Unfilial by Huina Zheng

A Chinese widower thinks his grown children owe him filial piety and financial support, but is there a limit? By Huina Zheng.

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Isn't it natural for children to be filial to their parents? Why do people tell me I am wrong and too hard on the children? How can I be wrong?

Yesterday, I met my neighbor, Ms. Lin, in a nearby park. She told me, "You should care about your children. Don't always put them in a difficult position."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You are in your early sixties and healthy. You can take good care of yourself. You don't need your daughter and son to take turns coming every weekend to clean up the mess you created and make you a week's worth of dishes."

"My wife passed away last year. They should be filial to me and care for me."

"Don't force them. If they want to, they will. If you push them too hard, they'll resent you, and you'll regret it."

I told Ms. Lin she was wrong. I said, "I've worked so hard to bring them up. They are my children, not yours. You don't want them to show filial piety to me; do you want them to show filial piety to you? You think I make things difficult for my children. In fact, I do this for their own good. I want them to set an example for their children. In the future, their children will also show filial piety to them. Moreover, don't we raise children so we can depend on them in our old age? Otherwise, what is the purpose of having children?"

"You are unreasonable. I heard you fighting with your children next door on Saturday night. I heard your daughter crying and shrieking and you cursing. When they left, they slammed the door so hard that my heart almost stopped beating. How angry they were when they left!"

"Your only daughter has married far away and seldom visits you. You are just jealous my children are so nice to me." I turned around and walked home.

Let me be clear: my asking them to be filial to me is justified and never oppressive; it is what they must do, and the law in China says that children must be respectful to their parents.

A few days ago, I told my daughter and son my car was older than ten years and not safe to drive. I wanted them to buy me a car, and I picked a 120,000 yuan one.

"But you just asked us to buy you an expensive massage chair last week that costs 5,000 yuan," my daughter Yan said.

"Do you want me to have an accident driving that old car?" I asked.

Finally, they agreed to give me 60,000 yuan each. But my friend who sells cars said, "If you have 120,000 yuan, why don't you get a better deal with a little more money?" He recommended one close to 200,000 yuan, saying it was comfortable and stylish to drive.

He said, "You've worked your whole life, and now you should enjoy life. Anyway, your kids will pay for it." I thought it made sense.

So, I asked my children to both visit me on Saturday night. I told them to give me 100,000 yuan each instead. I told them when I went out in my car, I could tell people my children bought it for me, and they would think my children were capable. Am I not doing this for their reputation?

I asked them to transfer the money to my bank card within a week. I never complained about how much money I spent raising them. They shouldn't complain, either. After all, after I pass away, they can have the car.

My son Min said he could only give me 60,000 yuan, and if I asked for more, I would kill him. He said he needed the money to raise his children. He said, "You don't need such a luxurious car; a 120,000-yuan car is good enough."

I said, "Since your mother passed away, I have lived alone. I need the car to go out and get social. Can't I just live a little better? Don't you care about me?"

Yan said, "My husband has taken pay cuts since the pandemic. I quarreled with him last night to give you the 60,000 yuan. Now you want more. Do you want me to divorce? Today you want a car, and tomorrow you will want a new apartment. Although we're your children and should be filial to you, you shouldn't go too far."

"You ungrateful, selfish daughter! How can you say that to your father?" I shouted.

She yelled, "Don't threaten me with this filial piety; otherwise, I won't even give you the 60,000 yuan."

Min added, "My sister is right. My wife also said she would divorce me if I continued to satisfy you without limits. Do you want me to lose my family? If my sister wouldn't give you the money, neither would I."

I told Yan she was the eldest child and should set an example for her brother.

Yan shouted that I was a bloodsucker. She said my pension was enough for me to live on, but I was a big spender, so she had to be very economical to give me 1,500 yuan in alimony every month. She said now I had become greedier. She accused me of wanting to destroy their lives for my own desires. She said I didn't love them or wouldn't do that to them. She even threatened that she wouldn't recognize me as a father if I didn't stop it.

I lost my temper and said, "Statistics show that raising a child costs at least 500,000 yuan. I raised you two, so I spent over 1 million yuan. Did you repay me 1 million yuan? All these years, I've invested my money, youth, and time with you and given you everything, and now you want to tell me I'm wrong. Who is out of line?"

We had a big argument that day. I always end up arguing with my children. I don't know why; I just can't help it. Why can't they listen to me?

My children haven't called me since. I won't contact them first since I am the father, and they should apologize, begging me to forgive them. I gave my children everything I had. They even owe me their lives. They wouldn't exist in the world if not for my sake. So, no matter what I want, they should obey me, right?

People should be filial to their parents. That's just the way it is. Why can't my children understand it? I decided to tell them tomorrow, and they can't refuse me. They just can't.


  1. I absolutely love this. We only hear the father’s voice…no dialogue except summarized in the voice of the father. That’s really effective! You find yourself seeing the other side of the story yourself! I loved the voice! Great topic, too! Great job!

  2. Perhaps it’s only me, but I found this story quite disturbing. It tells the story of an incalcitrant, self-involved older man who wants what he wants despite the wants and needs of his own children. I suppose it’s basically a cultural issue, but it’s pressed here to the point of morbidity. Very effective writing, Huina.

  3. A well-written story that tackles significant cultural and familial themes. The narrative's emotional depth and characters make it an engaging read. In the end though, I’m not at all sympathetic with the father. I think that’s what the author intended as the father’s demands become more and more unreasonable.
    —David Henson

  4. I too, feel that the father is a very non-sympathetic character, yet at the same time, I don't think he is entirely wrong. Maybe it's because I'm about the same age and wouldn't mind just a tiny bit of filial piety from my kids. I'm not saying I'd ever ask for it but would gladly accept it. I hope the family can come to some understanding, but I do not see it as very likely.
    There is a lot of emotion and strife in this very short story. It is well written. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

  5. There is much to unpack in this relatively short story in which traditional Chinese cultural norms conflict with changing generational norms. Interesting to read a first person point of view of an older Chinese widower father, who is, we presume, a bit of an unreliable narrator. Though this main character does not change internally across the story, he certainly changes his world all around him when, due to his rigidity, his children finally abandon and estrange him. I have watched so many ABC friends deal with these stressors and will share this story with them. Thanks!

  6. To be honest, I think it's about half a story. There is no resolution. His failure to convince his children isn't fleshed out enough. Their summary statements about losing their families are no more convincing to me than they are to the father. I'm not saying the story must be longer, but it must be more focused. The neighbor, for instance, at this point in the narrative, serves no real purpose. And the piece contradicts itself if you respond it's intended to be open-ended, because there are only two opinions expressed: One, he is oppressive and, two, he is not. There is no third possibility or compromise, so Part One of the story (the dichotomy) must be answered in Part Two. Yet no resolution is offered. The piece is unfinished.

  7. This is an excellent example of a "close third" - we're stuck inside the head of the narrator who might not be entirely reliable or reasonable. But he is consistent. I love how a skirmish with his children doesn't change his viewpoint. This, too, is action, of a kind. The voice is excellent here. The story feels complete. Some people don't change even when, or because, their kids call them "bloodsuckers".