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Reciprocity—Goes Both Ways and Keeps on Going

From the series Navigating the Cultural Identity Journey


As we have seen in my previous blogs, the Chinese family identity is very different from the American individual identity. A simple example—those with a family identity tend to use plural pronouns (“we, our, ours”) while those with an individual identity tend to use singular pronouns (“I, me, my”).  We’ve also seen that Confucian social roles set expectations for how people with a family identity are to behave with filial piety as the basic underlying value reinforcing a pluralistic identity. This involves care and protection as well as sharing resources. Here we will see this goes both ways and keeps on going to build long-term relationships.

Filial piety implies children have a moral obligation to repay their debt for the care and protection they received from their parents. This arises from expectations inherent in social roles; by fulfilling those roles, a person becomes fully human. However, this debt is never intended to be fully repaid but it keeps on going, building the relationship. These long-term relationships continue beyond our individual, physical lives and not only impact us but also our family members and their friendships. In fact, a person may feel obligated to repay a debt that a deceased family member had incurred.

In American culture sharing resources is viewed from a materialistic point of view. There isn’t the same sense of social and moral obligation to return or repay what has been shared. It is perfectly acceptable to just say “thank you” because Americans don’t share resources as a normal social or moral obligation; rather, sharing is an individual choice. Americans believe that an individual is a person when they can take care of themselves and meet their own needs. They do not believe they are obligated to take care of others—including parents and other family members. Typically Americans prefer to pay off a debt immediately rather than be in debt. They feel it is unjust to have to pay for a family member’s debt whether the family member is still alive or especially if they are dead.

The challenge I faced living in Asia was dealing with my underlying cultural beliefs that maintained my individual identity. I was taught that it was up to the individual to decide if they wanted to share their resources. I felt that if people asked to share, it was because they were too lazy to work for what they needed. If they took care of themselves, they wouldn’t need to ask for help. Therefore, I felt justified in getting angry with them and judging them as wrong.

Then God began to convict me that my responses were not very loving, or kind, or in fact biblical. An Asian man asked a group of Americans, which included myself, how to interpret 1 Timothy 5:8. Our first question was “What is 1 Timothy 5:8?” He then quoted, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” We were shocked and realized that we had been reading Scripture out of an individual identity perspective.

That experience began my journey to explore other areas where I misinterpreted Scripture because I was reading from my individual identity. God convicted me of being culturally judgmental which prevented me from understanding people with a family identity. God helped me realize that much of Scripture is written from a family identity perspective and that reciprocating, sharing resources, is biblical (Ephesians 4:28; Hebrews 6:10; 13:16).

I also learned that in Chinese culture there are other ways to reciprocate. One way is exchanging help and is called mutuality hùxiāng (互相).This has the sense that people look out for each other, helping one another with mutual understanding. In rural areas this might include helping each other prepare the land for crops and then harvest them, fix a house, and so on. These activities bring the neighborhood together. When a person has a need, everyone helps that person. In this way, everyone has their needs taken care of. In my individual identity background, people hire someone to do those chores and there is no focus on keeping a relationship going.

Another way to reciprocate is by participating in what is called a rotating credit union, a hui (会) or an informal loan club. In these clubs people come together monthly to put a set amount of money into a shared pool. Then each month one person is chosen to draw out the entire amount for a larger purchase they have been saving for. In this way the members help each other. In my individual identity background, people put their money in the bank and provide for themselves. Again, there is no focus on keeping a relationship going.

Can you think of a time when people expected you to join in helping out with some kind of work or asked you to join a rotating credit club? How did you feel? What belief led to your emotional response? Or have others offered to help you and you refused? Why did you refuse? How do you think they felt when you refused?

More information can be found in Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities of Asian American Life and Ministry, Ben Shin and Sheryl Takagi Sizer, 2016 pages 151–152, 157-158, 162.

Sheryl Takagi Silzer

Sheryl Takagi Silzer

Sheryl Takagi Silzer is a third generation Japanese American. She worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia as a Bible translator. For the past twenty-five years she has worked as a multicultural consultant leading Cultural Self-Discovery workshops for sending agencies, schools, and churches around the …View Full Bio


Image credit: Vmenkov – Self-photographedCC BY-SA 3.0Link.

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