Anne's dilemma: her life or her parent's
(Life 168 - Season 1 Episode 3)
Such an impossible choice
I met Anne in 2006 when she was twenty-two. Living with her parents, she had a good, respectable job working as an accountant at a major company in Shanghai.
She hated her job. Only twenty-two years old, each day followed another with a feeling of drudgery and quiet desperation. This was the life and job she was expected to do.
Her parents sacrificed everything for her
As an only child, her parents had sacrificed their lives for her. With little formal education themselves, they fully accepted their responsibility to do everything for their daughter, ensuring that she get the best education they could afford so that she would be a productive and respected member of Chinese society. As parents and loyal members of Chinese society, they knew that, if their daughter messed up, it was their fault and they would feel guilt and deep shame with all their family, friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances. Additionally, they were relying on their daughter and her future family to take care of them when they got older. If she didn't have a reliable, stable job, how could she do that?
Her parents were doing the job they were supposed to do as loving parents
When Anne was ready to attend the university, her parents, having managed to survive the extreme poverty of their own childhood coming out of the Cultural Revolution and even earn enough money to send their daughter to the university, had to insist that she study accounting, something that would guarantee a job with a stable income. For them, to do otherwise would be like abandoning a baby in a back alley.
Everyone must sacrifice for others and for the future
It didn't matter that she didn't like accounting. Not liking something was irrelevant. Just like they had sacrificed their lives for her, following the dictates of the culture to assume the authority and responsibility of Chinese parents to ensure their children did the right things, she should sacrifice her life for them in accepting her filial duties and responsibilities in obeying them in doing what they knew was best. They were the parents. And any decent child would honor their filial responsibilities to their parents. The whole Chinese idea of family and love demanded that everyone, parents and children, accept the roles they were given. If you had asked her parents, "Don't you want your child to be happy?", they would have said, "Of course" and would have insisted that they knew best about what would make her happy in the future. Future happiness was most obviously important, not being happy now. And her parents knew best what she needed to do to achieve that.
How could Anne betray her parents after everything they had done for her?
Most Americans and others from Western cultures have little idea of how the idea of filial responsibility and duty is a fundamental cornerstone of the Chinese culture and to varying degrees, of other Asian cultures.
For myself, when I first encountered the word "filial" in a translated conversation with a Chinese friend, I had to look it up to ensure I knew what they were talking about.
One way Westerners might get a sense of the Chinese culture, a bit more so as it existed in 2006, is by watching movies like, "Sense and Sensibilities" or "Dangerous Beauty." Yet those movies focus more on the cultural restrictions placed on women than on everyone in society.
If you were in Anne's shoes, what would you have done?
Could there be any happy ending for her and her parents?
Anne's dilemma [FINALE]
Anne quit her job
Five months into our friendship, Anne surprised me by telling me that she quit her job. But she didn't tell her parents right away. The idea of doing that was still too terrifying for her.
Telling her parents was too scary
Each morning, at the right time, as if she were still going to work, she left home and went to the library to study English all day. She loved English. Then she would return home at the end of the work day, as if she were still doing her regular grind as an accountant.
She knew this couldn't last. After two weeks, after "she came home from work" on a Friday and they'd all finished dinner together, she told them of her decision to quit her job and study English.
They were livid
"How could you do this to us!? We've done everything for you! How would you be so stupid and foolish and disrespectful?! We've worked hard and sacrificed all our life to give you the best we could! Just on a whim, you throw it all away! You're living in a Fairyland if you think you can get a decent job with English! How could you do this to us!?"
How was Anne able to quit her job and tell her parents?
In our friendship together, Anne and I had many discussions about life. From this, she had been able to get clear that, no matter how much she loved her parents, her #1 job in life was to take care of herself. She was also able to see that, in the long run, if she were doing something she loved, she would more likely have a better relationship with her parents, as well as being happier herself, which is what they wanted too.
Although her parents would not agree with her on this right now, she knew more about what would give her a happy life than did her parents.
The quintessential importance of courage
Although she was terrified of her parent's disappointment and anger, Anne had learned about the four steps of courage. Only by using these four steps was she willing to step into such a courageous action that she would have never allowed herself to do before.
The gentle power of not fighting back
In the past, she was often arguing with her parents and trying to change their minds. She was able to see how she had only been perpetuating the conflict between them. She was trying to change their mind and they were trying to change hers. There was no possible win for anybody in that vicious cycle.
She did not try to get her job back, as her parents were insisting. She knew that listening was not necessarily obeying. She continued to go to the library each day to study English.
Each evening, as her parents continued to berate her and try to get her to "listen to reason," she would continue to breathe deeply, allowing the energy of her fear to flow through her and she would focus on putting herself in their shoes and having them feel that she was listening to them, even if she wasn't obeying them.
Mostly she would focus on being present and listening and she would also say things like,
"If I were in your shoes, I'd probably feel just as you do."
"I can tell you're very frustrated with me. Can you say more about that?"
"I can imagine that you feel shame with a daughter who's so disrespectful as I seem to be."
"A part of me would really like to do what you ask, but I don't know how to do that and still take care of myself. I'm so sorry."
"Please say more about that..."
Would this last forever?
Anne didn't know how long her parents would continue to blame and berate her every evening. She focused on being present with them and listening to them, as she continued to take care of herself by studying English every day.
After five weeks her parents gave up and began to reluctantly support her in her new life choice. It's almost impossible for one side to keep fighting if there's no pushback from the other side.
It took six months
After six months of studying English at the library each day, Anne took and passed a special English-Chinese interpretation/translation exam. She then found a job doing what she loved.
To this day, when I think about what Anne did, I am inspired again.