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The Importance of Filial Piety

Especially at a Distance

From the series Navigating the Cultural Identity Journey

When we were living in Asia we were often asked, “why did you come here?” We tried to give all kinds of explanations about our individual ministry role and what we hoped to accomplish without being offensive. However, when they started asking about our families, we learned that they thought we had come because we did something that upset our family and that was the real reason we were there.

Those with a family identity often think that people who go far from home have family problems that they don’t want to deal with. The easiest way is to go to another location. The farther you go, the more you don’t want to address those problems. Therefore, our friends in Asia suspected that we did not want to take care of our family members, our parents in particular, and so we came to their country. They couldn’t understand that we had come for any other reason.

At that time, I did not realize how bad we looked in their eyes by not being close to our parents in case they needed us. For Americans the term “filial piety” was something that people could chose to do if they wanted. Not everyone was expected to care for their parents. Both our parents had given us their blessing to be where we were, but our friends in Asia did not understand that.

As we learned more about the basic value of Confucian social ethics, we realized that we viewed our relationships with our parents from an individualistic perspective. That is, we felt called to be in Asia and trusted our parents to take care of themselves.

There are five main ways that Asian children can show respect, that is be filial, to their parents.

First, they are to honor and obey their parents. The Bible also echoes this in the Ten Commandments as well as in the New Testament (Ephesians 6:1 and Colossians 3:20). Among the ways you can honor and respect Asian parents in public are to greet and bow, open doors, give better seating, celebrate their special occasions, use respectful speech, and not talk bad about them to others.

Secondly, they can show them respect by asking for their parent’s advice. They have lived longer and had more experiences in life. They will be pleased to be asked and know that their thoughts are considered important. Parents are often more interested in being with their children and simply spending time with them—that is what family members do.

Thirdly, they can show their parents respect by caring for their everyday needs without being asked. If they have spent enough time together, they know what food their parents like or things they may be needing. They can also care for them when they are sick or at least call or visit them to let them know they are being thought of. And they can give gifts as their parents have given to them over the years.

Fourthly, they show respect by giving the parents a grandson to carry on the family name. If a child is not married, they may continually ask when they are going to get married and once they are married parents will continually ask when they are going to have children. If they don’t have a son, they will continually ask when they will have a son. The continuance of the family line is very important for family-identity cultures.

Lastly children show respect by giving their parents a proper funeral and giving remembrance to their ancestors. This will be the hardest for Christians to do but there are ways to honor family members without disrespecting God. This is one of biggest challenges for Chinese Christians, but God will give wisdom to know how best to honor family members in ways that also honor him.

If you are not Chinese or are more Americanized, have you wondered why Chinese have such strong family ties and why Chinese need to spend more time with family members? If you are Chinese, have you wondered why your family has such high expectations for you regarding your time and resources and why so much time and money is spent on funerals?

If you are far away from your parents, there are things you can do to show respect to your parents and communicate that to those around you. You can keep in regular touch with your parents and share what your family and parents, in particular, are doing. You can display a large photo where the family gathers and is happy, with your parents in the middle of the photo to demonstrate your respect. And even from a distance, you can make a point to do something special for your parents on their birthdays and anniversary and support them financially on a regular basis.

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, chapter 9, pages 143-150.

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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

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