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Love and respect for elders

04 July 2018

By Dawn Yu Aquino

As a precocious child straddling two cultures in the Philippines, the concept of filial piety took root at a very tender age, planted with care by my Chinese father and Filipina mother, by relatives and well-meaning friends, by media, the school, state, Church and every other person I crossed paths with.

It’s a concept and societal norm most Asians grow up and live with, yet some struggle to grasp its significance. Others debate its value and a few disown it altogether. For me, it is like a second skin, as natural as breathing, as important as eating, as essential as drinking.

My earliest memories of filial piety were about food. As a family who loves to cook and eat, mealtimes were (and still are) sacred. My mother would serve all of Papa’s favorite dishes, and while they offered us kids the choicest bits, we always declined, offering them back to our parents, who of course also declined, thereby leaving us with that coveted drumstick or mouth-watering piece of beef tendon. Why the merry-go-round when in the end, the kids get to eat the favored parts anyway? To teach us to always offer something — whether our service, time, or the premium portion — to our elders. To instill the value of deference, to show that we respect what they like and, as we leave our childhood behind, we watch as the elders graciously learn to accept our offerings. We then play the same merry-go-round with our own children.

The way my Papa treated his mother and his childhood nanny (my Amah and Apo, respectively) were perhaps the greatest examples of filial piety I encountered as a child.

His attitude certainly made a deep and lasting impression. He was the fifth among six siblings, one of three boys, and the preferred charge of Apo, who spoiled him and taught my mother all her secret recipes for his childhood favorites. These dishes were prepared with immense natural talent and love by an illiterate person, and the precious recipes have since been passed on to me, painstakingly written down by my mother from observation and memory. Apo joined my Amah’s household as a young girl, and typical of the heart-breaking separation stories of that time, she has no recollection whatsoever of her own family, her date of birth or real name, and my Amah’s family became her own.

As Amah grew older and more intractable, Papa’s patience in dealing with her increased by leaps and bounds. He would go through traffic to pick her and Apo up from the unsavory area around the pier because she preferred to travel by sea. He, along with his siblings, would take her out to eat at least once a week, and listen to her stories while indulging her love of mahjong and smoking. He brought me with him when travelling with her to Hong Kong, because she was stubborn and impatient and would suddenly walk off and veer away from everyone, and he needed someone quick and spry to catch up to her. Eventually I was tasked to be her chaperone, and despite my poor grasp of Hokkien, we managed to enjoy ourselves and I managed to bring her home safe and sound.

Papa took care not only of Amah’s needs but Apo’s as well, taking her to see the doctor, checking up on her, keeping her company and arranging her funeral when she eventually passed away. Her ashes are in my family’s columbarium space, because in that way she will always be remembered, visited and honored, a cherished part of our clan. She never married and treated us all like her own grandchildren.

Today Papa is the ripe old age of 75, strong in bearing but slow in walking, hard of hearing yet still mentally sharp. He pushes his arthritic older brother’s heavy wheelchair whenever they eat out at the mall, despite his own decreased pace and energy level.

These everyday examples of deep-seated love and respect for elders is something I witnessed and experienced firsthand, and it is second nature for me to take older people’s hands and place them on my temple as a sign of greeting, to acknowledge parents of friends old or new, to offer the best and most comfortable seats to the elderly, whether strangers or not; to help open doors, carry packages, support the wobbly senior crossing the street or getting in and out of a bus.

For my husband and I, supporting and caring for our parents and elderly relatives as they age, whether physically, financially or emotionally, is a non-negotiable, “no arguments please” fact of life. We will do it gladly, openly and generously, as they have done for their family members before them.

My kids, however, are growing up in twenty-first century Hong Kong, a bustling, pressure-cooker metropolis, which, like most cities in this day and age, is beset with modern-day ills. Without their grandparents or elderly relatives constantly surrounding them, I know as parents we have to double up our efforts and impress in them how crucial this virtue is, as a way of maintaining harmony and balance in society, as the transformative power that smoothens out the rough edges of family life, and to complete the circle of give and take. I strongly believe that an atmosphere of mutual respect and consideration prevents many a family’s contentious debates.

When my modern-day kids do simple things such as follow their grandparents around to make sure they don’t lose their balance and fall, hold their arms as they cross the street or climb the stairs, offer them something to drink, get their meals at a buffet line, give them priority seating, listen to their stories, no matter how boring or bizarre; when they show respect for elderly strangers, or tell us how they will care for us when they reach adulthood, I know we have taught them well. When my young son carefully and lovingly placed a basket of flowers at the gravesite of my Amah, someone he never met, and deferentially bowed his head, sitting patiently under the scorching sun while the adults said their prayers, I know there is hope yet. Hope that filial piety, this bedrock of society, this seemingly alien concept for a lot of youngsters nowadays, will eventually become second skin—as natural as breathing, as important as eating, as essential as drinking.

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Note: This essay won the top prize in the Open Section (English Division) of the “Love is All Around” the first Chinese and English writing contest sponsored by the Hong Kong Federation of Journalists. It was written by Dawn Yu-Aquino, who holds a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, based on her bi-cultural upbringing as a Filipino Chinese.the topic of filial piety.

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