Monday, 25 July 2022

What is a choice?

A friend of mine was on a flight from Tokyo to Beijing, just pre-Covid, and found himself sitting next to a young Chinese woman. As he was wont to, he engaged her in conversation and found out about her banking career, and her aspirations. He discovered that she was newly married, and asked her about children (he has no boundaries, but is the naive inquirer!). She shocked him with her reply: that she would not be having a family, as - as a woman - she was already expected to look after her husband, her own parents, her husband's parents, and probably all eight grandparents. She wanted a career, so chose not to add to her already large burden.

The Asian concepts of xiao (filial piety) and mianzi (face) can be defined as follows: 

  • Xiao: "involves a wide range of behaviours, including respect, obedience, loyalty and financial assistance to and physical care of parents [and...] that ‘adult children should exert themselves to the utmost in the service of their parents, providing satisfaction of material needs and showing reverence and obedience’" (Zhang, 2016, p. 1) 
  • Mianzi: "social behaviours that allow people to enhance their reputation and public image" (Zhang, 2016, p. 2), which reflects and applies to family and to family practices. This seems akin to the Māori psychosocial and behavioural construct of whakamā (deep shame/abasement which resurrects us as 'white and pale'). 
A study of Northern Chinese women showed that "displaying xiao is critical to their own and the elders’ face and establishing themselves as good, filial daughters and daughters-in-law" (Zhang, 2016, p. 1).  

We talk about career choice, but who should/can manage the social and family aspects of our lives? It takes political and social activism to make change in these arenas, although there are embedded cultural attitudes (Inkson et al., 2015). We need to learn what our inheritances are, understand the role they play and look positively to overcome them (Inkson et al., 2015). 

We all have a responsibility to actively manage our collective societal beliefs, to demonstrate agency  (Inkson et al., 2015). Whether the banker on that flight will - or can - empower herself to manage her burden is hard to say. Does she have the energy for what will be a life-long struggle? Do xiao (filial piety) and mianzi (face) social pressures mean that this is not within her control?

Perhaps our choices are not so open, after all. 



Inkson, K., Dries, N., & Arnold, J. (2015). Understanding Careers (2nd ed.). SAGE Publications Ltd.

Zhang, Y. (2016). Practising and displaying xiao—young mothers’ negotiations of obligations to elders. Journal of Chinese Sociology, 3(1), 1-20..

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