Article by Shane Cai
My paternal grandmother just passed away when I was starting this article (may she rest in peace). Being away from home and having to deal with work, I could not go home to pay my respect. Cold as it may sound, I have two jobs that I can’t just leave without a moment’s notice. I would have to reschedule everything before leaving, and the funeral would’ve been over by the time I got home (according to regulations [at least at my hometown], the deceased is to be cremated instead of being put in a casket before burial, and has to be buried within three days). The funeral would also just be tears and sad, loud music accompanied by relatives draped in white cloth, wailing for the person, who has had her time, to come back, a ritual I haven’t been able to understand ever since I was a kid. These are not made-up excuses. I have never mourned anyone the way my parents or the other villagers have. As a result, my father was furious. He regarded it as me being unfilial.
To be “unfilial,” in the eyes of most Chinese people, is to have a very despised characteristic. This important part of Confucianism, filial piety, is never taken lightly within Chinese culture. It represents a long-survived hierarchy within the family in China: a descendant should always be respectful and listen to the elders. I don’t disagree with certain aspects of this concept, but at the same time, I’m not the kind to blindly follow rules and orders.
So back to the story. I was thinking it unnecessary for me to go back home for the funeral, and Father thought I should be home to pay my respect. He didn’t directly say to me that I’m unfilial, but Mom phoned me and talked about how unhappy he was. Disregarding the relationship between me and my grandma, all Father wanted was to have me there next to the casket of ashes, wearing some white cloth and “faking” some tears because it’s tradition. I was the oldest grandson so I should be there, no matter how unfeasible it was.
However, when I was seeing the situation, all I saw was Father still feeling, after all he had done for his mother, it was inadequate if I wasn’t there. Father treated my grandmother very well, especially in the last two years after she’d suffered a stroke. She was paralyzed after that, so she couldn’t live on her own. Neither family being well off, the two sons of hers took turns to taking care of her. She was a fierce lady when she was younger, but she had known how troublesome it was for the sons and was not prone to throwing tantrums most of the time. Yet there were still times when my father would cry to my mother about how grandma would just yell at him for no reason. My mother would blame it on the old age, and bury the fact that she was also treated like that by grandma. Father paid for most of the medicines grandma took because he got to go to the county more often. He never asked my uncle to pay his share of it. He brought the specific kinds of snacks grandma could eat, due to her diabetes. Grandma didn’t like to go to my uncle’s, saying that she was not fed on time. She still didn’t think my uncle and aunt were treating her badly.
To me, I think Father had done more than enough repaying his mother. Trapped by the orthodoxy, Father thought however much he did was not enough. Mother would remind him that he was not the only son and he would yell back that she was not a respectful daughter-in-law. He did have a point that his way of treating grandma shouldn’t be affected by how my uncle and aunt were treating her. Above that, he was just following the orthodoxy blindly. Because of that, I myself can never have a friendship-like relationship with Father. I was just causally mentioning once that I wanted to try to apply to some universities overseas when after my mother told me how he was not happy about it. I didn’t end up applying anyways, not because of Father. I couldn’t be sure though how much his reaction affected me.
Filial piety may sound abstract and personal, but it is strongly tying the people of this culture. One of my high school classmates tried so hard to go back to our hometown even if it meant he would take a hit on his salary. He said that he needed to be close so as to take care of his parents. Many of the female coworkers and classmates of mine have stated that they couldn’t go to another city for jobs because their parents wouldn’t allow it.
I don’t know if you know, but filial piety originally was only the good conduct of the offspring towards the parents, but it’s also the shackles that bind a lot of Chinese, at least many with similar origins to mine, from pursuing their dreams and career. At least for me, I would never treat my parents badly, but I wish I wouldn’t have to worry about them trying to use it to tie up my hands.
Shane Cai is a translator/interpreter/whatever-else-life-requires-him-tobe. He is the kind who acts out of passion. That’s probably why he doesn’t seem so passionate most of the time.