This post is a continuation of the active discussion on my post entitled “The Grand Engagement of Romance and Politics“, with special attention to the issue of the Eastern views of the Western’s valuing of the family, more specifically on the American Family.
I don’t presume to judge other cultures’ ideas of family. It irks me when people outside the U.S. suggest that we Americans don’t care about family.
The U.S. is huge, geographically, and we are free to travel, live, work, and move within its borders. Naturally, that leads to widely scattered families as children grow up and leave to attend school or to find jobs, and parents retire to their dream homes. Travel within the U.S. is relatively cheap and easy; we keep in touch, and we visit. It’s never often enough to suit our parents, but we don’t move across the country just to avoid each other. We keep in touch by mail, by phone, by email, chat, and Web cams.
How many people come to the U.S. on student visas – and stay? Maybe they’re just trying to get as far away from their families as possible! How many people leave their homeland to work in the U.S.? Perhaps they don’t value family.
Here’s the reality I grew up with:
My great-grandmother moved in with my grandparents before my mom was born, and lived with them until she required skilled nursing care – more than twenty years later. My parents and I lived with my grandparents for the first four years or so of my life, while my mom and dad attended college. Years later, we moved back in to help my grandmother take care of my grandfather following his heart attack. This wasn’t extraordinary, to my way of thinking; this was what “family” was about, taking care of our own.
My husband is not from the U.S., originally. People have asked me, “Are there major cultural differences? Big adjustments?” Not really. Family comes first. While we were dating, my husband never asked me choose between him and my family; he never once asked me to break the rules and rebel, or put a date with him before a commitment to some family event. He treated my parents and grandparents with kindness and respect, and they had no difficulty seeing what I saw in him.
Trust and mutual respect are crucial. The rest just falls into place. I grew up an only child, so you might say that acquiring two brothers and a sister by marriage was a big “adjustment,” but it has enriched my life immeasurably.
My father-in-law was surprised that I “let” him live with us over the past eleven years. To do otherwise would be unthinkable in his culture, but like so many people outside the U.S., he seemed to think it was some anomalous and extraordinary thing that I would want him to live with us. I say we really need to be more careful what TV shows we export. When people overseas get their notions of “American culture” from a mix of Fox News, American Idol, and reruns of Little House on the Prairie and Three’s Company…there’s a problem. Our “reality shows” are not real at all.
So, needless to say, my father-in-law was stunned. But most of the people I know – friends, coworkers, and folks down the street – would do the same for their families. Being a “tight-knit family” doesn’t require cramming everyone into a single home; being dependable doesn’t mean fostering dependence – quite the opposite. The only people I know of to be “kicked out” and made to fend for themselves are those who are under a “tough love” edict – people who do drugs or can’t function for themselves because they’re so content to take advantage of others. There, it may be fair to turn them out, at least for a while, but that’s more of a “teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” kind of thing, rather than a lack of caring or a sense of family. And there are sad cases of mental illness or physical disability requiring specialized care that a family simply isn’t equipped to provide – personally or financially. I see that as a failure of the social services and healthcare systems we’ve set up, and something that should be a shared community burden.
Here, in the U.S., we have the families we are born into, and the families we choose. We have traditional married-with-children families, couples who are childless by choice, single parents, gay couples, adoptive families – and these ties are strong.
Then again…there are families like these. It isn’t the homelessness that hurts the worst, but the abandonment by family. I can’t deny that there are selfish, thoughtless people who turn their backs on their own parents or children, and I won’t even pretend to understand how or why they do it. They have their reasons, and to judge them without knowing their side of the story may be as wrong as it is to condemn Americans for having no appreciation of family. All I know is this: So long as I have a roof over my head, family in need can sleep under it and share my food – provided they don’t put other family members’ health or safety at risk through their behavior. I doubt that selfish people are unique to the U.S., and maybe it’s better to be cut adrift from people who could turn their backs so easily than to be taken in, resentfully, or abused.
“Family” puts pressure on people – makes them want to do more, to be better. When someone can’t provide for their family, their family is a daily reminder of their failures and shortcomings. Sometimes, the pressure is too much, and people seek to escape. Financial troubles break up too many marriages, and broken marriages too often lead to broken families. Perhaps it stems from a lack of hope and the feeling that nothing in life is in your control. My husband would point out that poverty and lack of education are usually to blame – no matter where in the world you look, it comes down to resources and opportunities. I think it isn’t that we place little importance on family; it’s that we place so much importance on it. No one wants to fail at the thing they care about most; when we let our families down, frustration and powerlessness turn to self-loathing.
From the media, people get unrealistic ideas about sex and what constitutes love and happiness. They mistake infatuation and “hot sex” for a real relationship, and marry too young or too hastily. Nagging dissatisfaction and the notion that life is passing them by sometimes that leads to divorce. This is part of the price of freedom – freedom to choose who we marry, and freedom to make mistakes. The consequences can be tragic, but it isn’t that we don’t value family – just that sometimes, the people we choose to include in it might better have remained friends or strangers.
I’m no expert on Eastern vs. Western culture and “family values,” just someone who thinks we’re all too quick to judge one another and to over-generalize about the people “elsewhere.” That doesn’t lead to empathy and world peace.
On to you now guys. Do think that there is a misunderstanding from the east of the western’s way of valuing the family primarily because of the media? What are the things that we could still do to promote peace and understanding in present world mired with barriers and divisions?
About the Author:
Holly Jahangiri is a professional writer who claims, tongue-in-cheek, to channel the spirits of Edgar Allan Poe, Erma Bombeck, and O. Henry. Her books are available through 4RV Publishing at http://www.4rvpublishingllc.com/Store and Amazon.com.
For more of Holly’s writing, be sure to visit her blog, “Do I Have to Spell It Out?” at
Copyright 2009 Holly Jahangiri.