Family, Western and non

Every time I travel to a non-Western country, I’m always warned (by the guidebook, program orientation, etc.) that notions of family will be very different in the place where I’m going. Typical notes for Latin America include the following: your family will eat meals all together. People will spend a few hours after dinner sitting around at the table, talking, playing games, or just watching TV together (this is called sobremesa). Children live at home until they’re married. Families are much bigger. There may be relatives stopping by constantly. Family members are more connected and aware of what’s going on in each other’s lives.

Of course, these notions vary family-to-family. Some of them have been very accurate for my Quito family, while others haven’t really been applicable. My family often doesn’t eat together, and my brother seems to spend most of his time in his room watching TV or practicing guitar. Not that he’s antisocial or anything—he just seems like a typical global teenager, not quite American, but not “traditionally” Ecuadorian either.
This past weekend, I got a little taste of my family’s size. My host mom has two older daughters who don’t live at home, but stop buy all the time. She’s also from a very large family (one of eleven, if I remember correctly), and almost all of her siblings live in Quito. We went out for ice cream with an uncle and his wife and two kids. Then we stopped at grandma’s house, where another uncle and aunt also live (the uncle is a little off, mentally, and the aunt just never married, so she still lives with her mom). We had coffee and the relatives asked me a bunch of questions so I could practice my Spanish—what I want to do with my life, what the hell my dad is doing trying to start a business in Ghana, etc. Mom, grandma and aunt all talked about my mom’s daughter, the problems she’s having with her husband, how they’re fighting a lot at home.
This is probably one of those situations that cultural briefings are designed to prepare you for. The extended-family gatherings and gossip aren’t typical in a lot of American families. But for me, it felt like I was right back at home. The only real difference was that everyone was speaking Spanish and no one was actually related to me.
My family back in the US is really close. Mom has three sisters who all live in the greater Seattle area, and between the four of them, there are seven cousins, of which I’m the oldest (my brother is 19, I have four female cousins who are 18, 14, 12 and 11, and Lucas, the youngest, is 7). My grandparents are an easy two hour drive away, so they come into town a lot for family gatherings. And I have another grandpa in Eugene, Oregon, which isn’t too far away. Due to a lot of divorce in my grandparents’ generation, I have tons of relatives who aren’t even technically related to me, but all of them are family. Our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners are often 25 people, and we have smaller gatherings for things like high school graduations and birthdays. All in all, it seems like at least ten of us get together once or twice a month, and I’ve hardly ever gone a week without seeing someone from my extended family while I’m home.
When I describe this arrangement to my friends, it sounds weird to most of them. Not bad weird—a lot of people have told me that it sounds nice to have relatives around all the time, exhausting as it can sometimes be. So it’s refreshing to travel to places where extended family is normal, where you’re weird if you don’t go visit your sisters and aunts and uncles and parents over the weekend. I’ve learned so much more about Ecuador from talking to my extended host family, especially the grandma. And I’m grateful that globalization and modernity haven’t managed to completely eradicate this aspect of non-American culture.

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