I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a video call last weekend that included much of my increasingly global extended family. Even though I had spoken to everyone within the last few months, largely negating any discomfort, the combination of not having grown up in their vicinity (or even the same country), the consequent countless missed moments in each other’s lives, and the occasional undertone of cultural divides I have only recently realized may not be as alienating as I once assumed, meant that I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
All of these turned out to be nonissues. I did, however, unexpectedly find myself contemplating the broader role and importance of family afterwards. This raised much more complicated questions with answers I doubt even exist. Having grown up in perhaps one of the most individualistic societies (to have existed), I have at least consciously always valued concepts such as autonomy, self-reliance, and independence from prescribed values. While everyone lies on a continuum, I must be especially far in the direction of liberalism and individuality because I can’t remember the last time I earnestly assessed the benefits of a society where independence and individual expression are not the predominant desires but often lie on the back burner, and where the interests of individuals are, while considered and occasionally championed, typically consigned to a secondary role rather than placed front-and-center. In a cerebral sense, therefore, I understand that I should expect my default relationships to those around me (friends, family, and strangers alike) to operate slightly differently from people who have grown up in societies that idealize different goals. Parallels exist in other societies, of course, as some sociabilities seem to be based in more universal desires, but the differences amount nonetheless.
Some of these differences never fail to strike me with a sense of awe and sometimes even a pining for the almost-invasive manner with which autonomy can be dispelled in favor of communitarian (familial, societal, etc.) considerations. The salience and consistency with which many in collectivist cultures value the goals, desires, and sustenance of an immediate community before taking their own wishes into account seems almost ethereal through my lens. This can manifest itself as exceedingly proactive and generous hospitality, seemingly independent of the degree to which parties know each other and have previously reciprocated favors, but far more dependent on the co-membership in a community (e.g. distant family members). This can manifest itself in taking decisions, including those I would ordinarily consider “personal” in scope, based more heartily on the regards of others. Remarkably, I rarely get the feeling that one is reluinquishing their autonomy, forced to acquiesce in the face of dominant social pressures. More often, it feels like one realizes (and eventually internalizes) the importance of comprehending the consequences of choices on a more expansive community.
At some point, I may speak more about some of the experiences in my own life that inspired this thought process and which I refer to here only in a vague sense. In the meantime, I feel it appropriate to include the following disclaimer: I know this approach holds pitfalls, and I have seen at least one rear its ugly head in situations involving people I know. If only we could extricate the positive aspects of a characteristic and leave the rest in some greedy social dissection, but, alas, that seems as wildly imprudent as it is implausible.