“Will my allowance be enough for me to send my mother a cash payment each month?” George* asks Liz*, his member care worker.
Although Singapore is his passport country, George has studied, lived and worked in Australia for 15 years. George’s mother lives in Singapore* along with all his aunties, uncles and cousins. He has been sending regular cash (filial) payments to his mother ever since he started working. George and his extended family are ethnically Chinese.
George is in the process of applying to work as a cross-cultural worker in Indonesia* with an Australian agency. The agency staff were surprised that George, as well as his extended family, regarded sending regular payments to support his mother as his responsibility. George’s agency doesn’t have policies or procedures regarding filial payments, since this is the first time they have had a cross-cultural worker raise this issue.
During initial discussions with agency staff, there is concern expressed about the rising cost of sending George should filial payments be added to his budget, so he wonders about offering to do some extra part-time work on location to cover them.
George also asks, “Will my leave allowance be sufficient for caring for my mother should she become ill, as well as for regular visits?”
What would you say or do?
Historically, George’s agency has been run mostly by anglo-Australians and thus it’s policies and practices reflect this cultural perspective. In contrast, however, in George and his family’s worldview, family responsibilities are primary, assumed and non-negotiable.
George’s filial payments are an expression of his sense of filial responsibility, ‘the obligation or duty of providing support and care to one’s parents’ (Chou, 2019). Filial piety is ‘one of the bedrock values of Chinese society. Rooted in Confucianism, it is the belief that honoring one’s parents is a person’s most important responsibility’ (Filial piety: A Christian Perspective, 2014).
Confucianism has significant influence in a number of countries including Singapore, Taiwan, China, Japan and Korea (Park and Müller, 2014), as well as in immigrant populations from these countries. George may not be consciously aware of the influence of Confucianism in his life. Tokunaga argues that for many Asian Americans,
‘Confucianism is not a religion or even a philosophy to which they would intentionally devote themselves. Rather, it permeates the social and family structures, much in the way Americans do not recite the Declaration of Independence but certainly have the values of the Declaration woven into the fabric of their society’.Tokunaga, 1998: 22
The influence of Confucius means that ‘children must honour and obey parents, putting their parents’ comfort, interest and wishes above their own’ (Tokunaga, 1998: 20-21). Many immigrant and refugee families have struggled through transition (including financially) in a new country so that their children can have access to better opportunities (Tokunaga, 1998: 23). Accordingly, ‘their children feel strong needs to “show gratitude” for those struggles: “I want to do well in school to honor my parents. I want to get a good-paying job to help my family. It is the least I can do’” (Lou, 1989). George’s family may also have made significant sacrifices to fund George’s education in Australia, creating a sense of obligation for him.
Many countries have no social security, and in others it is limited. Adult children in such countries are expected to financially support their parents. It is common in many communities for adult children to be a parent’s sole retirement fund. In other cases, adult children are supplementing their parents’ income whether sourced from a limited social security system or elsewhere. A wide spectrum of countries, from China and Singapore in the East, to Germany and France in the West, have laws that reflect the expectation that adult children are to support their elderly parents (Ting and Woo, 2009: 72; Aboderin, 2005). Some US states also have filial responsibility laws, with filial responsibility being ‘the legal term for the duty owed by an adult child to their parents for their parents’ life necessities’ (Gerber, 2022).
Filial payments are therefore very common in many communities. In George’s home culture, for example, ‘well over 70% of the respondents involved in Singapore’s 2011 National Survey of Senior Citizens, reported that cash transfers from children represented their greatest source of income’ (Serrano, Saltman and Yeh, 2017). One survey reported that Singaporeans give about 10% of their salary to their parents with the median amount given being $500 per month (Miao, 2021).
The responsibility to send filial payments is not limited only to countries influenced by Confucianism. Yep et al. (1998: 12) note that South-East Asian, Indian, Pakistani and Filipino communities face similar pressures. This suggests that future applicants from a wide range of communities may have similar responsibilities.
In Australia and the United Kingdom, in contrast, social security or superannuation cover much of the costs of living for elderly parents, and therefore filial piety does not often take the form of financial assistance. The home staff from George’s agency have probably assumed, up until this time, that this is the case for all their cross-cultural workers.
How much does George need to pay his mother each month?
Filial payments are a key facet of filial responsibility, but there are other responsibilities George is likely to have. These include caring for his mother during illness, regular visiting and meeting her sundry other needs. Traditional Asian cultures have a collectivist orientation, rather than an individualist orientation, which means the group, ‘defines the individual’s identity and destiny’ (Jao, 1998: 44). Thus, George’s extended family’s expectations regarding his responsibilities towards his mother are also a contributing factor.
Another issue worth considering is the impact of George’s payments on his witness.
What kind of witness are his filial payments to his extended family?
What kind of witness are filial payments in the culture George is to serve in?
Let’s now reflect on a story in the Bible.
A story to consider
The book of Esther records an extraordinary story of a Jewish girl, elevated to be the queen of Persia.
Haman, the highest official in the land, becomes angry when Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, refuses to bow down to him, as the king had commanded. Haman then sends out an order in the king’s name to every territory to destroy the Jews.
After this Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, appears at the city gate in sack cloth.
Esther’s male and female attendants came to her. They told her about Mordecai. So she became very troubled. She wanted him to take off his rough clothing. So she sent him other clothes to wear. But he wouldn’t accept them. Then Esther sent for Hathak. He was one of the king’s officials. He had been appointed to take care of her. She ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai. She wanted to know why he was so upset.
So Hathak went out to see Mordecai. He was in the open area in front of the palace gate. Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him. He told him about the exact amount of money Haman had promised to add to the royal treasures. He said Haman wanted it to be used to pay some men to destroy the Jews. Mordecai also gave Hathak a copy of the order. It commanded people to wipe out the Jews. The order had been sent from Susa. Mordecai told Hathak to show the order to Esther. He wanted Hathak to explain it to her. Mordecai told him to tell her to go and beg the king for mercy. Mordecai wanted her to make an appeal to the king for her people.
Hathak went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther directed him to give an answer to Mordecai. She told him to say, “There is a certain law that everyone knows about. All the king’s officials know about it. The people in the royal territories know about it. It applies to any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner courtyard without being sent for. It says they must be put to death. But there is a way out. Suppose the king reaches out his gold scepter toward them. Then their lives will be spared. But 30 days have gone by since the king sent for me.”
Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai. Then he sent back an answer. He said, “You live in the king’s palace. But don’t think that just because you are there you will be the only Jew who will escape. What if you don’t say anything at this time? Then help for the Jews will come from another place. But you and your family will die. Who knows? It’s possible that you became queen for a time just like this.”
Then Esther sent a reply to Mordecai. She said,“Go. Gather together all the Jews who are in Susa. And fast for my benefit. Don’t eat or drink anything for three days. Don’t do it night or day. I and my attendants will fast just as you do. Then I’ll go to the king. I’ll do it even though it’s against the law. And if I have to die, I’ll die.”
So Mordecai went away. He carried out all Esther’s directions.Esther 4:4-17
After this, Esther takes her life into her hands when she approaches the king without being summoned. However, in so doing, she saves her family and people from mass extermination. The king kills Haman instead of the Jews!
It was costly for Esther to approach the king, on behalf of her people, just as it costs George to care for his mother.
Prior to going before the king, Esther asks Mordecai and her people to fast for her. Perhaps George and his agency staff can also fast and pray, as they consider the way forward.
In this story, Mordecai shows great faith in God’s sovereignty. Similarly, George and his agency staff can remember that God will bring his purposes about, come what may. Maybe George is the one to break new ground for other cross-cultural workers from similar communities.
What happened? How was this cross-cultural worker cared for?
Liz encourages George to enquire from the agency about what his allowance will be on location. Once this occurs, George realises that his allowance will be insufficient to cover his filial payments.
Liz then advocates for George with the agency staff in working out a solution. The agency staff prayerfully consider make changes to George’s budget to add a filial payment as a budget item. Then the agency staff discuss the possibility of changing their policies and procedures, so that they can add filial payments as a budget item for cross-cultural workers from similar cultural backgrounds in the future.
Liz also enquired about the provision of leave for George to care for his mother should she become ill. She discovered that the agency could give some paid compassionate leave for George to care for his mother should the need arise. However, if it was an extended period, George would be able to take unpaid leave for quite some time.
George has broken new ground for his agency providing a smoother way forward for other applicants from similar contexts.
A few years later George reports to Liz
“Once I had settled into Indonesia, I started to experience a lot of pressure from my extended family to buy an apartment for my mother.”
George owned a flat in Perth* but had planned to keep that to live in after he finished working in Indonesia.
George’s aunts and uncles became increasingly frosty in their communication with him, asking,
“When are you going to do something for your mother?”
“Do you want to put her in a nursing home?” (Shameful in their family context)
They also say,
“No landlords want to have someone die in their apartment” (George’s mother is currently renting in Singapore).
And lastly, and most powerfully,
“Your mother has no son.”
In response to this pressure, George decides to sell his flat in Perth to finance the purchase of an apartment for his mother in Singapore. George consults her about the selection of the apartment as well as the size of the mortgage to take on and proceeds to purchase one.
After George’s aunts and uncles hear that he had purchased an apartment for his mother, the relationships became much less icy.
* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.
Thank you to David Bird for his editorial assistance.
Yep, J. et al. (1998) Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents. Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity Press.
Aboderin, I. (2005) ‘“Conditionality” and “Limits” of Filial Obligation’. Oxford Institute of Ageing. Available at: http://www.ageing.ox.ac.uk/files/workingpaper_205.pdf.
Chou, R. (2019) ‘Filial Responsibility’, Encyclopedia of Social Work. Available at: https://oxfordre.com.
Filial Piety: A Christian Perspective (2014). Available at: https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/chinese-church-voices/filial-piety-a-christian-perspective/ (Accessed: 22 February 2023).
Hay, R. et al. (2007) Worth Keeping:Global Perspectives on Best Practices in Missionary Retention. Pasadena, CA: William Carey.
Impey, J. (2010) DW Made for minds. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/should-children-have-to-pay-for-parents-in-care/a-6007110.
Jao, G. (1998) ‘Honor and Obey’, in Following Jesus Without Dishonouring Your Parents: Asian American Discipleship. Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity Press, pp. 43–56.
Lou, R. (November/December) ‘Model Minority? Getting Behind the Veil’, Change, 7.
Miao, X. (2021) Here’s how much monthly allowance Singaporeans give their parents, AsiaOne. Available at: https://www.asiaone.com/money/heres-how-much-monthly-allowance-singaporeans-give-their-parents (Accessed: 22 February 2023).
Park, D.M. (2014) Confucian Filial Piety as a Challenge for Korean and Asian Churches. London: Lambert Academic.
Park, D.M. and Müller, J.C. (2014) ‘The challenge that Confucian filial piety poses for Korean churches’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 70(2). Available at: https://hts.org.za/index.php/hts/article/view/1959/4491.
Serrano, R., Saltman, R. and Yeh, M.-J. (2017) ‘Laws on filial support in four Asian countries’, Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, 95(11), pp. 788–790.
Ting, G. and Woo, J. (2009) ‘Elder care: is legislation of family responsibility the solution?’, Asian J Gerontol Geriatr, 4, pp. 72–75.
Tokunaga, P. (1998) ‘Pressure, Perfectionism & Performance’, in Following Jesus Without Dishonouring Your Parents: Asian American Discipleship. Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity Press, pp. 17–30.
Yep, J. (1998) ‘Your Parents Love You, My Parents Love Me’, in Following Jesus Without Dishonouring Your Parents: Asian American Discipleship. Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity Press, pp. 43–56.