Monday, February 21, 2011

Worlds Apart: Family Life Across the North-South Divide

My little brother David just came to stay for the weekend. He is working for his multinational computer company for six weeks, in North Carolina, and popped up for the weekend to bleak, wintry central Pennsylvania, where Peterson and I live. It was lovely to have him, but talking to him about all the family developments back home--my nephew going to school, all of the different family members' reactions to my book coming out--was a reminder of how radical a choice it is to be an expat. Edward Said talked about how it severs an individual from the consolations of "family, history, and geography."

I see my parents, siblings, and nephews once every two years or so, when I make my bi-annual pilgrimage back home, usually for Christmas and New Year. In the 17 years I've lived in the USA, only three times have any of my biological family members set foot in a place where I live: my parents, once, when I lived in Miami; David, twice.

My friends Silas and Catherine, both American, went on a family cruise recently. Catherine's family lives a couple of hours away, in Maryland, so they see them every month or so. On this cruise, both Silas and Catherine were struck by the number of developing-world workers--Filipinos, Thais, Brazilians etc.--who made a fuss of Silas and Catherine's kids and talked about missing their own children, left behind with grandparents or aunts and uncles. I'm certainly not comparing my own experiences to these workers': I'm a middle class South African who left my home country at least partly to study and teach creative writing. I don't have children the other side of the world, just aging parents and lots of siblings, cousins, and nephews. Still, it does seem to me South African families, across race and class differences, are fragmented in a way that American middle class families aren't. Among my parents' friends, almost every family has at least one kid somewhere in the West, in England, Canada, America, or Australia. And the Xhosa families my students and I met in Tshani, Transkei, this last December, talked of children leaving the village for the distant large cities, and almost never being seen again--from the way they spoke, their children might as well have been in Brisbane.

What do you think? Is it easier to maintain family closeness in richer countries? Is this a good thing? Bad? Are America and places like it the last bastions against the globalization of blood ties?

1 comment:

  1. I can only speak from my own experience. I grew up as an Army Brat. From the age of 7 until almost 20 I saw my extended family once. Our relationship existed in letters and poor, long-distance phone connections. As an adult, my brother is in Nevada, my mother and sister are moving to California and I'm staying in Washington. I must also say that it may be that I'm Queer and there are differences that my family and I can't seem to get past. I also left Germany, where my family lived, and went back to the states for school.

    All of that said, I do notice that my peers who grew up civilian have a stronger affiliation to their families. I suppose your premise stands. The wealth of this country allows them privileges/advantages that are not seen globally. Although, when I think about rural communities there seem to be strong familial ties. Is it a cultural phenomenon based on the ancestors who left family behind to forge this country?