"No, no, no ...." I groaned, as I watched a Korean drama on TV the other night. Here was a man in his early 30's with a modernized bowl-cut, on his knees, begging his mother to let him date the love of his life. The apple of his eye is a lady in her mid 20's, pretty, kind, intelligent, and predictably, from a poor family. The man’s mother not only refuses her son's request, but also threatens to inflict damage of all sorts upon the woman's family if her son did not break up. The man yields to his mother, goes for a drive with his girlfriend, pulls over abruptly to the curb without looking over his right shoulder for blind spots, and tells her he is forced to break up. She says his name, with no words following. He apologizes and cries. She cries too, and apologizes for being such a burden to him and his family. (Cue very sad theme song).
You will probably see a scene similar to this in two thirds of today’s Korean dramas, and experience tells me that at least two thirds of Asian American adults will feel the same angst that this TV character felt as it relates to the pressure of obeying parents. Interestingly, I believe this ratio increases for Christian Asian Americans. The reason for this is because many equate the biblical command of honoring one’s parents with the action of obeying one’s parents, even into adulthood.
I am sure people of all cultures can relate to this pressure, but I think that Western society promotes a message of adulthood that differs greatly from traditional Asian culture. A Westerner shows they are an adult when they demonstrate an ability to stand on their own feet. An Asian often is often seen as immature and rebellious when they want to stand on their own feet. I grew up in a white neighborhood, and when I went over to friends’ homes as a kid, I would often hear my friends’ parents saying things like, “Once [my friend] is 18, he’s on his own.” Movies like Wayne’s World and Failure to Launch lampoon the concept of adults resisting independence from parents. In contrast, if you watch Korean dramas enough (like me), you will see many a parent losing consciousness when their adult children want to leave the nest.
The point of this article is not to say one culture is right and the other wrong. All cultures have their strong and weak points. My aim is to shed light on the problems I witness from the therapist’s chair when adults feel the need to honor parents by obeying them. I would then like to start a dialogue about changes that can be made in this generation, to honor parents in ways that are hopefully culturally and biblically appropriate.
There are at least two contributing factors to this difficult issue of honor and obedience. The first is the Confucian role ethic which most Asian cultures have based their societies upon. Briefly stated, Confucius set forth a societal system in which people have roles to fill, such as father, mother, son, daughter, first son, youngest daughter, etc. One is honorable when they fulfill their role well. Included in the role of children is the concept of filial piety, that is, obedience to one’s parents. This role does not change when one becomes an adult. In fact, even when one’s parents are deceased, filial piety can live on in honor of their memory. Korean dramas reflect this role ethic, yet also reflects the growing protest against this tradition.
The second factor that comes to mind is the biblical command to honor one’s parents. Christians who hold fast to the Confucian role ethic will make an easy hermeneutical jump to link honoring parents with obeying parents. It makes for quite a package deal. You get all the goodies that come with obeying parents, such as avoidance of conflict, praise from your parents, the feelings of being a good child, and to top it all off, you are obedient to God.
So what are the problems I witness? I see paralysis and emotional stress when faced with the prospect of going against parents’ wishes. This stress manifests itself in physical symptoms, as well as acting out through addictions to self-soothe. I see adults describing their frustration of feeling like a small child when in the presence of their parents. I see adults lying to their parents to keep up the charade that they are obeying them, so as not to upset them. I see women enraged and losing respect for their man when they feel the man is married to another woman (his mom). When this conflict plays out long enough, divorce gets placed on the discussion table. These are but a few examples, and these are no small problems.
What can be done? Again, I’m approaching this issue primarily from a therapist’s point of view. The cost of obeying parents as an adult is taking a toll. The question is not shall we honor. Honor is sown into the very seams of Asian existence. Many Asians have demonstrated by suicide that without honor, life is not worth living. The better question is, in what way shall we honor?
One starting suggestion is directed towards Christians. Base your understanding of biblical honor towards parents on the whole canon of Scripture, not just on one verse. Study the teachings of leaving and cleaving. Observe how the patriarchs honored their elders. Read about Jesus’ interactions with his mother. Read Paul’s instructions for spousal duties to one another. By doing so, you will gain wisdom with which to determine whether your behavior and decisions are firstly honoring to God. Chances are that if you are truly God honoring, you are honoring to parents, honoring to spouse and children, and yes, honoring to self. A culture in which the canon of Scripture is ignored for the sake of keeping alive the culture is, in my opinion, a culture to be re-evaluated.
Another suggestion is inspired by the thoughts shared by Reverend Harold Kim of Christ Central Southern California in an interview with Christianity Daily on May 27 of this year. In the interview, Pastor Harold described how his church strived to initiate and foster relationship with the first generation, showing appreciation and openness. I believe this same approach can do wonders on a personal level with one’s family. Parents desire to be and feel honored. Obedience may be the one way they know how to achieve this. Sometimes simply expressing your dilemma can be eye-opening for parents. I wonder how dynamics might change if adult children would be more pro-active in fostering relationship with their parents, in showing appreciation and communicating at a heart level.
Parents are not just parents. They are people who experienced much in life, including war in their homeland. They are filled with deep thoughts, needs, fears and dreams. Being genuinely interested in them may be one of the most honoring things we do. Other ideas include figuring out their love language and speaking it often, giving them spending money, setting up a special occasion for tribute with family and friends. Coming up with ideas to honor parents on both sides can be a family affair. When parents feel honor at a deep emotional level, their need for respect via obedience often dissipates.
I have other thoughts related to the difference between culture and one’s fear of loss of love, but for now, I’d like to extend an invitation to any reader to provide comments and ideas. I would love to learn from your experience about how you honored your parents without the anxious need to obey them. Your input would help many people who read this article, and who come to me for help with this dilemma. Feel free to comment on this website, or you may message me privately through the widget on my website: roykimtherapy.com.
Blessings to you, and happy honoring! (Cue very happy and honorable theme song).
Roy Kim is an ordained pastor turned licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Fullerton and Pasadena in California. His education includes a bachelor's in English at UC Berkeley, an M.Div at Talbot School of Theology, and a Masters in Clinical Psychology at Azusa Pacific. Inspired by the help and healing he received, he has a passion to provide help and healing for others, especially for Korean American Christians and leadership. Visit his website: www.roykimtherapy.com.