In China, the traditional relationship between parent and child has long been based on reciprocal love and respect. Parents ask, how would I like to be treated if I were a child? Later, the adult child will ask, how would I like to be treated when I am aged and infirm?
That philosophy is presumed to apply to Chinese American communities as well. Yet many American-born Chinese (known as “ABCs”) have chosen the nuclear (rather than extended) family model because they feel it affords greater freedom and individuality—and perhaps to prove that they’re just like everyone else.
Born, raised and assimilated into America despite an immigrant mother, I, too, decided early on that I would not take my parents under my roof when they were older. I loved them and would always “be there” for them, but I concluded that they could retire into a senior community or an assisted living facility. I would help with the costs, visit regularly and drive them to San Francisco’s Chinatown or Golden Gate Park on my days off.
Then at age 50, during extensive conversations with my mother for a book I was writing, I began to understand a bit better the compassionate values she had followed in raising us and how I had unconsciously inculcated them even as I assimilated into the mainstream American lifestyle. I began to really understand my mother’s ancient, wise ways.
So, a few years ago, after my dad rapidly succumbed to cancer and my mom’s health deteriorated, I suggested she move in with me. I had concluded that my mother was pretty cool, and although she has her ways, she doesn’t demand attention nor does she order people around. I wanted to take care of her, as she had taken care of me when I was a helpless child.
To my surprise, my mother declined my offer. In Chinatown, she pointed out, she had a community that spoke her language, lifelong friends and stores she had patronized for decades. If she moved, she would be completely dependent upon a son who spent entire mornings writing and then led a rather active life later in the day.
Filial piety isn’t rote or assumed, but rather a loving, symbiotic relationship. I offered freely, and Mom freely declined. In a comforting resolution, my youngest brother now lives with her as her primary caretaker.
My Chinese American friends are telling me something similar. Filial piety is thriving in the United States, and it’s of the enlightened variety—of loving reciprocity.
Jackson Wong, an American-born attorney in his 50s who retired after striking it rich during the dot-com boom, bought a larger house so he could take care of his mother during her last years. Toward the end, when even his mother’s doctor advised placing her in an assisted care facility, Jackson, who is about as individualistic a curmudgeon as you will find, simply declared, “I’m Chinese. I’ll never put my mom away.”
Belle Yang, an author and painter in her mid-40s, has lived with her parents for years under the same roof in Carmel, Calif. As her parents become less active, she is the one who drives them to their medical appointments and tucks them into bed. If you ever meet Belle, you’ll find a much-fulfilled person.
That’s equally true of David Yin, who looks forward to taking care of his parents despite being only in his 20s. “For me, being my own person includes defining my meaning and purpose in life through supporting my parents. I think being able to repay their kindness is probably one of the highest blessings in life.”
Perhaps all of us in America can tap into some of what is best in Chinese social philosophy. Many Americans of Chinese ethnicity, while rejecting the idea that they are bound by obligation to care for their parents, have returned to a notion of filial piety reinvigorated by core American values of equity, individual freedom and choice, and care for their elders under one roof as a free, natural choice.
William Poy Lee is the author of The Eighth Promise: An American Son Pays Tribute to His Toisanese Mother (Rodale, 2007).
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