More (or less) on filial piety

Being still jobless and having a lot of time on my hands, I started on Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger), translated by Matthew Ward. The first chapter – as far as I got before the fingers itched to blog the experience – deals largely with the death of the main character’s maman (mother) and written in a rather terse, Hemingway machine-gun way.

And it horrified me, because the mother had (*spoiler alert* though I’m doubtful any of my largely Pokemon-Hentai-seeking readership will ever pick the book up) died in an old-folk’s home a long way from where the main character lived, and whom he rarely visited. The funeral process was described in prose almost completely devoid of emotion and you wonder if the protaganist had harboured any feelings of goodwill towards his mother or had been going along with the motions out of duty. You begin to wonder if he was filial. And if you’ve been following the issues I’m concerned with, filial piety happens to be one of my stickling points – mainly because I can’t get a good grip on a decent course of action to follow that can satisfy (for me) philosophy and practice. I am one of the individualistic young people who may not want to take my turn as a carer (care-er) of my parents in the future (read this BBC article for their take on Singapore).

In case you haven’t heard I live in a rented room away from my parents, for several reasons that have changed over over the years. Ultimately, though, I think one day I finally realized that not only was it possible for me to move out but also that I wanted to. What makes me guilty is the knowledge that had I tried somewhat harder, it wouldn’t have been impossible for me to stay (*gasp*). Does that make me a Bad Son? After all, until a few years ago, I had imagined that I would stay with my parents forever (with some legitimate exceptions).

I’m not just talking about moving out as in the case of moving temporarily to some form of university residence or army barracks. I mean the mindset of wanting to live independantly of parental support (interference) forever. If you can’t figure out the difference, consider what the word “home” means to you, and if that place is away from your parents’ (or in some small room which you rent with an unfriendly roommate). Despite having moved away from my parents for two years, it’s still difficult to think of myself as having “moved out” in that sense – it always feels like a temporary solution until I go back, despite my constant reminders to myself that it’s permanent.

The Singaporean situation sees many young adults living with their parents despite being economically active, having active sexual lives and sometimes even after having children. Singaporeans will commonly cite the cost of housing as an excuse, but in reality Singapore’s housing prices aren’t so high when compared to other cities that see much higher parent-child seperation rates (I’m not too sure, really, but we’re definitely cheaper than Paris, London, New York, Berlin, etc…). I think the main reason Singaporeans tend to stay home is due to the dependance of youths here on their parents for financial support (up to the ages of twenty-five and more!) and the lack of a need to move for employment reasons.

The only situations under which Singaporean offspring move out of their parents’ are when in wedding dresses, coffins, with a scholarship, a really large loan, under severe trauma (caused by offspring to parents or vice-versa).

If you need an example of how different we are in this respect to western nations, consider local television productions such as Phua Chu Kang or Under One Roof against generic American sitcoms. No one seems to think that it is strange that children over thirty (Paul from UOR?) are still living in the same HDB flat with their parents, and in the same tiny room, whereas the parents in those Made-In-America sitcoms are invariably portrayed as something of a minor irritation and appear at most in a single episode, where they embarrass protaganists and end up realizing that living in another state (preferably one involving no breathing) makes more sense. I remember Miranda from Sex and the City saying something to the effect that her mother lived a thousand miles away, and that was still too close for comfort for her (I watched SATC – is that a surprise?). Unlike us, the westerners (or at least, their mass media) seem to encourage their children to move out of the nest as soon as they are able.

Of course, this may in part be due to the incredibly active lives the western elderly seem to lead. If my parents didn’t just sit around all day watching TV, farting and complaining about how terrible their children were and instead started doing interesting things like speed-dating, finding sex partners online or learning tantric sex, I’m sure they would find me more than a little bit of a nuisance to have around. Unfortunately even my best efforts to encourage mother to raise kittens (practically slobberred over pictures of the cute little animals in front of her) failed to inspire anything more than cynical remarks that Good Sons Stay at Home to mewl cutely, not buy kittens to do it for them.

Even in China and India, I am constantly reading about the masses of young adults who are forced to move from their hometowns to seek employment in larger cities and end up seperated from their parents. Usually, from what I hear, they end up not moving back once they’ve managed to carve out a life for themselves, though financial support for parents is usually expected. Of course, this is entirely different from my case as they have legitimate reasons for leaving home, such as making a living and finding a wife (evidently, in some Chinese villages the boy:girl ratio is something like 10:1), though I have the suspicion that in years to come it will be custom for the young ones to leave the nest as a sign of maturity (read: economic capability). I am entirely aware of the irony that my problem is caused by living in a country that has too many employment opportunities and is devoid of gender-balance problems, and that had I been born somewhere else the question would have been moot (replaced by questions like how to get children – who will end up with problems like this).

I was brought up to believe that abandoning your parents was among the worst things you could do. I am familiar with the concepts of 仁, 仪 and 孝 due to father’s interest in Buddhist studies when I was younger (curse his foresight in breeding such values in his son) and being an obvious banana (ie. westernized chinese) my chinese teachers always paid close attention to my answers when they asked the class that inevitable question about whom I would save from drowning if I could only save one – my mother or my wife, then would proceed to demonize western values because inhuman bastards like me (and only at the age of 10, awww) would say things like “Save the wife! She’s more useful to the economy!” (so Singaporean) and neglecting out primal responsibility to the ones-without-whom-we-would-not-be-possible. I remember the story about the crows whom, whilst young depended on their mother for food, would similarly feed and nest her when she was old and decrepit, thus making them noble creatures worthy of our emulation (though we shoot them in Singapore). I hate volunteering with the elderly, and am always somewhat useless (and a little weepy) in old folks’ homes (though that might be more because I can’t speak any chinese dialects beyond the purpose of ordering food).

Now, I’ve never really thought of myself as being that westernized, though I suppose I bear all the symptoms – poor command of my “mother toungue” (my mother speaks predominantly in English), an almost complete lack of knowledge of my historical heritage (Chinese history was taught only for three months in Secondary 2), a disdain for the traditions (such as the one I discuss now) and the inability to recite any chinese poetry except for 静夜思, instead replacing all these with transplants from some other culture. But one of the things that makes me such a banana, I suppose is that I ask the question: Why is it important for us to be filial? instead of taking it to be one of the fundamental, unquestionable bases of humanity.

I’d discuss it further, but this post is turning out to be ridiculously long and to tell the truth I haven’t found out a reasonable and suitable answer yet. I do have a whole list of philosophical and biological views that I think should contribute to my decision, yet my early-beliefs always seem to take precedence against anything I read that offers a view counter to theirs. It’s so deep sometimes I even think myself a Bad Boy for considering the issue. As I wonder the logical merits of sending your parents off to a nursing home where professional nurses can provide them medica… my brain stops working and I am filled with dread that I could even entertain such sordid thoughts.

This must be what self-censorship is like.

Personal decisions are so difficult to make. So is changing your mind. No wonder we’d rather just sit back and let things go by until it’s too late to make any decision at all.

I’ll try to make some form of argument in the next post, I promise. Just lemme mull over it the New Year.

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