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Taiwan's Diverse Families


Taiwan's Diverse Families


For many, the changing face of Taiwan's families can make family reunions over the Lunar New Year holiday difficult. But in this changing world, it may be finally time to let go of entrenched beliefs and accept people for who they are.



Taiwan's Diverse Families

By Hsiao-wen Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 566 )

The world has never been so complicated.

Families have never been as fragile, separated and diverse as they are today.

On Lunar New Year's Eve, the Christmas Eve of the ethnic Chinese world, people this year will not only be accompanied by their families but also nearly 2 billion smartphone users, more than 100 videos an hour on Facebook, and endless greetings on the messaging service Line. Around the Lunar New Year's Eve dinner table, we are increasingly burying our heads in our mobile devices, playing on Facebook, posting photos, and sending messages on Line. Less time is spent looking into the eyes of our parents and having thoughtful conversations with our brothers and sisters.

"People today don't really know how to communicate. I'm also readjusting how I communicate with my son" says director Sylvia Chang about the process of learning how to let go. She explains that she now accepts it if her son forgets about his family obligations and spends the Lunar New Year holiday alone rather than with his parents.

"You have to make yourself more charismatic," says Chang with a smile, contending that parents should become more "engaging" rather than doting if they hope to get closer to their children's hearts.

According to surveys in the United States, "between half and two-thirds of adults today say that children are too obsessed with social media, and fear that the rapid proliferation of electronic gadgets is creating a more individualistic, alienated society," wrote Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett in a column in early January titled "How social media split the family."

"It is little wonder, then, that one of the fastest-growing categories of self-help books is the one which tells people how to maintain social connections – and quality family time – in the face of this digital onslaught," she observed.

Life is already difficult enough, so why has getting together with family members over the Lunar New Year holiday become such a tortuous chore?

One explanation is that the digital technology that has rocketed each person into a boundless cyberspace has led families that were already somewhat alienated to drift even farther apart. Other factors include changing contemporary lifestyles and a reversal of values that have a growing number of people redefining the concept of "family."

One such person is Hsu Lu, a consultant to the Lovely Taiwan Foundation, who now finds pleasure in the Pacific Ocean winds flowing into Tiehua Music Village in Taitung County and caressing her heart.

"'Family' is actually a sense of belonging and bonding," she says. "To me, the concept of 'family' has never had to be grounded in the foundation of blood ties or marriage."    

Once a prominent figure in Taipei's media world, addressed by many as "President Hsu," she now hears people affectionately calling her "big sister Hsu" in Taitung. Shunning marriage and abandoning what seemed to outsiders a remarkably successful career, Hsu found her true self in the county's vast sky and boundless sea. Today, Taitung is home, a place she can never leave.

Looked at from a broader perspective, the notion of "family" has actually been evolving for a long time.

The Rise of Diverse Families

The family structure in advanced countries has already grown more diverse because of four major trends, i.e. low birth rates and aging populations, more single-person households, and growing numbers of migrant workers and cross-border marriages. 

An OECD report titled "The Future of Families to 2030," which took two years to compile, explained that as women have become better educated and are participating in the labor force at a higher rate, marriage rates have fallen, and marriages are occurring later in people's lives.

There were eight marriages per 1,000 people in OECD countries in 1970 but only five per 1,000 in 2009. During that same period, the average divorce rate doubled to 2.4 divorces per 1,000 people, according to the report.

Also, there are no children in over half of the households in almost all OECD countries today, and nearly 10 percent of all children live in "reconstituted" households, defined as those in which the child's parents got divorced and remarried, the report found. Nearly 15 percent of all children live in single-parent households, and one in 15 children live with their grandparents.

The report predicted that the traditional nuclear family consisting of a married couple with children would become less common in the future, while one-person households, single-parent families, couples without children, cohabitation, same-sex partnerships, and reconstituted households will all become more prevalent.

Because of these changing trends, the lines between the mainstream and the periphery, the majority and the minority, will become increasingly blurred, and bloodlines may no longer be the key determinant in defining families.

For societies that cannot reverse the twin trends of a low birth rate and an aging population, immigration and migrant workers represent the force with the greatest potential to reshape their populations and the faces of their families.

These trends have made their way to Taiwan. The past few decades have sculpted new immigrant families, a new era of cohabitation, and a growing number of singles, as well as setting the stage for many tearful goodbyes between foreign caregivers who have to return home and the Taiwanese seniors they have been caring for. 

Over the past 20 years, traditional family households in Taiwan have increased in number but fallen as a percentage of the country's total households from 54.3 percent to 37.9 percent. The fastest growing types of "families" have been couples without children, singles or single-parent households.

During the same two decades, the number of single parent households has increased from 350,000 to 780,000. Mandopop star Jay Chou, who recently got married at the age of 36, has never hidden the fact that he came from a single-parent family.

Chou, who was 14 years old when his parents got divorced,  decided to live with his mother when he was 18, and he has grown accustomed to solitude as a friend. In his song "Listen to Mother's Words," set to an emotional R&B melody, Chou sings: "Listen to mother's words, don't let her get hurt. Want to grow up quickly so I can protect her. The beautiful white hair, sprouting in happiness; the angel's magic, benevolent in warmth."

The deep emotions expressed in the lyrics resonate with many music fans.

"I come from a single-parent household, so I told myself I absolutely cannot rebel, and I can't disappoint anybody," Chou once said. To Chou, who has written such songs as "Fragrance of Rice," "The Tea Grandpa Makes," and "Dad, I Have Come Back," family represents his eternal rock. 

Our New Families

Families are harbors, fortresses and nostalgia. Behind every impersonal statistic lies a family story.

Today, nearly 500,000 spouses in Taiwan are foreign nationals forging new homelands in an alien place. Couples of Taiwanese and Chinese nationals have multiplied at the rate of 10,000 a year over the past five years, while a growing number of "migratory bird" couples commute regularly between Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Taipei, transcending old cross-strait hatreds and hostilities. 

Nanjing native Lai Lixia married a Taiwanese man more than two decades ago, and she and her husband have since established the biggest organic tea farm in Taitung. Though Lai bristles every time she hears somebody say, somewhat condescendingly, "Oh, a mainland girl selling Taiwanese tea," she swallows her bitterness and takes refuge in the sweetness of home.

"When I drink tea, it makes me think of my husband's hard work and realize how affectionate my children are," Lai says, explaining she has no regrets. 

New immigrants and migrant workers have made families whole and become Taiwan's newest family members, bringing diversity to the face of Taiwan's families.  

For many openly gay people, the Lunar New Year's holiday is a perilous undertaking, and the New Year's Eve banquet can be particularly agonizing.

"Your family is always asking when you're going to get married. There's a big weight on your shoulders that quiets you amid the Lunar New Year festivities. You feel that the time is running out, and without your loved one by your side, you have little appetite for the New Year's feast," wrote young gay writer Rob Lo in his book "Siege of an Abandoned Child."

"You suddenly feel like you want to get married. You have never felt in your entire life like getting married more than you do on Lunar New Year's Eve….But your country still doesn't think (you can get married) and your family still doesn't see it happening. They don't know, are not willing to, or at least do not perceive what you are feeling."

At a time when Taiwan's values of diversity, inclusiveness and democracy are sources of pride in the Chinese-speaking world, the definition of "family" is also gradually expanding. 

As far back as February, 2004, the American Anthropological Association issued a widely cited sta  tement on marriage and the family in opposition to a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment to limit marriage to heterosexual couples that spoke to the diversity of family models."Anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies," the statement read.

"Everybody's idea of 'family' is too specific. From the perspective of cultural anthropology, so-called 'kinship' simply describes the interpersonal bonds formed by people who were once strangers that become irreplaceable," says Tunghai University sociology professor Yen-ning Chao, explaining the concept of "diverse families."

Families are constantly evolving, and as another Lunar New Year holiday rolls around and families reunited, it may be time to once again embrace family members, welcome new family members, accept family members who are different, and embrace one-person families. After all, the difference between perfection and imperfection may simply be one of perception.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier