And they want you to pay this debt today. How would you react? Would you want to repay them?
This is somewhat of an absurd scenario but it forces us to examine our moral, social, and emotional obligations to our parents. In our family, as with anyone influenced by deep rooted confucianist teachings, filial piety is front and center of every conversation. To some, this sense of moral obligation is a bridge that connects your role in your family to your career, loved ones, and personal virtue. Yet, to others, it could be a chasm in a widening cultural and philosophical debate.
Our Debt In Dollars and Sense
Your college tuition, clothes on your back, the rent that you never paid as a toddler, are all material obligations that many of us will never be able to repay. These are items that can be itemized and because they are visible to us, we place the greatest amount of stress and importance on these tangible obligations. These material obligations can lead us astray from the less tangible forms of debt, including emotional debt. How do you account for those early weekend mornings when your mom is up at 6AM driving you to SAT practice? Or saving the best part of the fish for you? These are the debt that many of us will carry permanently in our subconscious journey.
Our first apartment in NYC was a 5-story pre-war walk-up. Because we shared the unit with a number of other newly immigrated families, there was literally no room for a desk. With all his pseudo-handy skills, Dad managed to build a murphy-esque desk right over our large window unit. For my first few years in this country, that nook in the corner became my own little office. There’s nothing remarkable about the sheets of shaved pinewood cobbled together on hinges but the sense of scrappiness and resilience is unshakeable . How do we even begin to put a price on this? We don’t.
David Graeber tells a story about a couple that moved into a new town and pretended on their first night that the husband was beating the wife mercilessly. She made sure that her screaming for help was heard by the neighbors. This continued all night but no one intervened. The next day, they packed up and moved out of town.
Why do we feel a moral obligation to society? In one respect, the world has offered you all that it has aggregated: culture, history, art, and science. And the price of admission into this community is conformity.
Fujianese weddings have a long standing tradition of giving hong bao (red envelopes) to the newlywed which can amount to several hundred dollars per attendee. I initially felt weird maintaining this practice, particularly since most of the couples are so far removed from our family. But this is in fact the perfect tool for social cohesion. Newlyweds essentially take out a “loan” from the greater Fujianese community to start off their new relationship. Then as new relationships are formed in the community, the same couple is expected to return to the wedding as guests and offer the same (inflation-adjusted) hong bao to the newlywed. This cycle is expected to repeat in perpetuity.
This sense of moral obligation is tied to not only our yearning to re-compensate but also to the cyclical nature of our relationship with our parents. Just as we were once infants requiring unlimited unrequited love and nurturing, our parents will one day come to this infantile state as they physically deteriorate. And during this concluding phase of their lives, the moral obligation is gradually flipped onto us. Nature has a way of balancing out the universe and all debts must be resolved in one form or another.