Spousal Versus Filial Duty
When I was growing up, a common way to phrase a politically incorrect, racially insensitive Asian themed joke was to start off with or finish with a punch line that included “Confucius say…” You don’t hear those jokes much any more in our much more politically correct world. My dad also used to start off conversations much the same way, but he never intended his conversations to be a joke. He was instead trying to relay to me some valuable piece of advice attributed to Confucius, the Chinese philosopher who lived from 551–479 BC. The most commonly attributed beliefs attributed to Confucius are around filial piety, the belief that one needs to respect, honor and care for one’s parents. Duty to one’s parents comes above all else in Chinese culture, and why traditionally there’s so much respect for elders in Chinese society. Unfortunately as we’ve modernized, that respect has also started to wane. It’s gotten so bad in China, that the Chinese government passed a law requiring citizens to visit their parents, a new law that just took effect on July 1, 2013.
But even without such a law for many Chinese there’s still a strong ethic around parental care. Taking care of your parents was one value I was instilled with growing up and something I practiced while my parents were still living. I always knew when I got older that it would be my responsibility to care for my parents. What I wasn’t expecting was to ever have to choose between my parents and my spouse.
For a man in China, Wang Fei Guo, that was the dilemma he faced when he had to choose between saving his mother or his wife, after their boat tipped over. Neither his wife nor mother knew how to swim. And he had to choose between spousal duty and filial duty. He chose his wife, and saved her first. He was able to also save his mother, but just barely. The event sparked debate on the internet about whether he made the right choice. From the news article on the story:
Some were critical of the man saying that“you only have one mother in your life, but you can always get another wife,” while others defended him, citing the pragmatic “mother doesn’t have as many years left” argument.
Wang’s own father was outraged he didn’t save his mother first, but later accepted his decision, when Wang’s mother said she did not blame her son for his decision. It seems like an impossible decision to make, and really one that has no right answer. Wang was lucky in that both his wife and mother survived.
I stated earlier, that I never expected to have to choose between my parents and my spouse. A number of years ago, I moved my parents in to live with my family, as both my parents had cancer and were no longer able to care for themselves. It wasn’t an easy decision, and my spouse being the wonderful understanding person that he is, agreed to the decision, respecting my very Chinese values on the situation. But as you can imagine, living with your parents is always far from ideal, and there were a number of times we disagreed, and a number of times my spouse got into arguments with my parents. And when those situations arose, I often found myself in the unenviable position of being the arbitrator.
Looking back on it now, I don’t even remember what the arguments were about, just that I was forced to pick a side. And more often than not the side I picked was my parents, which as you can imagine did wonders for my marriage (yes this is sarcasm). My rationale at the time was that my parents only had a few years to live (in fact, my dad passed away a year after moving in with us), and I would have plenty of time alone with my husband to make amends after my parents left this world.
Did I make the right choice? I don’t think there was a right choice, but I believed it was the lesser of two evils. My decision was one that certainly caused plenty of problems in my marriage, problems that would take time to heal, and even now, every so often I still see repercussions of my decision in our relationship. I’m not sure I would have made the same choice if it were a life or death situation, but I can’t say for sure what my mind would have done with just an instant to decide. Do you think Wang made the right choice? What choice would you have made?