Filial Piety: I'm Asian and I Hate Filial Piety Culture

Growing up in Malaysia, this is definitely a society that places parents above all other types of humans. Sometimes it can feel that if you're of a certain age and not a parent, YOU'RE NOT FULLY HUMAN. This is another problem of its own, but I'll write about this another day.

Take, for example, any news article on how an old person was abandoned and their children aren't in touch, the poor old things.

Comments will start to appear on how "karma is a cycle", "no matter what happened in the past they are still your parents and you should be good to them", "your mother suffered by having you for 9 months and this is how you repay her" etc, etc.

Really? Okay, what if the parents were domestic abusers and didn't feed the kids, and the kids got out early? Or if one of them sexually abused their own children? Is it still "they are still your parents and you should be good to them?" in these cases?


You know, I get it. In fact, let me type the following sentence in LARGER font size so that people don't get me wrong:

I believe that you SHOULD be grateful AND strive to be good and kind to your parents *IF* they also did their best to raise you well (physically and mentally) until you reached adulthood.

I mean, that's kind of their job, since they chose to bring children into the world.

On the other hand, I DETEST filial piety culture so much, especially the TOXIC parts of it.

Filial piety is a great concept and concentrates on being a good family member and providing for your family, which sounds great in theory. Unfortunately, there are so many ways that it has been abused.

For example, like this Humans of NY post I saw:

In short, there's filial piety culture that's so TOXIC, it's just emotional and physical abuse/ controlling behaviour disguising itself as "filial piety".

You can't look out of the windows because your father will scream at you, and you think it's normal. You just stay at home to make your father tea and food, and think it's normal that you live in a prison-like state. You marry the person your parent chose for you, because 'filial piety' and 'you should listen to your parents', and think it's normal.

Also this is a patriarchy thing but there are mothers who are also as emotionally manipulative and believe it's their right to be so because "filial piety culture".

The above is an extreme example, but I can say with certainty that this attitude of "filial piety is THE GREATEST AND HOW DARE YOU QUESTION IT" is prevalent in a lot of Asian cultures.

You know how when young children ask their parents "why should I do this?", and the answer is an exasperated "because *I* said so"?

I feel like that's Asian parents to their children of every age. Asian parents have also mastered the art of guilt-tripping so much, they should be awarded PhDs in it.

"I know I'm a nuisance to you, I should just kill myself so I won't be a burden on you anymore."

^something someone I know has said, all just because their ADULT child was not free on a certain day to do what they want, and it's not just the ONE Asian parent.

In my observation, it's not just the parents that's perpetrating this emotional abuse, but also society enabling them to do so. When I went to Australia to study at the age of 19, someone close to my parents said:

"Why is she leaving her parents behind to study in Australia? Cannot study in Malaysia?"

I don't know, maybe a) because I can, and b) I want to live a little bit more independently and have a reasonable amount of privacy AND MY OWN LIFE?

I'm fortunate that my parents didn't give me crap to that degree (after all, my parents did agree with me furthering my tertiary education in Australia), but there have been moments when I was deemed too "Westernised", or subjected to comments that made me clench my teeth but I still had to be *polite*.

With my own peers, I've conducted countless conversations with people about how:

1) Why should children stay with their parents until they get married? What's wrong with living alone when single?

2) Why should children include their parents in every plan? Are parents not incapable of living their own lives? Are they not a person before they are a parent? Can't they have their own plans?

3) Why can my Caucasian friends' parents kick them out of the house to get them to be more independent, but Asian parents can't?

... and so on.

I am honestly quite envious of the fact that my Australian friends can say things like "I'm moving out of the house with my boyfriend/ girlfriend", and that their parents will react with "oh thank God I thought you were never leaving", instead of being subjected to snide comments and guilt-trip tactics by their own parents, relatives, and also society at large.

Somehow, it's also always the Asian women who get the full filial piety guilt treatment that is also sexist, i.e. "how can she move into a man's house without marrying him, what is she thinking? How can her parents allow her to do that?" and so on.


Here are 4 parts of filial piety that I detest and wish weren't thought of as filial piety:

1) You Must Practice Absolute Obedience to Your Parents

If your parents tell you to jump, there's only one appropriate response: "how high?"


Somehow I feel that's only a slight exaggeration.

I have known people who have had to give up what they wanted to study, and even who they wanted to date or marry, just because their parents didn't approve and it was hard to fight back for their dreams or love, because "parents" and "filial piety".


It's more apparent in Malaysia, where racial, cultural and religious objections are pretty prevalent in dating. Also, filial piety is FOR LIFE - there are grown adults in their 20s and 30s  in Malaysia who don't want to do a thing, but HAVE to do that thing because their parents want them to do it.



Like, say, how you want to get married. I don't have anyone I want to marry, and YET I am still capable of having conversations with my mother about how she wants to invite her friends and our distant relatives WHEN I get married, and I'm all "I JUST WANT A SMALL WEDDING THAT STARTS ON TIME."

Buddha have mercy on me if I do actually get married some day.

Like filial piety, obedience is a good virtue. Yet, obedience to the extent of suppressing your truest self seems to suggest that you were born just to be what your parents want you to be, not what YOU want to be.

 Are you really okay with this? 

I'm not.

2) The Idea That Your Parents Knows What's Best For You

Growing up, I learned the piano. I eventually realized that I only liked playing the piano for fun, but learning the piano meant having to take examinations to level up through the grades. There was no "learning the piano for FUN" in this Asian society.


So I wanted to quit my piano lessons by the time I was 7 or 8, but I learned the piano until I was 16, because...

"How can you give up when so much money has been spent on your piano lessons? Do you know that it can be a skill that helps you in the future? This is for your own good you better learn the piano and get Grade 8 certification THIS WILL DEFINITELY HELP YOU!"

Let's just say many tears were shed over the piano, and society, WELL, society just said:

"Do you know how lucky you are to learn the piano? Do you know how many people want to learn the piano?"


A) I failed my Grade 8 examinations at 16.

B) I refused to retake it unlike before - I GRADUATED FROM HIGH SCHOOL YO.

C) In 2018, I also STILL refuse to touch the piano in the presence of anyone. In fact, my ideal piano is one with headphones where I can play Disney songs to my heart's content AND NOT HAVE TO HEAR "see never practice that's why your playing has so many mistakes".

You see, I still love the piano, but I will never play it in front of people again. 

Yes, years of tears, stress, and anger over the piano for exams I didn't even want to take was definitely best for me. Yay for great childhood and teenage memories.

3) Whatever Your Parents Say/Do to You, You Should Shut Up and Take It Because It's Them "Caring" For You

Growing up, whenever I tried to complain about unreasonable rules or situations in the household, I often got this reaction:

"That's because your parents care for you, you shouldn't complain, do you know how many other people want to be you?"


I know they care for me.

I also know that people who care for you can be unreasonable even in their care for you, because they're only human and can make mistakes.


Times change, and what used to work in the past doesn't work now.

Parents in my grandmother's generation used to chain their children up and beat them until they bleed if they don't get up on time to help in household chores, and it was considered "parenting" and "disciplining children". In fact, there's a saying in Chinese that goes 'hitting is love, scolding is caring' (ๆ‰“ๆ˜ฏ็ˆฑ,้ช‚ๆ˜ฏ็–ผ) when it comes to "parenting advice".

Yay, set your children up to accept physical abuse as acts of love! 

Growing up in my household, there were a mixture of reasonable and non-reasonable arbitrary rules. These include getting at least a minimum string of As at school (or get beaten for not being smart enough), not talking back EVEN THOUGH WHAT YOU'RE SAYING MAKES SENSE, not being allowed to go out with friends until after I turned 15 (even to movies and the like), not being able to date until after I turned 18, and so on and so forth.

Joke's on my family because now I don't date and it's all "you aren't getting any younger!".

Should have allowed me to date before 18 then, when I still had a fairytale view of romance.


Just joking.


4) Giving Up Your Dreams For Your Parents Wishes is a Good Thing

I feel like this needs to be said more often: Just because you are someone's child, and was raised with love and attention, DOES NOT MEAN that you have to give up the rest of your life to serve your parents' every need and hopes.


You are not a vessel that needs to carry out everything they wish for you to do, even if they have given up a lot for you.

You are allowed to question authority, to explore what you want, to not be a doctor if you don't want to be one.

It's definitely a... struggle to do so, which I know very well. There have been things I wanted to do, but hesitated on and gave up because "filial piety".

There were other things I refused to budge on, though, and it was through much arguments and hand-wringing that I was allowed to do my own thing, despite the attempts at guilt-tripping and the like. I even told my mother that Asian parents don't respect their own children, but expect their children to respect them instead.


I wasn't an all-out rebel, but I was rebellious whenever I needed to stand up for myself. You have to be smart in picking your battles!

Tip: I find that it helps if you give your parents money and pay for pretty much all the bills associated with the household (electricity, water, etc). Then, the power balance tip in your favour, AND you are still considered a 'filial' role model. 

This entire 'filial piety' notion is why so many Malaysian teenage girls in the 2000s identified with this Disney song SO much.


I know I did.

There may or may not have been tears-filled sessions with this song playing on loop in the background.

The only difference between then and now is, I know this line is true, and it's okay.

I will NEVER be a perfect daughter.

In fact, the older you get, you'll realise that no matter what you do, someone will always have a comment about how you can be a better daughter/ anything else.

As a comment I once read said, "if you are an adult and you still allow your parents to push you around, that's YOUR choice to be pushed around".

Making your own decisions and sticking to them, especially in a society like this which fully supports the parents no matter what, can be hard.

However, I really hope that people do not lose the very essence of them which makes them them, instead of a shell of a person that their parents wanted them to be - even if it's something as small as locking your room for privacy.

By all means, DO be a good contributing member of the family (financially, physically, mentally), BUT don't let the toxic parts of filial piety culture destroy you.

That is not what you were put on earth to do, no matter what this culture says.