Around the globe, cultures have different attitudes towards the family, yet the concept is key to the culture of all societies. As an expat, you have to get to know the different family structures in order to understand the culture in your new home.
How the family is structured varies around the globe. In Western cultures, how extended relatives are seen differs from family to family. For some, grandparents are as much a part of the family as parents whereas in countries such as Russia, the core family is seen to include extended relatives such as aunts, uncles and grandparents.
In cultures like China that are traditionally based on Confucianism, filial piety is central to the family’s structure. This means being good to one’s parents, respecting them and looking after them, and this extends to grandparents as well. In many Chinese families, parents move in with their children when they get married. The parents help raise their grandchildren and the children provide care for their elders when the time comes.
Families also have different attitudes towards in-laws. In Muslim cultures, when a daughter marries into a family she is seen as part of that family and treats her mother in- law as if she is her own mother. However, in the UK, a level of distance can remain between in-laws.
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In different families, there is a hierarchy that is promoted. In most countries, age is key to this hierarchy in that parents are in a superior position to their children. Then parents should defer to their parents, and the grandparents of the family.
In some cultures, gender still plays a role in the family hierarchy. It is common in many societies for the father to be the head, as seen in Chinese family portraits, when the most senior male sits in the centre. However, in some cultures, the mother is the ‘matriarch’ where she is in charge and makes all the important decisions.
Indian culture has matriarchal aspects in that the mother is in charge of arranging the marriages of their children.
In recent years, we have seen the growth of the ‘global family’, with people maintaining relationships across borders. As such, expats may have close relations living in several different countries which can be a problem as they might not see their family often, but still want to be close to their relations. This has become easier with video calling and cheap internet phones. These technological advances mean that expats can still talk to their family members regularly.
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One of the ways that we see differences between families around the globe is with how they celebrate their festivities. Whether this is Christmas, Eid or Hanukkah, these celebrations have become less and less secular in recent years and many people now use these opportunities to come together and enjoy each other’s company. Across the globe, weddings are a time when families celebrate together. Although these are performed differently around the world, it is a common for families to spend time together to wish the new married couple a successful life together. In the US, families gather on the third Thursday of November for Thanksgiving, when they feast on turkey and enjoy time with each other. Canadians observe a similar day on the second Monday in October. This day is a time for giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year. Likewise people enjoy celebrating the new year with relatives.
For Chinese New Year, families see in the new year with a big meal and festivities. It is common in Hong Kong to take a family portrait after the relatives gather. The photo is taken in the hall or in front of the house, and of course, here the most senior male head of the family sits front and centre of the photo.