Filial Love (Part 1)

I have devoted some space on this blog to talk about the fear and anxiety that has arisen out of my cancer diagnosis.  Very little of that fear and anxiety is focused on me (for the reasons I described in Death, I’m Not Afraid of You).   Rather, I worry most about my husband and children.  To some degree, my worry circles around how they would fare without me, about how crippling their grief might be in the face of loss.  Even so, I have faith, given their youth and the inherent resilience as well as the promise of time (with all of its miraculous healing powers) that comes with youth  and given the support of family and friends, that my husband and children would move on with their lives and even thrive.  So, much of my worry revolves around harm to them.  Because I understand very well that Numbers Mean Squat, because I am, despite all the overwhelming statistical odds that were in my favor, living with advanced colon cancer at age 37, I am petrified of all the statistically unlikely horrors that may befall these three individuals who stand at the very heart of my present universe and at the core of whatever future I have left in this world, horrors that might prematurely cut short their time.  Therefore, I repeatedly make my pleas with God to leave my children and husband the fuck alone, to inflict on me instead whatever bad that must be inflicted as part of the universal order of things.

The problem is that such a deal with God, while it might protect my husband and children, might shatter the lives of the two individuals who stand at the center of my past, who more than anyone else has made me the woman I am today, who unlike my husband and children no longer have the benefit of youth and the strength that it brings.  Even though my parents make me crazy, especially my mother, I love them so very much and I am so afraid of what my illness and passing would do to them.  I am a parent now.  I understand as I could have never otherwise what the potential loss of a child means and the terror that it instills in me and must instill in my parents.    And so, I wanted to devote this particular post to my mother and father, who are often forgotten or taken for granted by me in this all-consuming war against cancer.

When I was little, my birthday parties as well as those of my siblings and cousins, were strictly family affairs, where the only guests were my paternal grandparents and my many uncles and aunts and their children.  The cake, always purchased from a local Chinese bakery, was invariably a two tiered concoction with bananas, strawberries or other fruit nestled in a layer of buttery white and not overly sweet frosting, all sandwiched between pillows of sponge cake – as unbelievable as this may sound to my children one day and to you now, neither friends nor chocolate cake were a part of my childhood birthday parties.  Sliced almonds clung to the sides of the cake while the top was adorned with the same white frosting and green, yellow and pink roses crafted from edible goodness and the words “Happy Birthday [insert name]” in red, in Chinese in the early years of our life in America and then English as we grew older.  I don’t remember much from my birthday parties anymore, but I definitely remember how much I loved those cakes.  I also remember that I was always the last one to get any cake.  Indeed, it was my responsibility, even duty, to deliver the first slice of cake to the oldest person present at the party, which was almost always my grandfather and then to the rest of the family, roughly based on age.   This display of respect for my elders, this type of social etiquette, was bred into me, my siblings and my cousins from such an early age and with such unrelenting repetition that it reminds me of the way Josh so tirelessly tries to instill in Mia and Belle good manners by reminding them to say “thank you” and “please.”  Those words that are such a fundamental part of American social decorum don’t mean as much to me (thus I always forget to make Mia and Belle say them to me and others).  Rather than “thank you” and “please”, there were other ritualistic words that I spoke.  When I went to visit my grandparents, I was always told to announce my arrival and departure; “Grandpa, I’ve arrived” or “Grandma, I’m going home now.”  Even though my grandmother died 17 years ago, an alter with her picture still stands in my parents kitchen, and I greet her and bid her farewell whenever I come and go from my parents’ house, although now I do it through burning incense and silent prayer.

When I went to college and was around non-Asians en masse and for extended periods for the first time in my life – I grew up in a predominantly Asian community (as in Chinese street signs everywhere) – I was simply shocked at the frequency and ease with which my new college friends said “I love you” to their parents, siblings and everyone else in their families.  Those words were never uttered by, or said to, me.  I grew up believing, and still believe, that words are cheap and therefore meaningless unless substantiated by actions.  These rituals of respect, among the many other concrete actions taken, were my way of demonstrating filial love to my grandparents, and by extension, my parents.   Filial love is a manifestation of the broader concept of filial piety, the ancient Confucian virtue of showing devotion, love and respect to primarily one’s parents.  Filial piety is the building block upon which relationships, based on an embrace of the importance of hierarchy and social order, are to be established between not just a child and his parents, but also that child and the rest of the family, as well as society at large (i.e., employer, state officials, emperor).  To exhibit filial piety is to be good to one’s parents, both financially and otherwise; this includes acting appropriately outside the home so as to bring honor to one’s family name and to work hard and earn money in order to materially provide for one’s parents.  It extends to having heirs to carry on the family line, listening to and counseling one’s parents and then, when the time comes, appropriately mourning the illness and death of parents and offering appropriate sacrifices after their deaths to appease their spirits.

As a corollary of the cultural difference of opinion Josh and I have over my parents and personal space that I wrote about in my previous post, we don’t agree about the ways in which filial love should be manifested.  For me, filial love means allowing my parents to stay for weeks at a time in my home when they come to visit; for Josh, filial love means allowing them to stay for a few days.  It seems to me based on my many conversations with Josh on this topic as well as general observations, filial love plays a more critical role in a child’s life in Chinese as opposed to American tradition.  Even though Josh was raised Episcopalian and went to parochial school from Kindergarten through 12th grade and therefore I assume was raised against a backdrop informed by the Ten Commandments and the divine directive to honor thy mother and father, we don’t seem to agree on what filial love and honoring thy mother and father mean. Take for example the issue of giving money to one’s parents.  Josh thinks that while it would be a nice thing to give money to one’s parents, a child by no means has any obligation to do so.  He believes that it is the responsibility of parents to act responsibly so they have sufficient savings in their retirement, so they are not a financial burden on their children.  He believes that parents should have generally no expectations of their children to provide for them, that a parent’s unilateral duty is to raise children with love, instilling in them good morals and giving them as much opportunity as possible to succeed, and then children are expected to leave the home.  His view to me is reminiscent of most parent-child relationship in the animal kingdom where mothers of countless species (and sometimes fathers) nurse and care for their young and then set them free to fly away never to be seen again.

I find this way of thinking extremely offensive.  I get that it’s a natural byproduct of an American culture that values the self and qualities like independence and self-reliance above all else.  I love those values too.  But I do feel strongly a moral obligation to give my parents money, to financially support them to the extent necessary and, even if not necessary, to give them some money from time to time with which to enjoy their golden years and make them happy to know that they have a child who is filled with filial love.  I know a good number of people – not Josh – who say tough shit to their parents when it comes to money; if you don’t have enough money, if you didn’t work hard enough when you were young, if you squandered your money unwisely, if you can’t make Social Security work, that’s your problem.  It’s attitudes like these that I find particularly offensive.  Could my parents have worked harder?  Could they have afforded to be more ambitious like the many Chinese immigrants who have found wealth in this country?  Absolutely.  But they didn’t and couldn’t for a variety of reasons, including limited education and the daunting challenges of starting a new life in a foreign country with no ability to speak or read English with three children to support.  At the end of the day, I know my parents did their best and that’s all I could have asked of them.  And you know what, I think there best was pretty darn good considering where I and my siblings ended up.   My parents raised me.  They sacrificed for me and my siblings.  Whatever success I have is a result of those sacrifices can be primarily attributable to them.  My father worked 12-hour days, six days a week as a butcher in Chinese markets, then as a factory worker and then as a delivery man driving all over Southern California delivering heavy loads of dried goods and liquor to Chinese restaurants.  The hunch in his shoulders and the permanent tan and sun spots on his face and forearms remind me of not just the toll of age but of the many sacrifices he has made for his children.  My mother, despite her inability to speak, read or write English, fought tooth and nail to find me the best medical care possible so that I could have a chance at sight and a better future.  She who couldn’t (and still can’t) drive braved the daunting buses of sprawling Los Angeles to make her way to the ritzy UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute in 1980 where she at once begged and demanded help for her blind child.  My parents were the first to teach me by their many examples about devotion, courage, commitment, tenacity, sacrifice and love.

I used to squirrel away all my Chinese New Year and birthday money in a brown wallet in a purple nylon purse with a unicorn on the side. I sneaked into the closet, shut the door, pulled out my purse buried beneath piles of old clothes and counted my money with glee – my money was something that was all mine and I could buy whatever I wanted with it.  When I was about nine, my mother told me that I should give her the money to put in the bank, and so, I agreed because to entrust my $400 to my mother because I was terrified of a burglar finding my little stash tucked away in my wallet in my purse in my closet.  Months later, when I missed counting my money and realized that rather than opening a separate account for me, my mother had comingled my funds with my parents’ funds, I demanded that she return my money to me.  My mother scolded me then, which was a first; she was a nagger but never a scolder or a screamer.  You are a child.  There’s no such thing as your money and my money.  It’s family money.  Who do you think feeds and clothes you? Who do you think works tirelessly for you so you can have opportunities in this country?  I never got my money back. That was my first hard lesson about money, family and the moral debt I owe my parents.  That moral debt, whether to be repaid in the form of monetary contributions to their well-being or excelling academically or finding a reputable profession or being informed about their medical ailments, is impossible to ever fully repay.

Sure, like all children, I have my issues with my parents.  No one nags as much as my mother; it’s part of her tenacity.  She’s convinced she knows it all based on information acquired from listening to the gospel of AM 1300 Chinese Radio.  Drink and eat this to fight the cancer, it’s because you went to bed with your hair wet that you’re now sick; I told you not to leave your room or take a shower within the first 30 days after giving birth to your children.  On and on she can go about practically any topic.  Ignoring her is a futile exercise in discipline.  As for my beleaguered and beloved father, it would have been nice for him to understand the concept of privacy during my adolescence.  He used to open all my mail (never mind that he couldn’t and still can’t read English) to ascertain things like what colleges were recruiting, accepting and rejecting me.  Ultimately, we compromised — I told him that he could look over my shoulder as I opened my mail but he couldn’t open my mail without me, and that’s exactly what we did.  I’d come home from school to greet my father at the door, with my mail in his hand, and I’d open the letters from the U.S. Department of Education or Williams College or my future college roommate with him looking over my shoulder, his eyes lighting up when he saw numbers and dollar signs (for if you haven’t realized this about my family already, money is a powerful universal language).  He’ll still snoop around my home office now and look at credit card bills and the like.  Some things never change.

[Continued in the next post, Filial Love (Part 2)]


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maxine Jaramillo
    Nov 06, 2013 @ 01:12:41

    Just beautiful….how proud your parents must be of you! I always say that as a parent we love and take care of our children and make them strong so that one day they can take care of themselves, but how fortunate we are when they in turn have the love and caring to one day return that devotion (if needed) to take care of a parent.


  2. itsfruitcakeweather
    Nov 06, 2013 @ 01:33:43

    This was absolutely amazing and I couldn’t agree more with you. I shed a few tears reading that and just thinking of my parents.

    You are such a strong person to be writing this, I wish the best for you and your family.


  3. Shan
    Nov 16, 2013 @ 10:35:47

    Another great post. I think every Chinese mother nags in that pedantic way, based on what she just heard/read in the Chinese media. 🙂


  4. Shan
    Nov 16, 2013 @ 10:51:49

    And I remember those cakes! They were expensive for us, and we couldn’t afford them, but I remember loving those cakes at others’ bday parties. When I tasted cakes bought at the american supermarkets, I was offended by their sweetness and blandness. Wish I had a chinatown nearby to buy the white fruit filled cake at this moment!


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