Post- Magazine

family ties [feature]

generational rifts and bridges

As my mom reads off every name, my sister and I try our hardest to commit them to memory. We are six and eight years old, excitedly staring at the family tree in front of us. It is astonishing and extensive, with some very familiar names and others that I have only heard of as characters from my parents’ childhood stories. Mom explains that most of my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents live all over the world and that someday, I will meet them all.

Having a massive family dispersed all over the world was exciting, but as a kid I often longed for more proximity. Seeing friends’ grandparents pick them up every day in elementary school often sparked envy. At that point, I had only met my grandparents two or three times. Over half of Americans live within an hour of extended family members, according to the Pew Research Center, with Asian Americans being the least likely to have extended family nearby. Especially during my childhood, the distance from my extended family created some sadness, but my feelings of detachment faded with time. The prevalence of social media certainly helped bridge this gap. And as I grew older, I was able to travel more to see my extended family and tend to the relationships I had always wanted to.

This past December, my maternal grandmother’s side, mostly from India and Australia, reunited in Vietnam. I was thrilled that we achieved full attendance; it had been eight years since I had last seen most of them at a wedding. Our headcount was 40, a hodgepodge of different stages of life: first words, retirement, parents new and old, and a group of us in our 20s. 

The prospect of being an adult for the first time on a big family trip and seeing a new country evoked a slew of emotions. Our group chat of cousins buzzed with articles and videos about sightseeing, street food, nightlife, and nature. But enveloped in this excitement and anticipation were small shards of fear. With a group this size comes a widespread variety in age, upbringing, values, and opinions. Arguments, awkwardness, and disharmony were inevitable.


A few weeks before the trip, I was listening to a podcast in the car. A series of anecdotes from people all over the country came on, talking about tarnished relationships as a result of political discord. I knew that my political views were misaligned with some of my traditional family members. While I felt it was possible to avoid political conversations for 10 days, I knew our relatives from India and Australia kept up with the U.S. political scene and would ask my other American cousins and me about it. While I am usually happy to openly share my views, I feel a mental hitch to share potentially contradicting opinions with people I have such limited time with. No part of me wants to spend the few-and-far-between moments I have with my relatives getting into an argument. But at the same time, reserving my emotions about topics I feel strongly about doesn’t feel quite right, either. On top of these conflicting thoughts, there is an added aspect of cultural complexity that crosses my mind. 

A principal tenet deeply ingrained in many South Asian cultures is respect for those who are older. While I certainly appreciate this precept and feel it has shaped me in a lot of ways, its unconditional nature has bred hesitation, coupled with an inclination towards being more agreeable than I should be among members of my family. One of my favorite books, These Impossible Things by Salma El-Wardany, discusses this at length. It follows three South Asian women as they navigate disconnection among their family members. It is common for more progressive topics to wreak havoc among South Asian families, which leads to dishonesty and a lack of transparency between children and their parents and relatives. El-Wardany elucidates well through each of the women’s stories how it often feels like this guiding principle means one has to tiptoe around elders as a sign of respect, which, quite frankly, feels wrong. 

As expected, at some point after the joyous hellos, heartfelt hugs, and general small talk on the trip, there was a bit of political discourse. The discussion, which pertained to gender equality and discrimination, started off generally even-tempered. The healthy nature of the debate didn’t last long, though, promptly escalating to an abrasive spat between a conservative uncle and liberal cousin, with sporadic interjections from other relatives. I acted as more of an audience member, and was quite angry at myself for doing so. There was a tug-of-war occurring in my mind—it was so deeply rooted within me to not contest family, but my opinions on the matters at hand were dying to be voiced. It was a lose-lose situation—either I feel guilty about expanding an already-existing rift, or I feel guilty about not speaking my mind at a critical moment. My reluctance to contribute ultimately prevailed.

Feeling quite disheartened by the lack of peace after that conversation, I wondered if there was a way to achieve harmony among a group with such a variety of backgrounds—it felt like blood was our only connection at certain points. I spent the next couple of days primarily with the group of us in our 20s, where I could relate the most. But I did feel a need to connect with everyone, especially the oldest generation. They weren’t doing much sightseeing and activities with the rest of the group, so I wasn’t spending as much time with them as I had hoped. When I did get the chance to chat with them, it was challenging to have meaningful conversations when our commonalities were so rare. But, after eventually getting by the less exciting “How’s school?” conversations, I asked more questions about their upbringing and they asked more about mine. Comparing my sleepy Rhode Island hometown to their spirited, restless Mumbai was striking. They were fascinated by the American college system, and I longed to hear more about living in a joint-family-style home. I realized our differences could be a way to connect, too.

Games were a small way that our entire group could connect. We would play all sorts of card games and board games in small groups. In the middle of the trip, though, there was one day where all 40 of us were told to meet in the afternoon for a game of Housie, a game similar to Bingo. We all gathered together in a living room playing a game simple enough that everyone could participate. The little ones would call out numbers or team up with a parent or cousin, and there was a cacophony of triumphant cheers and displeased yelling that, while unpleasant to my ears, brought me immense joy. Maybe it was a superficial way to feel connected, but there was no tug-of-war in my mind and I was thankful for that. The formidable truth is, though, that I may always feel hesitation towards both speaking up and staying quiet during the controversial conversations. And there will undoubtedly be more difficult situations in the future. But I will always appreciate the good moments with everyone together, from all different parts of the world, with all different perspectives on life, in one room doing one thing together as a family. 

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