Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Family and Relations

I received news that my aunt had died on Monday morning. In Teochew, she was my Tua Kim (or 大妗), the wife of my mother’s eldest brother (in modern Chinese, she would be called jiù mǔ (or 舅母). She looked very well when the family visited her at Chinese New Year. Oh well, the fragilty of life.

In Singapore, we usually meet old friends and distant relatives, those we have not met for years, at funeral wakes or wedding banquets. Strange, isn't it? We meet don’t meet many people outside the occasion when a couple is starting a new life or when a person’s life reaches its end. Two different poles. The beginning versus the end, a happy occasion versus a sorrowful one.

I never remember the importance of family relations until I come to one of these occasions. Usually, it would be my mother (and my late father when he was alive) who would tell me who a particular stranger was. Sometimes I can make out the face and know that it is someone familiar but I cannot remember who it is. Yesterday, my mother pointed out several members of my extended family whom I had met many many years ago as a teenager. I was talking to my cousin’s daughter who commented that it was easier in English because we only had to call a man uncle and a woman aunt. Relations are so complicated in English. Our experience of small families now have done away with the need to identify specific relatives. Yet at my middle age, I find myself wondering if the present generation has missed something precious. With families where there are usually two children, we don’t have too many to remember. If there were only two brothers, children from both siblings would have only one uncle on their father’s side. There would be no need to remember different terms to differentiate between uncles because there was only one uncle on the father&rquo;s side. He would either be 伯 () or 叔 (shū). If the siblings were two sisters, then their children would only need to remember 姨 () for aunts on their mother’s side. If the siblings were brother and sister, the uncle would be 舅 (jiù) and aunt would be 姑 (). Of course children have father and mother and there would be uncles and aunts on the other parent’s side as well. Relations become simpler but does life become a little impoverished?

As Christians, no matter which generation we belong to, we have only one Father. The relationship between Christians is that of brother and sister. There are no aunts or uncles to speak of. Perhaps, that is why the Western and European traditions did not really go into specifics with terminology describing family relationships beyond brother, sister, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, and cousin. East and South Asian languages usually have rank, paternal and maternal elements of the relationship specified within the terms used in identifying relations. I don’t think that God would want us Asians to lose that element of our tradition and culture. I believe that understanding human familial relationships would help us appreciate the relationship we have with our heavenly Father even more.

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