family and diversity

To say I come from a large family would be an understatement. A simple history of my extended family mirrors the larger history and culture of Taiwan – where I was born and both sides of my family trace their ancestry for several generations.

My immediate family consists of a large, but moderate seven: my parents, my brother (younger), and three sisters (one older, two younger). To this total, we’ve added a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, and the five children of the next generation. When you extend family to include uncles, aunts, and cousins on both my mother and father’s side, however, the numbers get extremely large extremely fast.

My father had four or three siblings depending on how you count it. My grandmother gave birth to my father, his two younger brothers, and two daughters. When my father’s first brother was born, my grandparents did not have the means to support another child, so they “gave” away the youngest of their two daughters to another family to raise — part of a tradition where families matched children at a young age for prospective marriage: the daughter of the one would be raised with son of the other to increase their compatibility. Having given her away, my grandmother never viewed the child as her daughter again, even in her old age when she was the only one of her children living in the same town with her. I was introduced to her as my aunt when my family visited Taiwan when I was young and, while comprehending my grandmother’s perspective, have never understood it.

My mother’s mother was married to my grandfather at age 15, and between the ages of 16 and 43, gave birth to 13 children including two sets of twins. One unnamed child died in infancy and a second who is not named when mentioned “passed away” from fear and fright in early childhood when the family was forced to live in mountain caves for a time during the American bombing of Taiwan in World War Two. Growing up, I was taught I had ten uncles and aunts on my mother’s side.

Counting both sides of my family, I had anywhere from 13 to 17 uncles and aunts, depending on how you count, why, and when. Most of them had families and children, and the last time I tried to calculate, I had over 50 first cousins. Because their ages span over thirty years, several of my cousins are younger than the children of other cousins. Several of my uncles and aunts stayed in Taiwan while others emigrated, mostly to the United States. My cousins have, in turn, followed opportunities abroad and at one point, various members of my family resided in four continents. We have had some partial family reunions on both sides of my family, and while I have met most of my uncles and aunts and many of my cousins, I can’t say I’ve met most of them. There is no single language that everyone in my extended family speaks. Some speak Mandarin, some speak “Taiwanese,” some speak English, and still others speak or have studied a variety of other European languages. Family members who speak several languages serve as translators when we get together.

When my brother married his Hungarian wife and my sister married her Chinese American husband, the situation only got more complicated. At my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding, I had to take directions from her side of the family in German, the only language we shared — although barely because my German was so bad. When my brother, his wife, and their children travel, border authorities and airline officials sometimes question whether they are actually related. On the other hand, most people assume my sister and her husband’s natural cultural affinity because both are Asian–and “Chinese,” for those who don’t recognize the distinction from “Taiwanese.” Although my parents can speak Mandarin with him and his parents, because they spoke Taiwanese (or more properly, Taiwanese-Hokkien) with us growing up, English is the only language we all speak commonly.

My nieces and nephews all have Western first names and Chinese middle names. My parents, who chose the middle names, however, were perhaps too clever choosing ones for my brother’s kids, who are older, whose transliterations appear to be European. The children, being children, recognize family first. They see their cousins as cousins from their parents’ respective heritages and cultures without thinking about race and its categorical differences. They know their grandparents always bring gifts and toys and spoil them in ways their parents don’t allow. And not always realizing differences in language, they find ways to adapt what is spoken to them into the fabric of their lives, discovering words and sounds that Hungarian, Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English have in common, and making up phrases to say what they need to say.

This is the reality of my family. This is the diversity that taught me to see culture as people living customs and language, adapted to suit their experience, not divided by its difference.