Opinion / Blog

No girls allowed on family tree

By teamkrejados ( Updated: 2015-05-26 08:51

It started with trees. Family trees, to be specific.

I was talking with my freshmen about how in America families are so disparate that family records are kept in various ways, most commonly on Family Trees. See, in America, the nuclear family – Mom, Dad, siblings – does not necessarily live around their extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Sometimes, people do not know their extended family. We have family reunions to get everyone, or at least everyone who can attend, in one place for one weekend a year or every few years.

Some families never have reunions. My family is such a one: my children barely know a quarter of their cousins, let alone any of their aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. They have only met their paternal grandparents a handful of times, and their maternal grandfather three times. They have never met my mother.

I contend that heritage is critically important. Not just for practical reasons like medical history or vital statistics, but also for a sense of continuity and belonging. I have learned the hard way how important it is to have such feelings; they anchor one into society and give one a sense of stability and equality among their peers.

I grew up without family. I was not an orphan, but my mother specialized in keeping my siblings and me far away from extended family. Thus I did not know I had relatives in France, and I barely knew any of my relatives in America. It took me years as an adult to find and meet everyone. Well, not quite everyone, but at least now I know I have a wealth of family on both sides of the ocean.

In China, there is no such thing as a distinction between nuclear and extended family. Everyone is family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins… everyone is simply called family. There is no need for reunions here because everyone gets together every year, several times per year. There is no need for family trees because family tradition and history is passed down from generation to generation. At Spring Festival, Qing Ming, National Holidays and weddings, the whole family tells stories, and sometimes legends of their ancestors.

No wonder I was met with glazed eyes and blank stares when I introduced the concept of family trees. It seems the idea that family would not be together is inconceivable to the Chinese.

But, as I pointed out to these kids, when they graduate they may or may not return home. As with so many other things in China, the trend is now for families to break up. Grown children are moving permanently away from the villages and to the cities where they can make money. Some do not go home at all anymore. They marry someone they met in the City and make their life in these concrete jungles. Oral traditions are fading. In just a few years, the Chinese will also need to have family reunions and record family ties on trees.

During the discussion two of my students, Mandy and Yolanda, averred that their family does maintain a family book. Their fathers currently have custody of it and it is a revered family document, going back centuries. However, neither Yolanda nor Mandy are listed in the books of their respective families. They will be, once they marry. Correction: they will not be; their husbands will be.

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