28 August 2023

Where is our numerous, often rambunctious, sometimes dysfunctional family during the most important transitions of our lives—birth, marriage, death?

This article is about a happy event—marriage—and the role of family in this memorable occasion.


As a student of culture, I have often heard—and agreed—that our family ties are too much of a good thing. Like milk and honey, family is supposed to be good for us. Our ties protect us from the loneliness and mental illnesses that now engulf the more individualistic West. They help relieve us from material wants that cannot be satisfied by our inadequate government services. They comfort us in our moments of grief, and share with us our moments of joy!  Yes, at the end of each day, there is our family!


BUT, family loyalty also mandates that right or wrong, we side with family—that makes for poor social justice, a lynchpin in any functioning nation. This may not be politically correct, but nonetheless true--we have the duty, above community and country, to shield the wrong doers regardless of whatever crime they might have committed if they are members of our family, and to stand by them if they are criticised by others. 

Weak or strong, our duty extends to give all kinds of support to family:  financial provision to the more needy, and added respect to the more prominent as we too bask in their glory.  As we tie our sense of identity with family, we are discouraged from being autonomous and self-reliant. Protective of ourselves from the encroachment of outsiders, we are more in-ward looking and less open to the outlooks of others.  As a unit, we are therefore often only as good as our weakest members. “Observe the crabs,” an oft-repeated quote. “As soon as one tries to get out of the basket, the rest pulls it back”. This applies not only to our cultural tendency to be envious of others, but also to how family can pull down the potential success of its members".


A seemingly key principle in life is that too much of anything, no matter how beneficial, is no good. I once read that an athlete died from drinking too much water during a marathon. So, is it true? Is this the reason we, an affiliation-orientated culture with our collectivistic mindset too centered on family, can never measure our accomplishments along those of our more individualistic, achievement-orientated foreign cousins? If this is true, is it worth the trade-off? I have lived in both worlds. And I honestly think we are generally happier than our more materially affluent but lonely cousins.


As if to match my observations with events, I have witnessed a recent important life transition—the wedding of my son Paul. As a young girl, I was the black sheep in my family, emigrating early in life because I felt like a round screw trying to fit into a square hole. After spending some 30 years overseas in an extremely individualistic culture and imbibing many of its values, I came back feeling alienated from my family.  

That was until these bonds were strengthened on the occasion of the wedding of my only son Paul. Although Paul lives in Berlin and his bride was from Bulgaria, they decided to have two ceremonies, one in Sofia, Bulgaria in September 2022 and another in Boracay, Philippines in March 2023. 

There are three generations in my extended family.  From us six siblings, we are now slightly over 40--including spouses--living in Bacolod, Manila, London, Sydney, and New York. Thirteen trooped to Sofia.  Those who couldn’t go to Sofia attended the celebration in Boracay. Some participated in both occasions—COVID quarantines in foreign hotels notwithstanding. 

Altogether in any or both of these occasions, 100% were present less four.  The younger ones missed classes, and the older ones missed work. A brother-in-law suffered a bout of gout and could hardly walk. My brother and sister are on wheelchairs. They were there too!

Needless to say, I was deeply touched. As a widow with an only child, I have lived most of my life alone, and yes, sometimes it can be lonely. For example, until quite recently, I lived in the UK where there is a Ministry of Loneliness—for those feeling socially isolated and unwanted. The Ministry organises support groups using its extensive Tackling Loneliness Network. It sponsors activities for people at risk, provides a 24/7 telephone helpline called the Samaritans, encourages the lonely to adopt pets, etc. Despite these interventions, however, there are still significantly more recorded suicides in the UK than in the more impoverished Philippines.

Yet, many of us continue to gripe about our country. Granted that there are a number of seemingly intractable problems, such as a misguided and very poorly run educational system. But we should bear in mind that other nations have their own problems as well, amongst them is the disintegration of family life.

Said my nephew in his toast to the newly-weds, “To begin, I would like to say to Sania--welcome to the loud, occasionally obnoxious, but always supportive family”.

This welcoming greeting should be a reminder to us that we are indeed rich whereas some other countries are poor. Our family values are like gems, rough-hewn and unpolished though they may be. We should work towards chipping off the excesses that make for a lot of imperfections. On the other hand, perfection is boring, because where else will we go after then?

We are right now ideally situated— we are “in the process”. There are still many challenges ahead, but we are already halfway there!