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Coming home to family

/ 05:14 AM December 14, 2018

Family is love,” says an ubiquitous Christmas ad in the Philippines. The slogan is a touch of genius: It’s catchy, it’s grand, and it plays on the family-oriented culture of Filipinos. Perfect for the holidays, too, as it’s the time when Pinoy families traditionally come together, with titos and titas and toddlers gathered ‘round the belen in a sparkling, Hallmark-perfect picture of happiness.

The thought has often filled me with dread. And for the longest time, I wondered what was so wrong with me that made me anxious about coming home for family reunions. Then I discovered that I was not alone in this unease.

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My peers have started expressing on social media how certain Filipino family norms are “toxic.” I understood right away. I was not fearful of my own family; I was terrified of the culture.

“Terrified” is the exact word I would use to describe my feelings when, as an introverted child, I was cajoled along with my cousins to display our “talents” in front of the whole clan. Terror was my feeling when, as a teenager, I had to explain to irate elders why I spent so much time alone in my room (I couldn’t even explain it to myself). And terror is my feeling now when I think about having to dodge family interrogations about my bank account and my relationship status.

For at least some people my age, home has come to be a place where we are reminded that we are not enough. Not sociable enough, not cheerful enough, not successful enough. In this culture, there is no room for anything other than extending yourself to your family, never mind that you feel yourself spreading too thin.

There is no room for introversion, because in a traditional Pinoy family, this is viewed as either shyness that must be overcome against all odds, or snobbishness that is tantamount to arrogance.

There is no room for depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. In a traditional Pinoy family, it’s inconceivable to not be jolly and participative, especially at the Noche Buena table. Smile, be happy! As if for a person with a mental health condition, it were as easy as turning on the Christmas lights.

And in a Pinoy family, there is no room for young professionals to breathe. Our parents demand to know why we barely help them financially when so-and-so’s kid now sends them money from abroad. Exactly what kind of job do you do? Are you too greedy to spare some money for your relatives? Why don’t you show some pakikisama?

Is it any wonder why, despite our fondness and respect for our family, we are filled with fear, guilt and self-loathing when coming home to them?

Some people may chalk this up to generational differences, once again scoffing at the “individualistic” values and attitudes of millennials. But it would be unfair to assume so. Introversion, mental health issues and career flops are universal across generations; they are not exclusive to millennials.

The difference is that today is supposed to be a time of better awareness, communication, and tolerance—elements that traditional Filipino families still seem to lack.

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I hope 2018 will prove different for you. I hope you return to your family and find that it is still your refuge, your home.

I hope you finally get the chance to talk to family members about what’s weighing on you, whatever it may be—your emotional state, your mental health, your job, your identity. And I hope you are finally received with listening ears, not judgment; kindness, not humiliation; patience, not closed-minded condemnation.

I hope that in your family—among the people who have been around you since the beginning of your life—you never feel inadequate or undeserving of acceptance. I hope you feel at home in your own home.

And I hope you continue to be their family, too. May you likewise have the patience for their shortcomings, the courage to help enlighten them and the affection to help you stay together, even just for the holidays.

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