Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Expat Family Values

I've been thinking a lot about families, well, really only my own family. When I was about 10 days into this project, I started to get really homesick. Like cry myself to sleep at night homesick. Somehow when I planned this field trip, I failed to calculate how long I would be away versus how long I had been away during past research trips to Mexico. When I sat down and thought about it, it has been years since I was away for longer than 2 weeks by myself. Last year, I came with my husband and kids, and it was great. I was more stressed and tired than they were, but after all, I was working the entire time we were here.

The funny thing about working here in SMA is that most of the expats here have left their extended families behind. The couples who have grown children often tell me that they felt free to come here because their kids were grown and on their own. The young marrieds have told me that they never saw their extended families more than two to three times a year anyway, so Mexico hasn't changed much in that regard. When I asked one gentleman who has been here for over 50 years what it was like raising his daughter in Mexico and far away from his parents and siblings simply said, "you know, it was wonderful."

Last year one of my first informants, a woman I identified as "Julia," told me that in general, expats of her generation either had no extended families or were not on good terms with their extended families. This morning as I was eating breakfast in the Bagel Cafe, the local expat haunt, one gentleman explained, "Normally, as you get older, your friends become less important and your family more so. But for expats, it's the opposite. Our friends become like our family, and family relationships often become more distant."

The irony (for me) is that many of the expats that I interview say that they really admire Mexican family values, and the ways that multi-generation households stay together and maintain close ties, sometimes knowing third or fourth cousins, great uncles and aunts, and so on. I find this ironic in that expats admire what they themselves do not have (or perhaps do not want). At the same time, what anthropologists would call "fictive kinship," strong relationships and obligations between non-blood relatives which are often formalized through ritual practice, seem to take on greater significance in the expat community.

My first response to this is "to each his/her own." Family dynamics can be tricky at best, and downright destructive at worst. And there is a certain joy that I experience when I know I have a really good, reliable friend. I can only imagine that having an entire community of such friends would be extremely satisfying. Still, I cannot imagine living so far from my mother, sister, or someday, my kids. I know the globalizing world seems to dictate that people move farther and farther from their hometowns or homelands. Maybe tonight I'm exceptionally sentimental because, alas, I would like nothing better than to kiss my kids goodnight and sleep next to my husband, or maybe I'm feeling some of the emotion that accompanies living abroad.

If there is any aspect of the expat life that I think should (and could) be emulated in the U.S., it would be the ways that this group has mastered the art of friendship, and made a lifework of making friends and supporting one another. You should not have to leave your homeland to find this, but it seems being an expat and being a good friend go hand in hand.


B said...

Hey D, hang in there. What you're doing sounds interesting and in the end it will be worth it. People just don't know what kind of sacrifices and delyed gratification we have to go through to be academics.

Fran said...

It would be interesting to know how many expats here have extended family in one place.

No matter how much I might value extended family relationships, there is no place we could move in the US and be close to more than one person. My husband has 7 siblings and two parents. I have 3 siblings. We have one daughter. These 13 people live in 13 different cities in 9 different states.

What we can do, however, is live in a place where family members want to come visit us. This was one of our criteria when we chose a place to retire. SMA fills that criteria nicely. We've spent more hours with family members who have visited us here (for a week or so at a time) in the past two years than we spent with family in the 10 years we lived in Cleveland. So I do agree that it's ironic on the surface that people say they value extended family relationships and yet move to Mexico. Yet it's not necessarily a choice that's inconsistent with those values.

Deb said...

Thanks for your post Fran.

Part of the irony that I wanted to emphasize here is the fact that, at least for many of expats I've spoken to, friends become like family as people age here (for a variety of reasons). Thus what may appear to be a lack of family connection is substituted by the fictive kin networks. They are not blood relations, but they can be just as significant. Sometimes more so.

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.