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Honor Thy Father And Mother

I am a Chinese male born in the island of Singapore. I was raised and brought up in a household that followed Chinese customs moderately. Singapore, being a cosmopolitan city, is very modern in its outlook and thinking. I had no qualms coming to America to pursue my studies, knowing that I was more adapted than the ultra-traditional Chinese students who were born in China. I had no idea how Chinese I was until I had an American roommate this semester.
One major aspect I differ from my roommate (and most Americans I presume) is my relationship with my parents. Having had the chance to overhear (unintentionally of course, the dorm is very small) my roommate speak to his parents on the phone gave me an insight on the vast differences in parent-child relationship. He spoke fearlessly to his parents about his latest adventures and escapades during the weekend, almost as if speaking to a contemporary or friend. While normal courtesy was used especially when requests were made, there was a certain abandon or even recklessness in his speech. He spoke with a sort of freedom I was unaccustomed to.
Having grown up in a Chinese family, Confucian values were instilled in me from the moment I was born. It was not a procedure or program where one was brainwashed, but it was a way of life. From the small things like reciprocity – returning a gift if given one, to larger things like duty to the country, or community before self, these values determined how we acted and reacted to various circumstances that life brought along our way. How we treated our parents is a major part of this value system.
Confucius, in his analects, speaks of filial piety as a foundation to a benevolent character. In the second line of the first chapter of the Analects, it reads: "filial piety and obedience, are they not the foundation of benevolence" If one is unable to treat his or her own parents with due respect, how can we expect that person to treat others duly? From a young age we were taught to revere our parents and to obey them with almost unflinching obedience. As far as our small worlds were concerned, they were the authority. They were the gods that ruled our lives at that young age. We never spoke back and were terribly fearful of their wrath were we caught disobeying them.
Yet it is not true to say there is no love within such a relationship. I am now twenty-three years old, and I can truly say my parents are every inch as deserving of my love and obedience. They are normal parents, but normal parents are exceptional people. To contrast it to sayings of a different culture, in the bible it is written that Jesus said, "which father, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Which father, if his son asks him for fish, hands him a snake"� (Matthew 7:9) It is the inherent nature of parents to be concerned about the welfare of their children. Confucius was asked, again in his analects, to define filial piety. His reply in the second chapter and sixth verse of the analects was "Parents worry over the health of their children". This ties in with the principle of reciprocity. If your parents are so thoroughly concerned for you, how can you not do your best for them?
How do we "do our best"? It is amazing to read the Analects and see the amount of detail and clarity Confucius analyzes. His reply to another question about what filial piety is was "when your parents are alive, serve them with propriety. When they die, bury them with propriety. After that, offer sacrifices to them with propriety". It is an on-going process that continues throughout the life of the child, not just that of the parent. While my family does not practice ancestral worship, we observe the practice of "grave cleaning", known as shao mu. It is an annual family event where we visit the graves of our ancestors (usually ancestors we have known in our lifetimes) to spruce it up a little. No sacrifices are offered unlike the old days, but we take a little time to remember the sacrifices our parents, grandparents and other elders have made in their lifetimes in order that we may have the quality of life that we now enjoy.
Filial piety is more than simple actions. Again referring to Confucius' Analects, it is recorded in chapter two verse seven: "Today filial piety means feeding your parents well. But even dogs and horses do this. There would be no difference if there is no respect." In the succeeding verse Confucius says, "The expression of your face is important. Your understanding of 'filial' should not merely mean the young serving their parents in physical tasks, or giving them food and wine when it is available". The expression of one's face does not mean that we put on a mask or a front. Rather, it is a reflection of the attitude of the heart. Filial piety, or xiao, is a belief and a value that manifests itself in everyday living through the things we say and do to uphold our parents' name and memory.
There is little I can say to emphasize its importance in the Chinese culture. It differs drastically from the American culture, where the individual's interests are of utmost importance. We do not give our parents the highest respect because we fear them, but how can we not, after all we have seen them do for us?
P.S. This is my essay for "Languages and Cultures of East Asia". It's every bit as personal as my journals. And….Mom and Dad, I love you. 🙂

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