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Mother's wisdom worldwide: Because I say so ... It's for your own good

CHINESE parents are unassailable symbols of Confucian authority and traditionally they require absolute obedience and unquestioning xiaoshun, or filial piety. That goes for mom.

For 2,000 years, Chinese parents have held sway over their children's lives.

Though times are changing, Chinese society is rapidly developing and individuals are more assertive today, mom and dad are still powerful, formidable.

Even today, many adult men and women quail at the prospect of disappointing their parents. Confrontation is dreaded.

They say the worst thing about being out of work is not that you're jobless and moneyless but that your parents will be ashamed of you.

Many young people regard traditional parents as too demanding and out-of-date. But they are stuck because of the value everyone places on xiaoshun - xiao means filial piety and shun means obedience.

Since Sunday is Mother's Day, we'll talk about mom, especially her relationship with her daughter.

Next year, maybe it will be mother-son (the Chinese mother-in-law remains a fearsome figure).

Shanghai Daily talks to mothers and daughters. We look at the mother-tyrant, the friendly modern mother who's like a best friend, and the mother who morphs from inflexibility with her little girl to flexibility with her daughter who has become a woman.

And then there's the young mother who swears - they all swear - that they will never do to their children what their mothers did to them.

Guess what happens?

Admittedly, there's been a change.

"Mothers' roles in today's China reflects the evolution of Chinese society," says Yu Hai, professor of sociology at Fudan University.

In the old days, women were considered inferior to men and had no identity apart from their affiliation to men in an "androcentric" society.

"A girl was taught absolute obedience, an important lesson she had to learn. And when she became a mother, she would teach it to her own daughters too," says Yu.

However, as China opened up and women became more emancipated, mothers did more than lectured their daughters about how to be an obedient wife and a good mother.

"Today more working mothers tell their girls to be independent, financially and mentally. They do the real equal women talk; they share thoughts; they sometimes debate; they respect each other," Yu says.

Michelle Yang's mom fits the stereotype: authoritative, traditional, stern, uncompromising and, to Yang's way of thinking, unreasonable.

On the other hand, Zhang Rui's mother, who is also a teacher, is rather like a sister and best friend. They go shopping together and mom shares her life stories all the time. She's a skilled manipulator who helps Zhang weigh her options.

"Compromise is necessary, even between mothers and daughters, and that's what has helped most between me and my daughter," says Zhang's mother Nancy Lu, who holds a master's degree in psychology.

"It's in the nature of the mother-daughter relationship that things cannot naturally go well all the time," she says. "Moreover, kids today are maturing earlier and the old way of requiring absolute obedience without any justification just won't work. Young people will try to discuss the new era and new values with you."

Sometimes, the roles are reversed as the daughter grows up, as in the case of Rosy Huang, who endured a severe mother during childhood.

Now, Huang educates her retired factory worker mother about the latest fashions, Western etiquette, her pension and current affairs.

And her once-stubborn mom has shown remarkable flexibility.

" There's always a tradeoff with mom. "

To her friends, 25-year-old freelance translator Michelle Yang seems very pressured by her mother Chen Meiling, a 57-year-old housewife and stereotypical Chinese mom.

Chen demands Yang turn over all her salary, and then gives her pocket money. Yang, who has a degree from a prestigious US university, complies.

Chen monitors almost all aspects of Yang's life, from what to eat to who to date.

Of course, there is unremitting pressure to get married and have a child right away.

Dreadful blind dates. It got so bad that she had to pretend to have a serious, steady boyfriend.

Mom calls Yang every day to get updated on what she has been doing. She insists on having it her way.

"My mom never apologizes even if her decisions have been proved wrong," says Yang. "She just says, 'I made the decision for your sake even though it's a wrong decision. Are you blaming me for trying to take good care of you'?"

Chen has been requiring absolute obedience from Yang - even while she was in the womb.

"While I was pregnant, I put on recordings of Chinese and English stories about filial piety, so my daughter could start learning about the virtue as early as possible," says Chen. "The child must listen to parents without any question. That's how millions of Chinese were brought up for thousands of years. That's how I was brought up and that's how her father grew up. Why shouldn't she be the same?"

In her rebellious adolescence, Yang challenged her mother's authority by trying to "reason with her," which soon proved to be useless. Chen always gives the same answer - "Listen to me because I'm your mom." Because I say so.

"You just can't reason with mothers," says Yang.

But Yang has developed her own way of dealing with her mother, appeasing her while still getting what she really wants. So far so good.

Chen wants Yang to live at home, like a good Chinese daughter, but Yang moved out a couple of years ago, promising to call her parents daily and visit at least twice a month.

For a while, her mother made unexpected visits to her apartment, to see whether she was living a virtuous life.

Chen insists on marriage.

So Yang and a male friend pretended for a long time that they were dating - to get their parents' off their backs and end the blind dates.

Horrifically, both sets of parents recently pushed for a marriage date. They said they had broken up, but that may not wash.

Yang has been telling her mother that "it will be a disaster if I marry the wrong guy just to meet a marriage deadline." Of course, Yang will only marry the man her mother approves of.

"That's not a problem. I know what kind of guy my mom likes and I can always ask my boyfriend to pretend to be that kind of guy," says Yang. She says she's "outfoxing" her mom.

Chen also wants Yang to hold a stable job, like one in a state-owned company or a school, but Yang has persuaded her that "the smartest people go for freelancing jobs."

She gave her mother her bank account card from one job (receiving a salary deposit) and she receives pocket money.

"But most of my clients send money to my other accounts," says Yang. "There's always a tradeoff to counter mom's demand. It's just the rule of exchange."

" That's just the law of nature. "

Rosy Huang has had it both ways - experienced a mother like Yang's rigid mom, who later morphed into a companion, like Zhang's mom.

Her mother, retired factory worker Liu Lihua, was typically strict when Huang was little, before she turned 16 to be accurate.

"Like a lot of mothers, my mom always said things like, 'You have to listen to me because I have crossed more bridges than you'." Huang says.

"She just didn't trust my judgment because I was too little," says the 29-year-old marketing director of a joint venture trading company.

Like many of her peers, mother Liu was deeply influenced by the movie "Love Me Again, Mom," in which the mother makes enormous demands of her 7-year-old son, who was later taken away to live with her father.

She beats the boy when he gets low marks in school, when he doesn't obey her or asks about his father living apart.

The child respects his mother despite her tyranny. After he was reared more humanely by his father, he goes back to find his mother in later years.

"Rosy was only two years old when I watched the film with my friends," recalls Liu. "The mother in the film was just like me and my friends."

Liu demanded Huang to excel in school and to behave well - or else.

"My mom used to beat my hands with a ruler. If I got a score of 95, I had to tolerate five whacks," recalls Huang. "She taught me what I should and what I mustn't do, based on accepted values."

The relationship has changed completely, roles seem to have been reversed.

Now, Huang explains things to her mother, who is quite receptive.

When new regulations on pensions for retired workers came out, Huang informed Liu of them and how she would be affected.

When Liu wanted to buy a new apartment two years ago, Huang analyzed the situation and explained why the price was too high at that time, but would drop soon.

Huang also taught Liu how to act in a Western-style restaurant, use a knife and fork and how to dress at a formal wedding.

"That's just the law of nature," says Liu.

"When the kids are little, parents teach them what they have learned through experience," says mom. As the kids turn adults, they help their old parents to keep updated with the society."

'' Moms don't have to be strict to earn respect. "

On the other hand, 23-year-old Zhang Rui who works for an advertising company has always been envied by her friends because her mom seems like such a pal, so open.

"People say they are jealous of me for having such a young-hearted and open-minded mother," says Zhang, just after a spa treatment with her mother Nancy Lu, 47. "My mom is quite different from other mothers. Since I could remember, she has been like a caring older sister or my best female friend."

Two years ago, Lu changed jobs (unusual in itself) from teaching English in a primary school to heading the teaching team at a private art school for mostly foreign children. She also looks much younger than her age and has an easygoing tone and manner.

As far back as Zhang can remember, her mother has never commanded her or said, "You have to ..." Instead, Lu cleverly lets her feel she can make her own choices by saying things like, "A is not a bad choice, but option B can offer you more such as ..."

Mom still gets her way, using honey instead of vinegar.

When Zhang wanted to move out and live by herself, Lu praised her for her independence, but suggested that "it might be more costly than you expected."

Lu also listed all those extra costs of living alone, rather scary for a young woman fresh out of university. Convinced by Lu and the numbers, Zhang decided to stay at home "until I get a promotion and can afford it."

"I only recently realized that I have probably done exactly what my mother wanted over the years," says Zhang. "But it doesn't feel bad since she always shares her personal experience. It's still my choice, she's reasonable and choices are based on thorough consideration by me and my mom."

And Lu, who holds a master's degree in psychology, is quite aware of and proud of her influence on Zhang.

"You don't have to be strict to earn respect, whether from students or from your daughter," says Lu. "Today's children are different from us when we were little. Most of the times, they don't rebel without a reason. They actually listen to your reasonable suggestions."


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