It’s difficult to capture the scope of a Filipino family. Here, though, is one illustration. I am spending my time in Manila with my father’s family—his brothers, sisters, and cousins. I am staying at their houses, eating their food, and enjoying their company and hospitality. Probably nothing that unusual there. But wait, there’s more.
Today, part of my extended family arrived—my mother’s sister and her family. She and her husband are from the central Philippines, far south of Luzon. None of their blood family live near Manila. But they’re being picked up at the airport by my dad’s family, specifically, my dad’s brother-in-law. In other words, the person picking up my mom’s sister (and family) is not only not “related” to her, that person isn’t even blood related to my dad. In other words, these two people are genetically separated, twice.
Doesn’t matter. After the airport pick up, we all spent the day together shopping, eating, and slogging through notorious Manila traffic having a great time. There was no discomfort or resentment for being put out. From the outside looking in, you’d never have known they weren’t blood relations (twice removed, remember).
It’s not just airport pick up either. For my mom’s sister’s time in Manila, her family is staying at my dad’s cousin’s place. Not his sibling, his cousin. If that weren’t enough my aunt arranged a tour of a business she owns and insisted they take a box of Filipino specialty goods with them.
Here’s the part that really tickles me: this has happened before. This group of people all know each other from repeated interactions over the last few decades. When my mom’s side of the family comes into Manila, they’ll usually stay with my dad’s relatives.
By all accounts everyone enjoys this arrangement. Gifts are exchanged, of course. Everyone insists that everyone else accept something special. But what makes this remarkable to the American part of me is how natural this is to everyone. No one complains or laments the inconvenience or “obligation.” Everyone’s genuinely happy to take the time and effort to be around each other. And make no mistake, slogging through Manila traffic alone is effort.
But it’s effort like as in effort for someone who loves basketball puts effort into shooting practice. It’s like the effort you put in staying up all night on a work day so you can finish a good book. Why wouldn’t you put “effort” into something you enjoy?
From my perspective, it’s like being part of being part of an organized crime family, except everyone’s goal isn’t to make make money or achieve criminal superiority, it’s to have more of what makes life worth living. It’s about giving to others and deepening and extending relationships.
Things aren’t always rosy, of course. There is considerable risk and downside. Free giving can turn into stressful obligation. Joyous effort can turn to resentfully going through the motions. Spending personal resources on “family” takes away from spending on one’s “real” family. And, no matter how big one’s family gets, this system tends to group the world into “insiders/outsiders” or “us/them.” That and it’s not something you could easily impose on a typical, more individual-oriented American family.
But for Filipino me, it’s comforting to know there are so many people on my side. It makes the world a less scary place when you know there are a bunch of people around invested in your well-being. How long this lasts as second generation Filipino-Americans become third and forth generation ones is anyone’s guess. No matter how much sociologists say culture sticks over the centuries, something may give in the face of so much Americanness.
For now, I’ll enjoy this while I can. With my family.