The Changing Face of the Traditional Asian Family

Author: Judette Gallares, RC

The Changing Face of the Traditional Asian Family

Judette Gallares, RC*

A love willing to endure separation

The overwhelmingly fast pace of today’s world has placed family life in a situation of great complexity. It appears that family life is under siege from the many challenges and problems confronting it today.

The Church is well aware of the fissures happening in families today. In announcing the Pope’s call for an Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the Director of the Holy See Press Office stated: “It is right that the Church should move as a community in reflection and prayer, and that she takes common pastoral directions in relation to the most important points — such as the pastoral of the family — under the guidance of the Pope and the bishops”.

During Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to the Philippines in January 2015, he acknowledged in his address to Filipino families that “countless families are still suffering from the effects of natural disasters. The economic situation has caused families to be separated by migration and the search for employment, and financial problems strain many households. While all too many people live in dire poverty, others are caught up in materialism and lifestyles which are destructive of family life and the most basic demands of Christian morality”.

What are the changes facing family life in Asia as a consequence of external migration and its feminization? What challenges are these changes presenting to the Church’s evangelizing mission? These are questions this essay hopes to discuss.

There are more similarities than differences when it comes to the family structure of many Asian cultures. Families are closely knit, and somewhat hierarchical and extended, composed of several generations or degrees of blood relationships living under one roof or close by.

Traditionally, fathers are expected to work as breadwinners. Mothers may also work, but often remain at home to raise the children. Although there is an increase of Asian women who opt to find their careers outside the home, or decide to work in order to find self-fulfillment or to help with the family’s financial needs, it is still customary for many Asian families to have mothers stay at home or be in charge of the home. However, massive poverty, life-threatening social-economic imbalances, and limitless demand for cheap labour and cheap products in the world market, are fueling the migration movement, changing the landscape of the traditional Asian family.

In Asia, the phenomenon of migration has a long and multifaceted history. “Beginning with the nomadic tribes that wandered the vast expanse of the Asian continent in search of water and grazing lands, the trade caravans that travelled on the famed Silk Routes... and the invading armies that displaced peoples and communities from their ancestral lands, migration has always defined the Asian continent in every age” (Jonathan Tan, “Migration in Asia and Its Missiological Implications: Insights from the Migration Theology of the Federation of Asians Bishops’ Conferences”).

In the Philippines, there has been a tremendous growth of overseas labour migration over the past 40 years. Government statistics estimate the increasing number of Filipinos overseas at almost 10.5 million worldwide, which is about 11% of the country’s population. Everyday, an average of 4,000 labourers, known as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), leave the country to find work in over 193 countries all over the world. OFWs make up one of the largest migrant labourer groups in the new global economy. This is so, because Philippine citizens earn more abroad than in the country. However, due to growing competition among other East and South East Asian countries, the promise of the Philippine worker is not merely the promise of a good worker, but ultimately one who is cheap.

By the 1980s, the global labour needs shifted to other sectors, opening employment options for women migrants in sales, the health sector, and services — of which household workers were a large component. After 1992, female migration climbed — mostly driven by the demand for child or elderly care workers in the developed Asian economies, such as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, where the need for care workers is especially strong. Women now outnumber men. This has been called the “feminization of migration”, brought about by changes in the global labour market, where there is an increasing inability of men to find full-time employment in their own homeland or in destination countries, pushing their wives or daughters into the role of main breadwinner.

Inevitable changes impacting the individual and the family

First, there is the breaking up of the family, often for longer periods of time, with children growing up without a father, mother, or both. Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, recently voiced his concern form the plight of Filipinos who, because of poverty, must go abroad to find work and earn enough to support their families back home; many couples separate not because of marital discord but out of love — a love that is willing to endure the pain of separation for the sake of the family.

Second, there is the changing familial structure and the emergence of “transnational households” or “transnational motherhood”. Based on many OFW’s experiences and studies done by various disciplines, the impact on the family of mothers leaving is far greater than of fathers leaving families behind. When the mother migrates, living arrangements undergo more rearrangements to fill the void in the caregiving responsibilities that are typically assumed by mothers. But when fathers work abroad, mothers continue providing care and additional roles previously performed by the fathers. Women who leave children behind experience a phenomenon referred to as “transnational motherhood”. Separated by distance, family relationships are maintained through the aid of communication technologies.

Third, “reversed gender” roles occur. A wife migrating for work becomes the family’s breadwinner while her husband is supposed to attend to the children and household. Marital conflicts happen when the stay-behind husband is not able to perform such a role in the family. In many cases, fathers were unable to take on the mothering role effectively. Some lose their sense of “masculinity” with the reversal of roles, while others turn to alcohol and sex to escape their sense of failure. Children become more vulnerable in such situations. Other family members may be recruited as support care-givers assuring migrants that their left-behind families, especially children, will be in the hands of relatives.

Fourth, personal change inevitably happens to the migrant worker. The United Nations has noted that “although all migrants can be agents of change,” there is greater likelihood that migrant women are more likely to have their personal development thwarted. Although in some cases women tend to view out-migration more as part of their personal development — by breaking out of social conventions, gaining more personal space and freedoms, and higher economic/social status.

Fifth, there are changes in the family’s value system. With higher income than what they used to earn in their home country, migrants tend to blow their wages on unnecessary consumption, buying things for their families to compensate for their absence in the home or to show off to others an “image of prosperity”. What consists a “better life” is equated to the acquisition of more material things. Migrants who are not psychologically and spiritually strong tend to deal with loneliness, alienation, and oppressive working conditions through consumption, materialism, sex, and gambling.

These five changes are not the only ones impacting the individual and family, but are pervasive enough to challenge the Church to respond to the pressing pastoral needs of families today.

Recognizing the very urgent need to take seriously the implications of migration on marriage and family life, the Asian Church is called “to accompany the migrant as a human person, following the example of Christ himself. This journeying of the Church together with the Migrant Worker is the sign of solidarity within the universal Church and a sharing in the common evangelizing mission entrusted to all the followers of Christ”. The Bishops concluded that “migrant workers and their families urgently need great pastoral care from the churches of sending and receiving countries”.

We have seen that as the world is becoming more globalized, migration accelerates at a fast pace impacting families and individuals, especially with the feminization of migration. The image of the family is bound to change from its traditional form to something still developing, such as the emerging transnational family structure. The church is called upon to provide not only pastoral directions for its family ministry but also to offer responsive and sustaining services to individuals and families to strengthen their faith, to help migrants adjust to new cultures, to stabilize their relationships within the family despite distances, and to call them to be evangelizers of the Good News wherever they are. The Good News is not only to be preached and taught but it is to be lived and given witness to in concrete day-to-day situations among people of many faiths and cultures.

*Professor of theology and spirituality at the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia, Manila, and head of the Cenacle China Mission

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 October 2015, page 20

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