of filial piety inherited from the Confucian-led sociocultural environment.

Filial piety
Image via Envato Elements

I am not willing to reject filial piety completely as a Chinese son. Nor am I capable of practicing it as socially prescribed in China. In this regard, I am stuck in-between and face an intercultural dilemma.

As an adult son, I am determined to practice it in a way to return, thank and please my parents for their years of support. But, given my overseas Chinese status, I’ve observed that it’s impossible to practice it in the way the majority of domestic Chinese adult children do.

I’m still exploring and figuring out what would be the most suitable approach to fulfill it.

In a similar vein, I feel my parents are not sure what could be the best answer to their intercultural dilemma either. Now and again, they convey regrets relating to the loss of conventional filial piety in our family. But they restrain themselves from extending such emotions beyond our conversations.

Moreover, at the end of every chat, my parents never forget to clarify their ultimate intention of letting me, their son, enjoy my life.

Despite the fact that no conclusive approach is conceived yet from either side, I am firmly convinced that for the practice of filial piety, there must be more possibilities than the all-known dichotomized choices, i.e. I return to China or bring my parents to the U.K.

I’m glad my parents and I are open to the discussion. Relying on the chances of holding genuine intergenerational dialogues, together with my parents, I aim to construct a unique meaning of filial piety since every generation can be an education for another, and each generation thus can be regenerated.

* 不远游 is an expression taken from the Analects of Confucius where Confucius said, “When your parents are still alive, you don’t leave home. If you have to be away from home, you should have a definite destination.”

** 光宗耀祖 is a Chinese idiom reflecting the doctrine of Confucianism. Its meaning is translated into English in the text.

*** 空巢老人 is a popular and vivid term within social discourse in China to describe a currently common phenomenon that elderly parents live alone at their home places after their adult children works and settle down abroad.

**** 养儿防老 is an old Chinese saying emphasizing the importance of having offspring, in particular, males. Its meaning is translated into English in the text.

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