Saturday, September 26, 2009

Big things and differences in values: Families

What is family for you?

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.

I believe that a distinction in family values is one of the biggest cultural differences between America and Turkmenistan. The family unit in both cultures is important, but defining exactly what family is unveils cultural values that run much deeper than just family. We value individuality, independence and personal success much more than Turkmen. Whereas Turkmen prefer to do things in a group, among family, Americans are more likely to want to distinguish themselves individually. If we fail, then it is our personal responsibility, but in Turkmenistan, if you are a disappointment to the family, then this will reflect poorly on your entire family in the community at large. But I believe that family here is less likely to allow something bad happen to one of their own than in America. The extended family is the social support network in Turkmenistan and if you need something, family will be there for you. I think that many families in America do not help support each other emotionally and financially like Turkmen families.

For me, a traditional Turkmen family meal is the perfect expression of the communal and family centered life-style. Sitting on the floor around a rectangular shaped mat, families will often share food off of the same plate. The entire family will sit down to eat together and the meal will last one or two hours until the teapots runs dry. There are so many families in America who don’t eat together, and this daily act of coming together as a family has been replaced by each individual’s hectic schedule that make family meals too inconvenient. Sometimes I think that American families would benefit from just sitting down together and drinking some tea. We focus so much on our individual pursuits and the fastest way to do things, that the need for a strong family foundation based around communal meals and conversation is more and more being seen as a waste of time. It might be wise to learn a little from Turkmen about family. With stronger families, there are more connected communities and a system of support and assistance when you need it. In Turkmen culture, the beginning of a relationship always starts with a cup of tea. Slow down and drink some tea!


Ted H. said...

How do the Turkmen think of the volunteers leaving their families for 2 years? And I think you made a really good point about families in the U.S. and families in Turkmenistan. I can't wait to see it for myself!


(one of the incoming T-18s)

franith said...

fascinating annie! keep up the posts, always enjoy them :)