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Family Affairs – A Few Thoughts About Family Gatherings in China and the West

The three months between December and February are both in the West and in China a period of important traditional family festivals. Christmas and New Year in the West, and the Lunar New Year in China, are the most significant and longest festivals.

On the one hand, these festivals are an occasion for rejoicing. When I was a child, I loved Christmas. I didn’t have to wake up early to go school, I was free from lessons and homework. A few days before Christmas, I decorated the Christmas tree and arranged the presepe (nativity scene); I loved to do such things. Last but not least, I received gifts from relatives and had plenty of time to play with my cousins. Apart from all this, Christmas stimulates children’s inborn imagination and creativity, and the whole world appeared special, cozier, magical. 

When you grow up, things change. In fact, the family slowly becomes what some people call ‘a sweet burden’. You grow up, you need to accept more responsibilities, and Christmas loses a part of its magic. One of the most complicated things is now how to relate to family members. 

However different my family and Chinese families may be, one thing is certainly common: parents like – or feel compelled – to talk a lot about their children. This year I noticed how much my relatives talked about money, children’s jobs (or their lack of a job), prices of products and so on; a quite materialistic range of subjects. This may put pressure on children. If over the previous year they haven’t achieved what the family expected, they will be more or less directly criticised.  

Conversation with relatives can be difficult at times. I do not meet my relatives very often. Sometimes, I feel relatives don’t have much to talk about; discussing what children do becomes a hot topic exactly because there’s not much else to talk about.   

And yet, after living in Asia I don’t think that family life in Italy is too hard, after all. As I have explained in many posts, hierarchy and social roles have always been fundamental in Chinese families. Filial piety, or xiao, is the cornerstone of the family system. Of course, the Chinese family has changed, and has become more relaxed; moreover, every family is different, and the character of children is very important when it comes to the relationship between old and young. But generally speaking, I feel that Chinese family life is much harsher, more solemn, formal and complicated than one may at first imagine.

In my own family, personal character weighs more than social role. I always had the feeling that I can say my opinion, and also avoid replying to relatives’ questions. I can more or less be myself, and disagreeing with my relatives is not a huge issue. A few days ago, my aunt talked with me about my grandfather (born in the 1910s). She said that when she was young, there was freedom in the family; no one commanded, but decisions were made together. After living in Asia, this seems to me a very progressive attitude for a man who was born more than a century ago. As I have shown in another post, this is indeed an old topic between Chinese and Westerners.

In China and Taiwan, many families ‘compare’ family members; and most of all, parents compare their children with those of others. Money, achievements, jobs, etc. are a common subject of conversation, and questions are asked whose directness might surprise outsiders. The pressure that the elders put on their children is shown by the following (however extreme) example:

“Groups of young women huddled over large bowls of noodles look depressed when asked about the February’s impending Chinese New Year holiday.
‘I’m pretty old – I’m almost 30 – but I’m still single,’ explains Ding Na, a woman hailing from China’s northeast.
‘I’m under lots of pressure. My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I’m not married. When they call me, I’m scared to pick up the phone.’


Because of the traditional idea that getting married is a filial duty and a prerequisite for maintaining a good social reputation, parents, relatives and friends may make people feel they are ‘losers’ if they’re still unmarried.

According to Zhou Xiaopeng, a consultant with Baihe.com, one of China’s biggest dating agencies, the pressure for singles to settle down crescendos around Chinese New Year.
‘Picture a scene where people sit around a table,’ Ms Zhou says.
‘Chinese people love to get together for dinner. On New Year’s Eve, everybody is sitting in pairs, your brother with your sister-in-law, your sister with your brother-in-law, and so on. If you’re the only one left behind, you can imagine the pressure and frustration’ (source: BBC).


Unfortunately, I have no chance to enter the house of random Chinese or Taiwanese families to see for myself how the atmosphere in different families is, how people behave and talk with each other. I would like to know how children really feel during their big family gatherings, if they’re happy, or stressed, or if they see them as a burden rather than a pleasure.
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