Visit thy parents - it's the law

Updated: 2013-07-05 09:51

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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Visit thy parents - it's the law

Visit thy parents - it's the law

Courts may not be able to melt the heart and make people love their parents, but in China they can force them to fulfill their filial duties

When law gets into the realm of ethics it can have unexpected effects, some darkly comical and others downright sad.

On July 1, a woman surnamed Ma was ordered by a court in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, to pay at least one visit to her ageing mother every two months this on top of at least two visits for all the national holidays including Duanwu, Chongyang and Mid-Autumn Day.

Ma had previously lived with her mother, but they had fallen out and the elder woman had moved out. The daughter had not seen her mother since and the 77-year-old sued her daughter for filial negligence.

There is a pop song titled Go Home Often, popularized by the omnipotent New Year's Eve gala in 1999. It touched a raw nerve in a nation where hundreds of millions work away from home. By "home", it could refer to a spouse and child, from which tens of millions of migrant workers are separated for long stretches of time; or it could refer to parents. In the latter case, an even larger number of the population, including the middle class, leave their hometowns and go to faraway places to seek a better life.

Of course, you can bring your parents to live with you in your new city if you are fully established, with adequate housing and all. But lots of people are stuck in the middle, with no possibility of having their parents move in nor the financial wherewithal to fly home for quick visits over the weekend. For many of them, "go home often" means joining the largest annual human migration during the Lunar New Year holiday.

For several years, the song title has been used to represent a new bill in deliberation a bill that requires grown children to visit their parents. On July 1, 2013, it was amended into law, and the Wuxi case was the first to base a verdict on it.

I guess television reporters are going to cover the first visit by Ma, the daughter, who is now legally obligated to call on her mother. How will she go about it? Will she bring her husband and their child and cram their car with gifts, as children usually do on a home visit? Will she wear a grimace to show her displeasure, or will she feign a smile for reconciliation? And how will her mother react? Will she open her arms and hug her daughter?

In any scenario, the outcome will most likely be awkward. In Chinese culture, all traces of love have been squeezed clean by the time two sides in a dispute face each other in court. It has reached beyond the point of reconciliation. The most civilized way for future meetings is to pretend they do not know each other.

In old times, Chinese families were more like clans, with as many as four generations living under one roof. Dominated by the patriarch, the younger generations had little say in big decisions such as marriage and career. This resulted in tragedies, as depicted in many a novel produced in the 1930s. Societal change, more than revolutionary ideologies, has splintered the family as a unit. It has become much smaller, usually a pair of spouses and one child. This puts into sharp focus the urgency of caring for the nation's 200 million elderly, a figure forecast for 2013 using 60 and older as a benchmark.

Caring for the elderly involves financial support first of all. In urban China, many of the retired are able to live on pensions, and whatever sons and daughters chip in can make possible travel plans and other luxuries. But in rural places, older people still rely heavily on what their children bring home. As China's welfare system improves, fewer and fewer of the elderly fall through the cracks of poverty, and an increasing number are truly enjoying their sunset years. Just go to any park in China and talk to a random senior citizen practicing tai chi, social dance or folk opera.

With financial support receding as a major concern, psychological support looms large as a pressing issue. For all the dance-a-thons and leisure activities, ageing parents long for some moments with their children. What is the ideal "distance" a child should keep with his or her parents? I've talked about this with many friends and the consensus seems to be: Live in the same city but separately. Sharing the same premises may cause generational frictions, but living in different cities makes it difficult for one to tend to parental needs.

Unfortunately, many people do not have the luxury of living a bus ride away from their parents. A visit usually takes logistical planning and monetary commitments. For them, "regular visits" means once a year, or twice if they can manage to expand one more public holiday into something like the Spring Festival journey. Generally, a single person may find it easier to squeeze out the time than the money for such a trip while a married one has the opposite headache.

The new law is extremely difficult to be implemented to the letter. What if a son has not visited his parents in three years but sends regular greetings and financial support? He may have a good reason for his absence. On the other hand, another might call on his parents once a year but refuse to take on their medical bills even though he can well afford them? As Tolstoy famously said, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Still, I believe the law will do more good in raising consciousness of filial responsibility. Just as each child has a different economic situation when it comes to paying for his or her parents' bills, each one will have to define the frequency of visits by his or her unique situation. But each has to do their best to fulfill this duty. To most, this law will act as a no-nonsense reminder; and only to a handful of miscreants may it be applied with full prosecution.

Essentially, the willingness and frequency of filial visitation is an issue of ethics. Using legal means seems like overkill. As Chinese stipulations tend to be vague on specifics, such a law shows its power in fomenting a pro-parents culture, or reviving it in a way. It was chipped away by the May Fourth Movement, and now some kind of balance is being restored. The government has to take up the responsibility of caring for those senior citizens whose families are unable to do the job, but for much of this demographic, psychological well-being falls out of the realm of government agencies.

As the song goes, "Find some time, take your child and spouse, wear a smile and visit your folks. Mom will flood you with chatter and dad with a table full of great food. Tell them about your troubles and happy things. Help them clean up. Rub dad's back. They do not expect much from you. They've worked hard a whole life and all they want is a happy reunion."

For most Chinese this song is more than enough to wake up a sense of filial duty. The law will take care of the handful of diehards who have completely forgotten about it.

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(China Daily European 07/05/2013 page30)