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Asian Parenting

March 2, 2013

I once told my Filipino Chinese friend, on the phone, that I and my six siblings were “raised like Chinese”. He wasn’t amused, and maybe he didn’t get it. “I don’t wanna know,” he just said, and changed the topic.

The Chinese are known for their fierce insistence on the family (and the extension thereof) as a social unit, and for a time it was the problem too with their burgeoning democracy. China in the 1930s had warlord families ruling over swaths of land, and Chiang Kai-shek (or “Zhongzheng” where I am) had to rout them, bribe them, or placate them. Sounds familiar, Filipinos? Of course.

It is amazing, this concept of filial piety. We were raised to respect our parents, indulge them in their old age, put up with all their temper tantrums. Of course, we do poke fun at them, though not in front of them. Come to one of our glorious (I say about the food) family reunions, and witness this in action: my cousins joking with my aunts, debates about religion or lack of it, general fawning over the kids, asking about whether you’ve got a lover yet – and the usual insinuation that you’re gay if you’re a guy and don’t have a girlfriend. Even IF you do have a girl in tow, you’re not safe – they’ll befriend her, and make sure that when you do have sex later in the evening she will be bothered by Auntie Ling-ling’s marriage questions over tea and such like.

At times it becomes too much, because our parents and elders aren’t perfect. They try to place on us burdens which they themselves must bear. In the Philippine context, it’s providing for your brothers and sisters, because no matter how much my parents earn, it’s never enough. And I get scolded for doing my Master’s degree even if I had work alongside it – things like that, but let’s not devolve into my personal life here.

I’m writing like crazy about this because last night has been the second night I dreamt about my parents and their unrealistic desires. In my last post I told you I was resolved to love, even unrequitedly, and bear gracefully that reality of not being fully reciprocated. And that event changed me. Now I am telling you it has had a real effect on my black heart. Because I told another friend that I was resolved not to help my family! After everything they’ve done to me! But again, that’s another story.

There has been some recent controversy about “Asian” parenting. Not to mention things we’ve held against Asian dads in the past.

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It’s hard to put up with all these expectations, real or perceived. But I realized some truths regarding our family set-up (well, in theory at least).

  • Asian societies are distinguished for having a lot of expectations on all members of society. Wherever you go in Asia – India, China, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines (yes, this country too): wherever. It’s not entirely Confucius’ fault, though in this part of the world where I and my dear flower are and come from, it’s more Confucian than Buddhist.
  • In Asian societies, the love of the parents for their children is already a given, so speaking of and reinforcing parental love is considered a waste of time. Kids move on to real-life situations, competitiveness, and – you guessed it – filial piety, the idea that children should love their parents back (and practical methods thereof). Then the expectations start coming.
  • We might think that Asian parenting is “sink-or-swim” parenting, but that’s an oversimplification. Your parents will help you when you’re really going down, but not without admonition. And not without more expectations. You’ll be getting verbal jabs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but they’re letting you eat what you want from their table.

I did wake up the following morning and had a heartstorm. I was becoming light again. I hurried to my Orthodox prayer book, where I’d copied prayers for parents and siblings just in case I really needed these. I went through both, but before I go on with the prayer, I’d like to explain the Chinese character for “filial piety”.

The upper part is a version of 老, “old person”. Underneath it is 子, which denotes “son”. The image is of a young man carrying his “old man”, i.e. father. And this is universal, this kind of love, because even the Christians believe in it. I was overcome by the words of that prayer for parents (here, in part):

“O God of goodness, who have given me parents through whom I may partake of Your many blessings…I humbly pray to You for their health and salvation…continue to send Your grace upon them and forgive all in which they have sinned and in which, as mortals, they will err in the future. In your goodness, reward them for the love and care which they have constantly shown me; protect them from all accidents and sadness; give them a long, peaceful and happy life…”

Even as I write this my feelings threaten to overwhelm me. I will never again have the strength or motivation to carry my parents, yes, because it’s time for me to find my own life, love, and work – and even if I’ve always dreamt of doing so – because a long, long time ago, this reality I profess for my dear flower I professed for my parents as well, until everything became black. But the Emperor of Heaven will carry them, and he has mercy on them. And as always, we say that true piety, like all kinds of love, is not forced, but willing.

The miracle wrought by the flower has managed to work its way through my mind. Lord, have mercy on us all.

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