Back home I sometimes struggle to explain my extended family dynamic to the incredulous.
“What do you mean your cousin? But isn’t she your great grandfather’s sister’s daughter?”
Wait, doesn’t everyone have cousins like that…
“You had HOW many people at your ‘family’ Easter?”
Just 50 or so…
“Does it really matter if you’re at your mom’s cousin’s daughter’s christening?”
Well sure it’s important to me, she’s like my sister…
The dismissive tone can be off-putting and makes me wonder… Am I crazy to put such significance on “extended” family? Then I came to Fiji. Here the conception of family that has always felt true and beautiful to me was illuminated in light of the old world way of relating.
In “modern” society the nuclear family has become the norm. (Not universal, but certainly normal.) “Family” often consists of two parents and a few children living in a private home in isolation from their neighbors. Your priority is within your immediate family: your parents, grandparents and siblings. Beyond that immediate scope, aunts/uncles and cousins often have tenuous significance, their place in your life competing with the world of work, privacy and paid leisure. Anyone beyond “first” cousins, aunts and uncles are “distant relatives” at best.
Upon first arriving in Fiji, family relations here were baffling. Trying to remember who was who to me in my host family was a puzzle. Cousin-brothers? Small moms? Say what? Then one day I pulled out my own family pictures. I proudly passed around a picture of my niece, heart swelling with love and pride at the sight of my tiny soul-sisters smiling face. “Look at that big beautiful hair,” marveled my host-aunt, “just like her small mother!”
In Fiji, your Na’s (mother) sisters are your Na as well; Na lailai if they are younger, Na Levu if they are older. Literally translated: small mom and big mom. Same goes for Dad’s brothers. Sometimes I even hear kids simply refer to their mother’s sisters as Na, or father’s brothers as Ta.
Beyond that (to put it simply), your cousins are generally considered veitacini (siblings), and your grandparent’s siblings are also your grandparents; there is little differentiation. This extends well beyond that first layer of relations, to the point where a seemingly distant family member might still be considered your “brother”, or it’s would take a gnarly family tree to figure out how so-and-so is your “Na”. Relations are generational and vast.
Case and point: a backpacker on Koro was recently interviewing villagers in an attempt to gain an understanding of Fijian family relations and village structures. Our village chief explained that when he, or any chief dies, chiefdom is passed on to his brother. “But,” queried the incredulous foreigner, sensing a break in logic, “what if there are no brothers?” A puzzled looked passed over Tuinaiqani’s face, breaking into a wry grin. “But there are always more brothers!”
Herein lies the cultural difference, the place where foreign backpacker and Fijian chief both think the other just a bit mad. In a way it’s not all that complex: in Fiji family is family. And why is that? Because here families depend on one another! There is not the same Western parsing of relationships. There is nothing weird about expecting your grandmother’s cousin’s niece to watch your daughter for the afternoon—that’s what “sisters” do right?!
A great deal of modern Americans are removed by many generations from their ethnic motherland. They have never known what it means to live in an extended, interdependent network of family. Yet in a traditional Fijian village, family is nothing but extended and interdependent.
The modern family, this strict way of relating, seems almost an escape from the expectations extended family entails. Even if extended family exists, the modern independent person sadly often doesn’t have the ability to be part that network. Family is beautiful, but it can also be a burden. More family means more people who might demand a sharing of your time, money, personal space… Who has time for that in a 60 hour work week? Who can afford to share when they have smart phone bills and car payments?
So yes, I’m surely oversimplifying modern families. There is a great deal of diversity in American families. The point here is that family life in Fiji is beautiful. The more I see the way that people in Fiji care for and rely on their extended family, the more I can’t help but feel most people have been robbed of a layer of life’s depth and meaning in this age of big bills and small (nuclear) families.
Being a member of a village family network means many things. It means your day’s harvest is lighter by the time you reach home, having thinned out at each home you pass. It means passing the crying baby around church from the loving arms of Bubu to another. It means your cousin-sister watching your children for 3 months while you give birth in the capital city. It means when the job is too big there are always more brothers.
The Fijian family network is a genuine relationship–connection and involvement with one another. What does one lose in this way of life? Some privacy and independence, maybe even the ability to accumulate much personal wealth. But, from what I’ve experienced and witnessed, the vast network of support, sense of belonging and security is a worthy trade off.
When I show pictures of my family at home, the Fijian way of describing who people are makes sense. I don’t have to detail how my cousin is related to me, I can just call her my sister, and that feels right! Being away from my niece for 2 years might not be all that significant in the modern context, but when you’re her “little mom” the sense of obligation is appreciated. Fiji has given me new appreciation for my tight knit extended family back in the US. All my grandmother’s sisters are also my grandmothers. My mom’s cousins are her sisters, and they are my aunts.
Family are a network of interdependent people who share a bond of history and love. Who share stories and traditions, burdens and blessings. We can’t all go back to the village our family came from, but we can take a lesson from the beautify of traditional family bonds that are still alive and well in places like Fiji. It’s a way of life I feel grateful to be experiencing first hand. For many of us Fiji PCVs, having integrated in a village family has been one of the most rewarding, enlightening aspects of service… a perspective that I hope to share with others. It may be wise to question the modern concepts of independence and isolation, and take a lesson from the beauty of interdependence here in Fiji, the way of life that everyone lived not to long ago!