Please, we’re Chinese: It’s extended family, not relatives.

Disclaimer: Inspired by autobiographical events, but highly stylised with creative license. No offence or disrespect intended, no familial rebukes necessary; love ya’ll

Dear Diary,

It’s that time of year again. Chinese New Year. The annual ‘extended family’ get-together shindig all the not-yet-teenage cousins and godawful old adults  love. Food, hongbao for the kids, zoning out in front of the television, mahjong, and, most importantly, long weekends off. Well, this year I planned to actually try and enjoy it.

Obviously, the first thing on the list would be not being a downer. That is, no doing anything that gets the aunties tittering like the paparazzi on the cusp of a new celebrity scandal. No black clothes. Going on visits to all the usual relatives’ places with the parents. And at least appearing to make an attempt at small talk in various Chinese dialects. Guess what? I nailed it. That is, all the above; as for enjoying it, that’s a little different.

Well, the spirit of the season is reunion and family and all that, yeah? Well, what do you make of it when extended family is more like kept-at-arms-length-talk-to-you-thrice-a-year family? Sure, your dad and my dad are brothers, they grew up in the same home, cheers to them. But really, can they really expect us to have the same kinship, if we never lived in the same home, never invented games in our childhood together for nothing better to do, never, corny as it sounds, grew up together?

But of course, it isn’t only about cousins. For the few I know better, well and good, and I’ll be polite to the rest of you on the few occasions we see each other. But then, there’s filial piety as well. Typical rebellious youth scorn it, and, I admit, I was no exception, but as I’ve aged, I’ve come a little way to see the value in it.

On the eve of Chinese New Year, I find myself at the flat of my grandmother, my sole remaining grandparent. And, as the evening progresses, I ask myself “Is this family? Is that the relation I have with my ah ma? or my other ah gongs and ah ma?” Can grandparents who live not even in your childhood memories, but only in photo albums your uncles dig out, be family? Can stories and pictures of a man in the ground before you were conceived be family? How about your ah ma, whom you barely know, whom your mother and aunts and uncles regard with a mix of respect, sadness, and pity? Family in name, but really? When, overtaken with senility, she doesn’t recognise her grandkids?

At some point, I find myself nodding, as she labours a question through feeble lips. I fumble with a few words in a dialect that may be my parents’, but certainly not mine. I struggle to come up with a few words, for a grandmother I hardly know, hoping that an older cousin or uncle would rescue me, or that her attention wanders.

As we have dinner, squeezed in the flat that was my mother’s childhood home, and now all that remains of elderly ah ma’s ever-shrinking personal domain, my eyes linger longer over the television than aunts and uncles. Hollywood dialouge  piques more interest than the conversation, and the highlight of the moment is the food.

Finally, I step outside for a breather. In the quiet moment, where the conversation inside does not penetrate, I wonder. I wonder why I have nothing to say to my cousins, and I ponder over what an oxymoron familial awkwardness is. I wonder why I would rather chat with a friend, likewise trapped at his family reunion. I wonder if my children will some day feel the same way.

And it goes on. What, and who, will my family be in thirty years? Will my children play with their cousins as they grow up? Or will they know their uncle as face from their father’s childhood photos? And I vow that they will know and love their family, and their relatives. And, because  the idealist in me, in all of us, here in the present, never foresees the troubles and difficulties that contend to break the ties of blood, I  look forward to the future, and cannot help but be captivated and certain of  a bright and perfect future.

We’ll see about that. Thirty years, counting down, from now. Go.


3 Responses to “Please, we’re Chinese: It’s extended family, not relatives.”

  1. xian Says:

    what the gay. u want to let YOUR kids play with MY kids?

    my kid will kick your kid’s ass.

  2. haoqin Says:


  3. the middle xian Says:

    I think the tension we feel in these family reunions comes from the disparity between expectations and reality. we feel a certain sentimentality for the ties of blood, a feeling that we’re bonded in some way, that there should be something that runs deeper, but this feeling is never truly realised. and i think you’re right that sharing early experiences is key to developing this reality. right now you me and kor are not very close in the sense that we aren’t really kept up on each other’s lives but when we’re all at home together there’s a closeness there that doesn’t really need words. for me it’s like… a tie of acceptance and support that abides regardless of immediate material communication. we don’t have that with the cousins, not sure why but most likely because we didn’t share enough experiences to actually develop an effortless commonality.

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