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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

'Kailan ka ikakasal?' and other awkward moments in holiday reunions

Why is Christmas in the Philippines a very long season? Despite the coming of the holiday season, why do a number of people feel the need for a psychological or psychiatric consultation? Holiday season reunions appear to have something to do with these two.

It is an essential part of holidays in the Philippines to have family reunions.  Our reunions involve the entire extended family, from the grandparents to the entire families of each married son or daughter to grandchildren of all ages to single family members and their special guests. 

Reunions are a time when the individual identities of family members become secondary to the identity of the entire clan.  Depending on the level of individuality that the clan allows its members, the reunion can be comfortable and joyous to most but confusing and disturbing to a few.

An extended family’s psychological health can be gauged by how happy its reunions are.  In reunions, here are some signs of a family’s health:

There is an acceptance of differing stages of development and less comparison among peers.  The question “Kailan ka ikakasal?” (When are you getting married?) can be very disconcerting to some single family members. So too are simple comparative comments to a teenager regarding his height, weight, skin color, and athleticism as compared to his contemporaries. 
    
Diversity in careers is encouraged.  Because many Filipino parents want their children to have good, traditional, shirt-and-tie jobs in Makati or Ortigas, some family members are bound to feel pressured during reunions when their jobs are found to be less socially acceptable to the elders in the clan. This may happen to young people who are working in a creative job, in the arts, in an NGO, or are otherwise treading paths less traveled.
    
In-laws’ thoughts and opinions are valued.  Clans differ in their acceptance of outsiders and external influences.  There are more open family systems where children are encouraged early to accept visitors to their home and are allowed to sleep over and, later, to go on out-of-town trips and vacations with mixed-gender peers.  And there are closed family systems who stick together exclusively for almost all of their socialization and emotional support needs. 

It is in more open family systems that in-laws’ thoughts and opinions are valued.  They are included in family fun, discussions and even decision-making.  In less open family systems, the presence of in-laws in reunions is expected out of duty and is in fact, valued and enjoyed most often. Sometimes, however, they are not invited directly nor are asked if they are at all available.
    
Less pressure on the younger generation.  Subtle forms of pressure may come in the form of comments like, “Kamukhang-kamukha mo ang lolo mo,” “Manang-mana ka sa tiya mo,” or “Kailan ka magtotop ng bar tulad ng daddy mo?”  Pressure and disruption come when the youngster does not particularly like the elder that he or she is being compared to. 
    
In many Filipino families, there is a patriarch or a matriarch who embodies the clan’s values and looks after each member’s welfare and progress.  It is not uncommon for a smart and sensitive younger family member to eventually figure out that his or her entire clan is striving to please this patriarch.  When this happens, there can be a major clash of views, much similar to dramatic confrontations among families in Filipino movies.  More typically of Filipinos, though, there will be pakikibagay or getting along, accompanied by a quiet pag-iwas or withdrawal, leaving the youngster rather isolated from and misunderstood by the larger clan.  He can become what is called by psychiatrists and psychologists, the identified patient.  Properly nurtured, however, he becomes the wiser and better individuated member of the clan who can lead the rest—or at least his own family—into improved well-being and higher modes of family functioning.
    
Holiday season reunions are a many splendored thing. There is always good food and the warmth of the family hearth shared with one and all. Sometimes being disturbed means that one is growing up to be an individual, quite different and unique from the clan’s identity. 

Seeing the same people year in, year out gives us the opportunity not only to enjoy the blessing of belonging, but also to master our wounds and to move on.

Dr. Ruben Encarnacion is a clinical psychologist while Dr. Alice Encarnacion is a pediatrician. This article was first published in "FR: The Family Reader," and is being re-published here with permission of the authors.

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