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  • Writer's pictureKathy Chin Leong

How Chinese Revere the Elderly: Mother’s Day is Special

In a recent conversation about aging parents, a friend remarked that when he gets older, he will automatically consider going into assisted living.  “I never assume that my kids will take care of me,” he said.  I was shocked.  My friend is not Chinese, and I wonder, “Is this a common way of thinking in the United States?”


For my peers who are Chinese, having elderly parents means stepping in to sacrifice time, money, and energy to help them. Transferring Mom and Dad to a rest home is the absolute last resort. In the Bay Area, more than 612,000 are people of Chinese ancestry, according to statistics by Bay Area Equity Atlas.  Numbers reveal that Chinese make up the largest ethnic group of the region’s Asian population.  And, naturally, many of us are hitting retirement age and beyond. 

As Mother’s Day approaches and then Father’s Day a month later, this is a perfect time to understand and consider how the culture respects and honors Chinese parents. In ancient China, families lived in villages, clan by clan. Cousins, aunts and uncles, siblings, parents and grandparents resided in the same village with the same last names.  A girl who married a fellow in another town would go to live with him and his parents.  It was natural.  Folks with a larger home often housed three or more generations under the same roof-again, it was natural.  Was there strife? It was unavoidable. Were there big celebrations? Of course.  In rural China and the big cities, the elderly would be cared for by their children or relatives until they died.

Senior assisted living facilities were not a part of the fabric of Chinese society until recently.  According to the Global Times, “In May 2023, Chinese authorities released a set of guidelines to all provinces in an effort to facilitate the building of a basic aged care system, amid efforts to pursue a proactive national strategy regarding population aging and ensure equitable access to public services.”

In the culture, filial piety is the notion that obedience to one’s parents is a person’s Number One priority in life. There is no age limit on either side.  If your parent disapproves of the person you are dating, break it off.  If your parent wants you to become a doctor, do it.  The top half of the Chinese character for filial piety means “old person,” and the bottom half means “child,” inferring that the elder is on top with authority, and the younger one should be submissive, or that the younger should take care of the older.

We American-born Chinese can thank the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius for this worldview which has dominated the culture for centuries. The ideal family, according to Confucius belief, is an extended family that is close-knit. The elders are at the hierarchy who grant or deny permission for major decisions concerning the brood. The mother’s older sister, the aunt, is called “di yee-ma,” literally older, second mother. Cousins are close and treated as siblings.  In the oldest dictionary of the Chinese language, some 2,000 words account for terms relating to family and family members.  In English, there is one word for grandfather.  In Chinese, one word refers to the grandfather on the father’s side and another word means the grandfather on the mother’s side. Words that rank hierarchy and placement in the family are specific in the Chinese language.    

Hence, the American ways of independence can be a culture shock to immigrant parents. Once their children enter the school system, they soon realize that their kids are becoming too American which means the parents are losing a grip on control of their offspring.  New arrivals would be confused, even appalled when they found out their sons wanted to move out after high school, marry outside the culture, or chase after their dreams of becoming a rock star, not a rocket scientist. In the Chinese culture, the individual’s desires are set aside for the good and welfare and cohesiveness of the family.  A proper Chinese child would never make a decision that would shame or hurt their parents.


Chinese families exhibit filial piety in practical ways. When my children were small, there was no greater joy than for my mother to sacrifice her time to babysit them as often as possible. To her, the idea of hiring a teenager to watch Gwen and Aaron was a ridiculous foreign concept.  Today in my Sunnyvale neighborhood, it is typical for Chinese grandparents from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong to move to America to assist their adult children.  These seniors can be seen strolling grandbabies in the mornings for fresh air or walking their elementary school-aged grandkids to and from grammar school.

My Chinese American peers, the first generation of children of immigrant parents, trail blazed, braving criticism every step of the way.  I can relate to this. In elementary school when I was in Girl Scouts, I wanted to participate in the troop’s annual camping trip.  First, I had to ask permission to be apart from my family for one night, away from home with adults who were total strangers to my parents. This was unthinkable for any child to do in Hong Kong where my mom grew up. Next, I had to explain to my parents what the concept of camping was – sleeping on the ground in the woods with no electricity or modern conveniences.  “Why you want to do that?”  asked my mother incredulously.  “No way!” 

My mother is now 84 and suffers from dementia.  Dad, who is remarried, just turned 91.  Both are weak and find it hard to cope with their limitations.  It’s my turn to care for my ailing parents. 

Who do I look to for advice? I have been several of my Chinese American friends perform this task with grace, each a little differently, according to their situation. There’s Amy who rotated care with her two siblings for years, with no homecare assistants, so that the parents could stay at their San Francisco home. Another is Gail who takes the train from Mountain View to Sacramento nearly every weekend to attend to her widowed mother. She has done so for the past ten years, at least. A helper comes during the week.

My neighbor Debra looked after her mother following her father’s death. This lasted for more than 40 years where she and her husband brought her mom along on the majority of vacation and social events and every single holiday. Our circle of friends all came to know and love her mother.

My friend Ron, whose parents are in their 90s, organizes and pays their bills, drives them to medical appointments, and oversees the family businesses.  As the dutiful son, he doesn’t complain, but he does possess a terrific sense of humor that comes in handy when he needs to blow off steam.

I have a younger sister and brother. We take turns watching Mom who cannot be left alone at home. She suspects that her 92-year-old male friend has stolen many of her prized possessions, particularly her expensive dresses.  One day she woke up crying because she thought someone stole her right shoe, and she found it minutes later inside the sheets of her bed.  Apparently Mom had slept with her street clothes on, shoes and all.

This season is extremely stressful for the three of us. However, Sally, Harvey, and I are closer than ever.  We text and talk frequently, typically asking: “Does she need a medication refill?  What did the doctor say at the last appointment? And how are you doing? Do you need a break?”

Our goal is to keep Mom safe and to help her stay in her home as long as possible. This Mother’s Day may be one of the last few we have together. Whatever time remains, we are committed to honoring her, and we grateful.  I suppose filial piety is in my DNA after all. 

Chinatown is out now!

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