what is a nuclear family?

This past week, I joined a wedding tour to Bali, which brought the immediate families of the bride and groom, as well as several friends together on a four-day tour. The wedding was held at the Bulgari Villas, where the bride and groom stayed while the rest of us stayed at a nearby golf club. Apparently, given the high cost of wedding photos, many newly weds choose to combine their honeymoon with a proffessional shoot. What I didn’t realize was that a shoot could also include a wedding ceremony and invited guests.

Of random note: (1) we were not the only such tour, and a multiple sites encountered well-dressed and manicured brides with their respective posses; (2) there were other Chinese tours taking the same route as we did. In fact, the majority of tourists at all the sites we visited we Chinese, and many of the Balinese staff had learned some Mandarin; (3) friends I have told about the trip commented that it was expensive, but agreed that it was difficult not to spend an exorbitant amount on a wedding; (4) traveling together gave the two families an opportunity to get to know each other and take delight in the couple’s happiness; and (5) the distance between the two generations was clear.

The 30-something couple clearly enjoyed Bali, its exotic locales, and the frisson of non-Chinessness. In contrast, the parents seemed somewhat bewildered by this format. They understood a honeymoon and photos, but not quite how the intentional reworking of tradition had become so popular. I’m speculating that these more private weddings represent and deepen the ongoing nuclearization of Chinese families that is so prominent in Shenzhen.

In the US we understand the nuclear family to comprise two generations–parents and children. In China generally, and Shenzhen particularly, the nuclear family comprises three generations–grandparents, parents, and children. In other words, the the rationalization of the family unit points to the historic organization of paid and unpaid labor in the US and China, respectively. In the ideolized US, fathers worked and mothers kept house. This trend was explicit in the forced redomestication of women in the post WWII era, when a man’s income was expected to provide for his dependents. In contrast, in idealized China grandparents provide childcare and housekeeping services while both parents work. This is necessary because individuals (except in the case of the uber-rich) can’t afford to purchase a house, needing combined incomes to meet mortgage payments. In a chicken egg moment of cultural difference, US American families emphasize the bond between husbands and wives, while Chinese families emphasize the bond between parents and children.

Though du jour, Americans highlight sexuality as an important foundation of family life because sleeping together secures the primary bond of the US nuclear family. Similarly, Chinese celebrate eating as an important foundation of family life because dining together reinforces the primary bond of the Chinese nuclear family. This difference can be read as “cultural” and some, like my friend and her husband are deploying “western culture” (i.e honeymoon and romance) to re-imagine the ties that bind the “traditional” Chinese family.

PS: This past month I have been busy over at Village Hack, the latest project at Handshake 302. The last Hacker was Yin Xiaolong, an artist who does most of his work online, through social media documentation of social concerns. While at 302, he engaged in copy painting, photography, and a leave-taking performance piece that included shaking hands with neighbor/strangers. Meanwhile, the concession grows that our three young neighbors are the most interesting and interested of our interlocutors.

4 thoughts on “what is a nuclear family?

  1. Mary, it is a very insightful observation that you noted about culture-specific conceptualization of family life in the US and in China: sexuality vs. food. I’m a Chinese PhD candidate of sociology, about to do field study in Shenzhen. Maybe we could meet up sometime!!

      • Thank you! I will stay in Shenzhen for the next couple of months. It would be really great to know you in person. I actually read all of your previous posts, quite amazed by your observations of China. It would be nice if drop me an-email at the address that I am using to register for your blog, given that I don’t have your other contacts. Excited!

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