A few days ago, I wrote an article covering my friend Jenna Cook’s amazing story. I described Jenna’s efforts to find her birth parents in China, and relayed some netizen reactions, most of which were positive. However, I failed to discuss an important point that has since come to my attention.
At the end of my article, I quoted Tencent Weibo (Chinese Twitter) user @邢军 referring to the popular saying, “blood is thicker than water.” Although @邢军 only mentioned it in passing, the quote itself was enough to generate a passionate response from reader Kristen Fitzgerald. In her comment, Kristen emphasized, “I KNOW this metaphor is not true. Love is love.” I believe her dismissal of the axiom reveals a deep difference between Eastern and Western cultures.
Kristen seems to be an adopted mother herself. She mentioned how she would wholeheartedly support her adopted daughter if her daughter ever decided to search for her birth parents, just as Margaret Cook supported Jenna’s decision. While Kristen and Margaret’s attitude may seem perfectly natural to many Westerners, for Chinese observers it is nothing short of extraordinary.
In their comments to Jenna’s interview on Weibo, netizens called Margaret “venerable” for supporting Jenna’s search, with many advising that Jenna focus on repaying her adopted mother instead of searching for her birth parents.
By stressing their admiration for Margaret’s actions, netizens seemed to suggest that Chinese adopted parents wouldn’t do the same. @Q2396358208 advised Jenna, “I hope you stress the greatness of your adopted mother to other people as much as you can. She not only raised you up, but even supports you in your search for your birth parents–this is almost unimaginable in China. This is where American culture is so extraordinary.”
@繁花 was more explicit: “After all, China and America have cultural differences. We often see adopted parents forbidding their adopted children from searching for their birth parents on TV, because they are afraid that the kids will leave them. American adopted parents aren’t worried about this at all.”
We must keep in mind that both users are merely stating their general impressions, and cannot speak for all adopted parents in China. However, these impressions are indicative of a key element of Chinese culture that has persisted to this day: Emphasis on filial piety (孝道).
Although most netizens were indeed supportive of Jenna’s project, there was a very small but also very loud minority to whom I did not give much attention in my previous article. A small number of web commentators actually accused Jenna of being ungrateful to her adopted mother for trying to find her birth parents. They called her selfish and even cold-hearted for trying to trace her roots.
These accusations are certainly unfair, but the logic they employ is interesting. They implicitly assume that one cannot have more than two parents in the proper sense of the word, because deviation from the norm disrupts the protocols of filial piety.
When netizens asked Jenna how she would differentiate between her adopted mother, her host parents, and her birth parents, she responded, “I don’t think this is a problem. I love them all, and they are all my parents.” Netizens had trouble understanding this thought. Most of them simply attributed her unusual thinking to a different cultural upbringing.
You see, for the Chinese, there can be no bigger problem. In the West, filial relationships elicit first and foremost feelings of personal affection–love, intimacy, trust. In oriental culture, personal emotions are downplayed while filial responsibility is stressed. Therefore, many Chinese observers were concerned not about how Jenna could find her birth parents, but rather how she would treat them once they were found. How much filial responsibility to them will she owe? Must she take care of them in their old age? Is she going to move in with them? Will she be obligated to provide financial support?
Jenna wrote from her Weibo account that once she found her birth parents, she was going to “give them her love” and “try her best to help them.” This claim is very vague. To love someone is a personal feeling that says nothing about the responsibilities and obligations that one owes to that person. Without a clear picture of another’s responsibility and obligation, it becomes impossible to cast a normative judgment within the context of traditional Chinese culture.
The reason why Chinese adopted parents might not be as open as their Western parents to allowing their child to find her birth parents is that as soon as the child does, the boundaries of filial responsibility become extremely murky. According to traditional wisdom, the child is indebted to her parents both for being born, and for receiving care as she grows up. Neither debt can be fully repaid during her lifetime.
Therefore, since the adopted child owes debts to both her birth parents and her adopted parents, her filial responsibilities are now split. Ethically speaking, she finds herself in an impossibly difficult spot–which “parents” take priority? Perhaps more importantly, her place in the family line also becomes dubious. To which household does she belong? Whose name should she take on?
In the old days, many parents chose to adopt children when they could not reproduce themselves, so that their family heritage may be passed down, and that they may be cared for in their old age. Both of these goals become threatened if the child finds out about her birth parents.
With the influx of Western culture in the past hundred years, the Chinese people have seen their understanding of family relationships undergo an unprecedented paradigm shift. Nowadays, personal affection and love are emphasized just as much as filial responsibility, if not more. However, elements of traditional filial piety remain deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche.
Although we cannot answer whether blood is truly thicker than water, Jenna’s story shows us once again how everything is more complicated in China. Love may be universal, but retirement benefits are not, and one must consider both to be a praiseworthy child in this society.