Monday, May 8, 2017

The Benefits of Not Being the Family's Embrace

This author grew up around the world.  From taking his first trip outside the country when he was age five, he has rarely stayed in any place for more than a few years before moving to the next location with his family.  Courtesy of such experiences, he never had the opportunity to meet many of his distant relatives, many of whom are still in China, nor had he the chance to step into his ancestral hometown.  One reason among many that pushed him to attend the wedding of his cousin (who he has also not met more than once every half a decade or so) is so that he can at least say hi to these relatives he has only heard about but never met.

But after getting to know these people, frankly, the author is rather glad that he never really got to grow up with them.  It is not because they are hard to get along with.  In fact, they are some of the nicest people, who surely put on their best faces for a relative they also heard so much about but never interacted with.  But it is precisely because they put in so much effort to get along that the author realized that it is just great that he never had to deal with the kinds of peer pressure and social obligations that he would no doubt had to deal with if he grew up in their vicinity.

For one thing, there were just too many prodding, private questions.  Yes, the cousin did get married, and yes, she is younger.  But the conclusion that her older cousin should work on his so-called "matter of life" as soon as possible is not a logical one.  The author was quite ready for such conversations to come up, but he did not realize just how many people, how frequently, and to what extent such questions would come up.  Surely every single cousin of this generation (all of whom are now married except the author and his younger brother) would have dealt with intense questioning for years before tying the knot.

The author feels intensely sorry that they had to deal with such family pressures.  And it is not just the matter of marriage.  The pressure is holistic.  It is about education, about professional development, about social relationships.  Some of them are genuinely good advices coming from highly experienced professionals of many fields.  This is particularly true for the author's extended family, who fills its ranks with intellectuals of every field, ranging from tenured professors to senior managers of semiconductor firms.  The author can learn much from listening to them.

But too often, even the most valuable advices are laced with efforted attempts to instill norms and values, many of which are applicable only to them because they live and work in certain environments that the author simply has little knowledge of.  Yes, many ideas can be universally applicable, but many others also cannot be. The fact that they tend to assume most things are in their advice-giving can be hardly problematic for the listener, in this case the author.  The author does not interrupt, and makes every effort to listen as intently and respectfully as he possible can, but he spends just as much effort to cherry-pick what to remember.

Moreover, the author's discomfort from being surrounded by these lecturing cousins often come from the fact that he is just a loner who does not appreciate the idea of being surrounded by people as much as other people does.  It is something that he learned working at Rakuten, reinforced in Southeast Asia, and much more strongly entrenched while working in rural Africa.  The idea of trying to be friendly for the sake of being friendly is completely irritating, not only because it is the idea of trying to be nice to everyone is not genuine but also because under such efforts, outwardly showing disdain becomes socially unacceptable.

This is especially true in a family setting.  Coworkers can disappear from one's life when one quits one's job, but family members, no matter how distant and how rarely met, remains family for the reminder of one's life.  This makes it even more difficult to be completely honest with family members.  Having bad relationships, in the family setting, has lifelong repercussions.  And if they live in the same city or same neighborhood, those repercussions just cannot be avoided in daily life.  One has no choice, in such situation, to put on a nice face and face up to relatives that just would not leave one alone.

Back at the wedding, the married cousin is going around all the tables, toasting every honored guest with her awkwardly standing husband.  Family members graciously return the toast, wishing them happiness and enunciating hope to get a child soon.  The author joins the crowds for those words, but he feels sorry that he has to add in more social pressure that those wishes and hopes undoubtedly represent.  He can only be glad he does not have to deal with such situation as frequently as his cousins do.  Being away from one's extended family has real benefits, and by attending a wedding, those benefits became even clearer.  

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