When I was in kindergarten, I read a fable about a man who no longer wanted to take care of his aging father. In order to abandon his father in the deep forest, the man decided to carry his father in a wooden carrier and tell him that they’re going out for a “walk”. The man’s young son accompanied them into the woods, and when he realized that his father is abandoning his grandfather, he became flabbergasted. Seeing that his father was unwilling to change his mind, the boy went back up the mountain and grabbed the wooden carrier that they had left by the dying old grandfather. When the man asked why he is bringing the carrier back home, the boy responded, “when you’re old like grandpa, I have to use this to bring you to the forest too, right?” Realizing that he was setting a bad example in front of his child, the man went back and got his father, and showed great deference and respect to his father until the day he died.
As a Korean, I would say one of the most important values in Confucianism is filial piety, the idea of offering love, respect, and deference to my parents who have raised me to become the human that I am. Filial piety is also a value that has been ingrained in my head. This might sound cliche to those of us who are familiar with immigrants’ stories, but my parents did sacrifice a lot for me, including their mental and emotional labour. My parents sacrificed their marriage, having to live more than 10 years apart across the ocean so my brother and I could study in foreign lands. My mom sacrificed her mental health, having to raise her children in a country that mocks her mother tongue and intelligence. I’m not trying to say that my parents are perfect — because no family is perfect — but they did and do the best they can. In between every fight and trauma we have caused one another, we survived as a family, as a whole.
When I was young, I only thought about filial piety in terms of tangible objects. I want to buy my parents a house. I want to hire a house worker for my mom so she never has to do house work ever again. I want them to never have to worry about money until the day that they die. But as I got older, I realized that it’s more than just paying back financially. I wanted to reassure them that they’re doing a good job, no matter the situation. So I never told my parents anything that would break their heart. I never told them when I realized that my first sex was non consensual or that I’m bisexual. I never told them it’s difficult for me to trust people to remain friends with me forever because I lost my best friend without knowing why. I never told them about times when I only had $30 dollars in my bank account until the next pay day, or how I worked at a bar for three months, having to endure unwanted sexual advancement from customers. I know that I am lying to them, but sometimes ignorance is bliss. If they knew these things, they would blame themselves for not being able to protect me from the dangers of the world. I don’t need to worry them. I just want them to be happy.
Now that I’m about to enter a new chapter in life, I am revaluing what it means to be a good daughter who practices filial piety. The Chinese character for filial piety, “孝”, is a combination between “老”, which means “old”, and “子”, which means son. I’m not a son, but I’m a child of their own; to practice filial piety is to carry my parents on my own back as they age and become no longer able to support themselves. Then I think about how I’m not able to provide that to my parents right now, and probably for awhile. Not only am I choosing a professional path that won’t make big money (it blows my mind that even after two Masters degree I will make less money than my younger brother who is studying computer science), but I’m also physically not there for them. I’m not in Korea; I don’t want to live in Korea. I know that my parents are ever supportive of me as they have always been, but it worries me that I won’t be able to be there for them. What if they get into an accident? What if I don’t get to tell them I love them before they leave me forever? I worry if I’m a good daughter if I’m choosing to remain here, away from my parents who have sacrificed everything for me. I wonder if I’m being ungrateful by wanting to bury my bones in a country that refuses to take me in, even though my passion is to dedicate my professional life for the betterment of its own people.
When I bring up these concerns to my parents, they just brush it off and tell me to chase my dreams. They reassure me by saying that they can always come visit, or maybe they’ll retire in the U.S. But I can’t get rid of the uneasy feeling that maybe it’s the best for me to return to a place that birthed me and instilled the importance of reverence and respect for the generations before me, even if I see no future for myself there.
Then I wonder if I’ll be willing to make the same sacrifices for my own children when the time comes. I realize the answer is yes, not only because I will love them, but also because they will be my parents’ legacy too. My parents blood will flow into my children’s and their children’s – it would only be right to pass on their honor through my bloodline and making sure that the generations after me are able to live life to the level of fulfillment that my parents want for me.
I know I’m still pretty young – I don’t know if I’ll even make it in the U.S. or if I’ll want to move to a different place, like Europe or Hong Kong. But as I end 18.5 years of school and enter the professional world, I worry about these things. This year was yet another year in which I spent my mom’s birthday, Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving), my birthday, and Christmas away from my parents. I’ll welcome 2019 with my friends, instead of bowing down to my elders to wish them longevity and thank them for raising me up. I’ll give my parents and my brother a call, say happy new year, and try to FaceTime my dog that doesn’t understand the concept of webcam. In all honesty, I can’t tell if I’m making the right choices, but one thing is for sure: I am forever indebted to my parents.