Claudia Chan

Professional Certified Life Coach
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Filial Piety: Strips away one’s identity and voice?

August 2, 2023

As a Chinese girl who was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada when I was 11, filial piety is one of the key Chinese cultural values to live by. The premise is, a child is to care for, love and respect their parents and elders.

However, it often holds an unspoken obligation, which has the potential to eliminate one’s identity and voice:

The obligation to sacrifice their wants and desires to show their love to their parents. 

In the Chinese culture, it is considered unfilial, or disrespectful, to disobey one's parents. 

So often, especially for immigrant families, a child is aware of the effort and energy their parents had given for the family, where hopes and expectation are usually woven in. 

In turn, this child may feel a deep sense of obligation to carry out their parents’ requests. May it be to make them feel proud, to lighten their workload, or to bring more joy to their parents' lives.

If there is an alignment between both parties, then there is no problem. 

However, when there is a misalignment, that’s when conflict is created.

For example, the child may feel they must achieve certain results to please their parents, ie study in a field they might not be fully interested in, or get into a well known company because the parents may take pride in sharing their accomplishment. 

Or, the child may feel obligated to behave in a certain way because of expectations. For example, they are forced to split up from their love interest because of their background or gender, or forced to financially support the parents and their siblings. 

This was what happened to me, because my parents did not approve of my then boyfriend, now husband, it created an extremely toxic environment during the few years we were dating. 

It was one of the hardest moments I had to live through, which I know could either make or break someone. 

That’s because filial piety rides upon this one phrase: “I’d done so much for you as a parent, if you love me you would…” 

And because of this, I had to endure through various feelings. 

The first is guilt and shame. I felt extremely guilty, because I knew my parents had sacrificed for me. They had given up their own needs and wants to give me the best. Holding onto a relationship they disapprove of made me feel selfish, and I was expected to let go of it to show that I love them. Also, as a culture that cares about saving face, my parents kept this news away from many people, which created a lot of shame around this topic.

The second is resentment. When I was forced to make the decision, to choose between mom or the love of my life, there was this anger that came bubbling up. Why is it that other people can do it and I can’t? Why is it that I have to give up what I want to please others? It carried a deep sense of unfairness. 

The third is fear. There were two fears I had to deal with. One is the fear of the unknown. What if my relationship didn’t work out? And the other is the fear of being disowned. What if my parents don’t love me anymore and they walk away? 

And lastly, during that time, I was experiencing a lot of anxiety. I was constantly walking on eggshells, checking for my mom’s reaction,  enduring the angry yet silent treatment, or getting ready to fight. 

In my case, I had a lot of support to carry me through that period of time, which helped me tremendously in making it through onto the other side. AND at the same time, I knew how easily it could be for someone to crumble under the pressure. 

The moment one gives up their wishes for their parents, they have given up a part of themselves. The moment they let their parents make the decisions for them, they’d lose their voice. 

Through this, that’s how filial piety strips away one’s identity and voice. 

What can be done? 

It is true that filial piety is about caring for, loving and respecting our parents and elders. However, it is also important to separate this from who we are. 

Could we hold onto our own differences, dreams and desires while still doing all those for our parents?

Respecting someone means to have due regards for that person’s feelings, wishes, or rights. Which means, our feelings, wishes and rights are just as important. 

For those of us who’d lived under the influence of our parents’ voices, sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish their wishes from our own. 

Sometimes we may believe that the things we hold onto are things we want for ourselves, but maybe they turn out to be things that had been forced on us, and we were never given the opportunity to make a conscious choice for ourselves. 

To break through all of this, it’s important for us to get to know ourselves better. 

1 Create a safe space

Allow yourself to have a safe space away from other people, or find someone who’s willing to listen to you without advice or judgement, which allows you to open up. 

Having a safe space is so important, because for most of the times our thoughts and behaviours had been criticized and judged. Our brains wouldn’t let us be truthful. 

So having a safe space allows our brains to relax. So that we can.. 

2 Be Honest with ourselves 

Once we have the safe space, we could write in our journals, or admit to the other person the honest truth. 

How are you feeling at this moment? 

What do you want to say to your parents? 

What exactly do you want for yourself? 

What are you afraid may happen? What will you regret if you make this decision? 

3 Process the feelings 

When we are going against our parents, a lot of guilt, resentment, pain, fear may come up. 

Learn to process these feelings, which means, be willing to be open to feel them in our bodies while we’re in this safe space. 

This will allow us to clear up the emotions, and then give us a better idea of how we would like to proceed.

***Please understand that this will take some time. It is a difficult situation you’re dealing with, and it will not resolve overnight. Every time you take a step forward, you’ll get a little bit stronger to stand up for yourself.

Loving and respecting our parents doesn't mean we force them to change their minds. It means to love them as who they are, because in turn we want them to love us as who we are.

In the name of filial piety, we can still tap into our voices and embrace our identities, by being honest with ourselves, and growing enough courage to stand for ourselves. 

If you’re encountering a situation where you are made to choose between your parents and yourself, I know exactly how you feel. I shared it here in my winning speech

I highly invite you to find someone whom you can give you the support. And if you can't find anyone, and would like some help, let’s hop on a call, and see how we can work together.

You're not alone. I believe in you, you're worth fighting for. Let's do this together.

Claudia Chan

Professional Certified Life Coach


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