One of my all-time favorite jobs has been my work as a tutor. I help university students develop their writing and language skills, which fills my desire to give back to other people. In a more selfish way, though, I enjoy meeting people with a wide variety of experiences, and I get the opportunity to learn from people who have traveled to Toledo from around the entire planet; I have worked with students from countries ranging from Vietnam to Ghana to Chile, and all points in between.
This afternoon I was in a session with a student from rel="no follow">Kuwait, who described for me as much as he could remember from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of his country, and he mentioned that he came to the United States in 1992 as a child.
"Did you emigrate here with your family?" I asked.
"Oh, no," he replied. "Only my mom, my dad, and my brothers and sisters came. Most of my family stayed in Kuwait."
This was a moment of sudden awareness for me, as I asked the question with the mental concept of the American nuclear family in mind. For this student, "family" meant cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and extending outward for several levels of connections, and just a small segment of his "family" came with him to the United States.
And as I later think back and ponder this exchange, I begin to recognize just how atypical is the American nuclear family within the context of world civilizations. For most of human history and in most current societies outside of the United States, "family" has meant something much larger and more important than it does in much of America.
In much of the world - and not just in developing countries - it is not uncommon for several generations of a family to live under the same roof. Moreover, in many cultures it is typical that newlyweds move in with the parents of one of the spouses.
In the United States, we tend to think poorly of a new couple who lives with one of their parents, as though they are somehow dysfunctional or unsuccessful. This is a land of people obsessed with individual home ownership, and a husband who took his bride to live with his parents would be seen as a failure.
And yet, think for a moment of the benefits of living together in larger extended family networks. More people per home means a decided economy of scale in the cost of living; take your average monthly residence expenses and divide by four, and then compare the results if you divide by, say, ten or more.
Consider also the pooling of experience and wisdom in a larger household, especially that possessed by the oldest members of a family. I love my grandparents and parents, but I see each of them on average less than once a month, and my children even less so. Would they not benefit from more frequent exposure to those in the family who have lived so many more decades?
As I look around the current state of affairs in the United States, I have a difficult time believing that this culture we have created based upon the nuclear family is necessarily "better" than other filial structures around the world. Are we really living more fulfilling lives by creating these atomized and isolated families, or can we learn from the success of other cultures?
Or will we as Americans - as we so often do - just assume that larger families are merely evidence of the "backwardness" of people in other cultures?