Friday, May 16, 2014

It's All Relative

Super-hyper-extended families are the norm for my side of the family.

With my paternal grandmother's penchant for keeping in contact with almost every farflung relative she could possibly find, it certainly comes as no surprise when hitherto unknown relatives drop by from distant lands unannounced. In fact it became quite the running joke on the family newsletter that my surprisingly resourceful grandmother could miraculously produce close relatives on almost every destination served by our local airlines. Timbuktu? Oh yes, she probably has a grand-aunt who migrated there back in the early days of the 20th century and had several children there.

So when it comes to placing the various clanspersons on the increasingly heavy branches of the tangled family tree, I have become quite the expert. Yes, even for that long-lost cousin twice removed.

Paul : Who the hell are those guys following us?
Lori : Didn't you say they were our third cousins?
Paul : I thought you said that!
Lori : Oh no. 

Which doesn't seem to be the case for everyone.

Paul : So she's your only aunt on your mother side? Your eldest ah ee?
Felix : Think there's another.
Paul : You think?
Felix : And probably two more uncles. Not sure where they are. Maybe Canada?
Paul : You lost your uncles?
Felix : Pretty much. Never actually seen them.
Paul : Or even heard of them?
Felix : Yeah. There could be only one. 

For someone who comes from as close-knit a family as mine, I find myself astonished. To lose one relative is tragic enough but to misplace several at one go - short of world war or natural disaster - seems almost a travesty. Can't possibly imagine my niece or nephew ever losing sight of me.

As you can imagine, the Chinese place a helluva lot of importance on family and familial relations. Yet again lay the blame on Confucius. To emphasize the familial and yes, wholly patriarchal hierarchy, there's even a different set of names for just about everyone you're related to, based on their relation and gender. Call it the whipping order depending on seniority. For example, an uncle would have a distinctive name depending on whether he belongs to the maternal or paternal side; and even then there would be the matter of his seniority in the family in relation to the parents.

For instance my niece and nephew would address me as 叔叔 without numerical differentiation since I'm their father's only brother.

No doubt in mainland China these days, this age-old practice is almost lost since the advent of the controversial one-child policy would conclusively invalidate the usage of such familial terms. Not much use for the different provisions to describe an uncle or an aunt when they wouldn't even be present in a single-child home born from single-child parents. Pity that.

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