A surprising Confucian tribute to friendship
(I wrote this for the Asian American Women on Leadership blog — it’ll be posted tomorrow I think! Shout-out to my cousin Shanna for reminding me to keep posting + writing…thanks :))
Friendship, the fifth Confucian relationship, is often overlooked, placed behind and beneath the more ‘important’ relationships of Ruler-Subject, Father-Son, Husband-Wife, Older brother-Younger brother. These are all hierarchical, role-based, rigid relationships in Asian culture and society. One doesn’t choose one’s role generally. You find yourself there: opposite another, sometimes a dreaded Other. However, I wonder if the thumbprint of God’s care for Asians and Asian-Americans was the positing of friendship there in the framework of Confucian thought — beneath the rest of the relationships –to serve as a foundation.
I turn thirty in June, and I’ve found myself, since the start of the year, saying things like “In my twenties, this characterized my life…that shaped me…those years were tough but full of growth…” My twenties were indeed tough but good – characterized by conflict with coworkers (ruler-subject), my mother (father-son), angst over singleness (husband-wife), and geographical and relational distance from my sisters (older-younger brother). What was left? Good friends – many of them. Healing friendships, safe friendships, life-giving friendships. Friends who walked with me and helped me process those difficult dynamics in my life – and their own. In the tender space of mutuality, genuine affection + an eagerness to be in each others’ lives –we prayed, we mourned, we celebrated, we grew.
[Ruler-Subject] Two dear friends I knew from work formed an accountability + prayer group with me. We learned lectio divina together, jammed on the piano singing worship songs, did Chinese calligraphy – and preached to each others’ fellowships. They were an embodied reminder to me that work-relationships weren’t all competitive, evaluative, and conflict-ridden. No, they could be sweet, contain power and life, be lots of fun. Those two friends were a foretaste of things to come. Today I serve at a church plant where I know I am extremely blessed to enjoy wonderful working relationships with everyone on the staff team.
[Father-Son] My husband John has a father-son relationship with his dad, Ed, unlike anyone else I know. Ed and his father, nicknamed Sunshine, had an incredibly close relationship: Sunshine was Ed’s best man when he got married! That fatherhood-friendship shaped John and Ed, and I will often overhear John in the other room, laughing so hard his face looks sunburned red – sharing stories from the week + teasing each other about Kentucky basketball. * Unexpectedly, my mother’s joy over my choice of husband softened and warmed our dynamic. Gone is the chilliness of past conflict and the avoidance of deep conversation. Here is a new familiarity and ease. She told me John’s way of asking thoughtful questions and listening carefully to her perspective on things – these basic elements of friendship – made her feel very loved and cared for. She really appreciates John and that has helped her appreciate me…
[Husband-Wife] John and I started out as friends, through our church young adult group. I could tell that John was a good friend to his people. He kept a few people close and they’d take turns checking up on each other. Long before we started dating, I was impressed (and a bit envious) of his Sunday lunch plans with former college friends and the like. We became better friends and soon friendship turned to love; today, we build on a strong foundation of friendship.
[Older – Younger Brother] Friendship has turned out to be the best underpinning to sisterhood. Let me make a bit of an analogy from having mentors. In a mentoring relationship, the ‘older’ one has rich life experience from which to pass on wisdom. The younger one needs sage counsel. Ever since college, I have sought out mentors and role models, hungry for life lessons learned. I can tell you the potholes I have not fallen into because of their concrete advice and willing self-disclosure. I’ll be a better mom someday because I’ve watched their families in action. But I’m not only a recipient of mentorship, I am also a mentor, to many former students and younger friends. They tell me I’m an ‘older sister’ figure for them – which makes me rethink sisterhood. Although I mentor them, I LOVE doing that and it gives me joy to pour into their lives. They may be younger, but their state in life only makes me yearn to support and care for them. Within mentorship is not a proud hierarchy but a mutual reciprocity. One loves to help the other, the other loves to receive it… Both value each other. In sisterhood, there’s an inevitable age difference and distance. But as the friendship-dynamic embedded within mentorship is brought to bear on sisterhood – a different joy develops. A sweeter care – a give and take, a lending and borrowing, a passing back and forth – a shared love.
In closing, Asian-American cultural values are too often stereotyped as being oppressive and demeaning – binding and awful. I wonder whether this reimagining of Confucian cultural norms – of friendship on the bottom not because it’s dead last and least important – but because of its core foundational strength – is a bit like Jesus’ upside down kingdom. Where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and Ruler and ruled have become friends.