In this Asian part of the world “what a family is” depends on local differences. I will describe what I have seen and studied personally.
A Lanna family consists of parents and their descendants.
This is what functional sociologists would describe as a form of extended family. “An extended family consists of parents, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles living under one roof.” The Lanna (Northern Thai cultural) form would say, “The 21st century version of an extended family consists of all the members who could potentially live under one roof.” Actually, what happens is that the extended family members might live under separate roofs but can and do move in and out as needed. People outside the extended family would not presume to have that right. Because this is Lanna, and not Central Thailand, it is more easily assumed that the male spouses will move in with their wives and become part of the female’s extended family (but this is not hard and fast, it depends on the nature of the bond/marriage and maybe also financial circumstances). If little children need care, elderly relatives, especially grandparents, might move in with children in order to be on hand.
Children are the primary responsibility of the mother and father, as in nuclear families. But if the living unit consists of multiple individuals, little children are cared for by everybody. A child’s actual mother and father would have veto power over a decision with longer-term consequences, such as where the toddler goes to nursery school, but would hesitate to countermand a relative who is providing the child something to eat. If a child needs help, extended family not only provides it but feels responsible to do so. In Lanna families (until this generation) children were raised jointly.
Members join the family gradually. If a young adult takes a spouse (I use this phrase carefully) the new member of the family is actually accepted in several ways. (1) The relationship is accepted and acknowledged, and the new person is expected to participate in family events and take a share of responsibilities as he/she may be able (the greater the ability, the greater the share). (2) The couple may “move under the roof” literally, either permanently or from time to time as they choose, for they have the right to do so. (3) The other extended family, the side of the couple’s family living elsewhere perhaps, retains the right to familial loyalty, help, and affection; this must be mutually expressed from time to time, particularly during transitional events such as weddings, funerals, house blessings or ordinations. (4) When a project comes up needing help from everybody, everybody is expected to show up or have a good reason for not doing so.
Special circumstances martial the resources of the entire extended family. That is an obligation. It is shameful if it is unmet. For example, in our village a man with cerebral palsy was living with his old mother; when she became less able to care for the two of them another child moved back, built a house next door, and took over.
When the parents both die the extended family is not immediately dissolved. Not only their legacy and property unite the siblings as before, but shared responsibility does, as well. The extended family that began to be formed when the couple had children and established a house and home separate from other relatives will only gradually be transformed. The new extended family acquires a major measure of independence when all the grandparents are gone, and not before.
[In the picture accompanying this essay, our nephew Arm decided to build a car-port next to his parents’ house, where he also lives. The construction was undertaken by every available member of the family, which fortunately included an uncle and cousin-in-law who have construction skills. A week later everybody was again recruited by another part of the family to help transplant the rice everybody will be eating for the next year.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.