I believe that the answer to this question will vary drastically according to your culture and heritage. Recently I discussed family with my advanced students. We are reading a book about an American family, and while pre-reading it, I realized that the family in the book is very different from what a family consists of in Turkmenistan. I asked my students to do a fifteen-minute creative writing assignment about what family is for them. One student wrote, “Family is such a difficult word to write about because it is the most important thing in our lives.” Family is everything in Turkmenistan. Sons may live with their parents their entire lives, raising a family under the same roof where they grew up. Daughters typically live at home until they marry and then move to their husband’s house and become part of a new family unit there.
My students were shocked to hear that I hadn’t lived at home for longer than a three-month period since I was eighteen. And more importantly, that this was my choice. Many families want their daughters to stay at home rather than to enroll in university because they need help with the domestic work. I told my students that my parents supported my decision to do Peace Corps, but if they hadn’t, I could have defied them and come anyways. Disobeying parents is viewed as a huge loss of face in this culture. There is a huge amount of respect for elders, and rebelling is rarely heard of. A friend of mine got married recently because her parents had decided it was time and quickly arranged a husband for her. She told me that it was her parents’ wish and that she could not confront her parents because then the entire community would gossip about her parents’, especially her father’s, lack of authority in the house.
Another of my students wrote, “I think that family is my mother, father, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles. My cousins are also my brothers and sisters.” Typical families in Turkmenistan are very large compared to the average American. My host-father has nine brothers and one sister. Family in Turkmenistan means extended family members and not just the nuclear family. When I speak about my family I will list my mom, dad, sister and my dog. My entire family consists of many more people, but my instinct is to talk only about the family members with whom I lived. When I ask my students about their families, they will attempt to list out every single family member they can remember (and most often they can’t remember all of them because the families are so large). One student wrote, “Family for me are the people I can’t live a day without seeing. If I don’t see my mother for one day, I am very sad.” Turkmen families tend to live in the same community, so they see each other often. My students couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen my mother’s side of the family for seven years, because they are constantly seeing family members float in and out of their houses.
My student, Chynar, wrote that she believes “family is more than just a mother, father, sister or brother. Family can be friends or, I know this may sound silly, animals too. Family is anyone or anything that you love very much.” What Chynar wrote was controversial in our class. Most of my students believed family consisted of only people you were related to. Chynar argued that it was how much you loved someone or something that should deem it family. I mentioned that I considered my friends at college as family because we lived together and were each other’s family when we were all away from home. I also argued that my fellow volunteers here are like family because we are all in this situation together and have to support and help each other so much. More than friends being considered family, it was animals being included that sparked some heated discussion. Animals in Turkmenistan are mostly kept outside and dogs are abused so much that they are either scared of everything that moves or want to bite everything that moves. Some students said they had pets they loved, but thought they were too dirty to be in the house and part of the family. I told my students that my dog is the best listener in the family because she will listen to you forever and snuggle if you pet her. They thought this was funny. But I have seen children kick dogs way more often than pet a dog. All in all, animals are not considered part of the family, or even close to it.