My family doesn’t talk anymore

Nabila Chemaissem reflects on family estrangement.

When we think of ethnic families, we think big. Big weddings, big food, big voices, big families, with a love for big holidays and occasions. We think of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its wonderfully boisterous family; we think of big Arab families with seven children; we think of big Filipino weddings with three hundred guests – and that’s just family.

Ethnicity and Family Therapy, a book edited by Monica McGoldrick, Joe Giordano, Nydia Garcia-Preto, states that “It is almost impossible to understand the meaning of behaviour unless one knows something of the cultural values of a family”.

There is a communal sense of “We are, therefore I am” in the hearts of people of colour, that contrasts with the individualistic European ideal of “I think, therefore I am”. Our very conception of ethnicity and who we are is constantly evolving, being shaped by the beauty of our families and their inconsolable flaws. And, whilst the book navigates the psychology of those within a range of ethnic backgrounds, the thing that unites all of these people is the intrinsic inextricability of the individual from their family that speaks so strongly to the significance of family within our lives.

When we think of ethnic families, we don’t often think of are those who are estranged from most, if not all, of this. The stereotype of the tight-knit Italian family, gathering at their Nonna’s house, cooking and laughing together is the ideal image constantly projected within society.

Yet, for one interviewee “who identifies as queer, with multiple family members who… are known to be queerphobic”, the fear of estrangement is enough to keep her silent at family gatherings. She says that her “parents (who know about my sexuality) have agreed with me that I should never let them [extended family] know, and this has caused me great emotional distress in the past, due to the unspoken agreement between my family that we never hide anything from one another no matter what”.

That her behaviour was altered by the fear of estrangement is not a unique experience. Mariam Mohammed, a Pakistani first year in a Graduate Certificate in Development Studies, stopped “believ[ing] in the institutions of marriage or family, as none of this matched well with the values of my parents, or those of the culture and society we were living in”.

She comes from a family of seven, with five siblings, “a few of whom were unplanned, and unwanted”. As the youngest child, Mariam was often cared for by her older siblings, and as such “did not see my parents as parental figures from a very young age”. The straw that broke her back came when, after being ‘harassed everyday by the school bus driver’, she was told by her parents that it was her fault.

For Ridwan Hidayat, a Master of Project Management student, interacting with family members estranged by distance is “quite awkward”. “I’ve lost my mother tongue’, he said, “so it adds to the difficulty of connecting with them”. That Ridwan can only speak in broken Bahasa Indonesian; that Mariam has “trust issues – distrust in all forms of relationships, distrust in myself to be a functioning adult after having lived under my depressed mother’s influence”, is enough to acknowledge the life-altering strain which filial estrangement has on the individual.

One interviewee said that “whilst I didn’t deny my family before, I had certainly given up on them. For now, I’m trying to leave room to heal those relationships”. In her attempt to explain what she meant, this interviewee drew upon the work of one of her favourite authors, Junot Diaz, who wrote that:

“I’m still auditioning for my family’s love. You know, I still hold out this kind of thing where they’ll be nicer if I play along. …Guys, it’s tough. Most of us… you wrestle with your fami – ly your whole life. People who don’t, I think that’s like the most blessed resource in the world. Because the rest of us are caught in a dynamic that doesn’t always leave much room for you to be compassionate to yourself”

When I think of grandparents I think of stories from a time where their wrinkles were smooth, and their hands supple, and their eyes still alight with the fire of youth. I crave those stories. I yearn for them, but don’t have access to them because my grandmother is overseas, and my grandfather travels back and forth between Lebanon and Australia in silence, neglecting to inform us of his return. This is the same man on whose lap I would sit when I was five, at whom I would look up in admiration for what I thought he was: an incredible, loving man.

As one anonymous interviewee said, “I feel like I got tiny glimpses of what it meant to be part of an insane but wonderful community” that has since been lost to me. I don’t have access to their stories because my grand – mother, my mother’s mother, was so starved of affection in her youth that she does not know how to show it now to us. I never knew my mother’s father, not because he lived overseas, but because of a family history so embedded in estrangement and distance that he and my mother never formed a bond, and so neither did I. He has since passed away, and his stories now feed the earth.

Whilst some of us have become “quite comfortable existing somewhere in flux … between an overbearing extended family and this sense of absence of close family ties”, I’ve not been so resilient. When holidays come around the realisation that they will be spent either alone or with minimal filial interaction is crushing,

“I hate saying this, but I feel so fucking sad, every holiday. All I can see is the dysfunction and hurt within my family and within myself. It’s not a matter of not having a father figure, because my mum did what she could to raise us and I can only admire what she overcame to make it on her own. It is more that I can’t stand the way we’ve all re-directed the pressures of poverty and racism towards one another, when support was the thing each of us needed most.”

As a Muslim, when Eid comes around I don’t see my family. We no longer get invited to my grandparent’s house. My step-grandmother has no love for us, my grandfather is overseas, and my half-aunts have separated themselves from us over misunderstandings that are too complex to get into and now too embedded to resolve. The family that I adore – my mother’s sister and my three cousins – live a 26-hour flight from Australia. They messaged on the day of my graduation, wishing me all the happiness in the world, and all I could muster in response was how much I wished that they had been there.

Understandably, for Mariam “weddings… [are] claustrophobic, like there is no air left for me to breath. Even on the good [occasions], like graduation, it is bitter sweet. …no matter how much time passes, at the back of my head, is a nagging realisation that everyone else is spending this time with their parents, whilst I carefully plan not to”.

This tension extends to those whose fear of estrangement means that they “constantly evade questions about my personal life every time we talk”.  Half of those whom I interviewed for this piece elected to remain anonymous, perhaps because it is not an easy thing to be estranged or to fear estrangement from a family whose very existence centres upon communal cohesion.

Despite this tension, and despite the fact that our families and holidays are not so big after all, there is still the desire to be included in a filial community in the hope that things will get better. “Communities of colour can put so much pressure on their members to be faultless in the face of some pretty awful circumstances, in which anyone would stumble”, said an anonymous interviewee. And yet, “community is the most important thing. I said earlier that family is my greatest struggle. It’s also the one single thing I care most about in the world”.

“Family ties can make or break a community”, and for Ridwan, his parents reinforced the idea that he needed to “take care of myself ” so that he could look after his siblings and “cousins overseas who are less fortunate than us”.

In ethnic families, there is no such thing as just the nuclear family. Our families are so much more than that; so much bigger, so much more communal than the nuclear family allows.

When we think of ethnic families, we think big.

It can be so, so isolating to feel small within a community that is meant to be so large.