Family Relationships: Hands On or Hands Off?

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Whatever your age, gender or situation in life, a visit from The Parents is an activity that requires serious preparation and can be, depending on your relationship with the family, pretty stressful. Living thousands of miles away from said parents turns this event from a delicate lunch into a full-scale holiday and an unofficial inspection of the new life; pretty scary stuff.

I was hosting one such inspection last month, and it was, effectively, an exercise in time management, as I tried to keep my work and life on track while playing tour guide and present daughter.

Here in Malaysia, most of us live parent free, and while the distance may be unusual, the arrangement is not; living away from the family home is fairly unremarkable in the countries many of us hail from. This is not the norm here, however, and families tend to cohabitate until children marry, and even then the new couple (and subsequent sprogs) may stay on in the house.

Bearing this in mind, it isn't surprising that my relative youth and lack of parents/ husband/children seems to set alarm bells ringing in the minds of the locals I meet. "You are here alone?!" they screech, their eyes filling with pity and suspicion. "What about your parents?!" They obviously have visions of my Mum and Dad being the sort of horrendous people I would move half way across the world to avoid, and seem aghast at their negligence.

Needless to say, the Parents come out of the assessment fairly badly, which enables jaws to drop when visit and dazzle with their caring, supportive attitude, batting away the probing questions with "it's great that Sarah is here, we are so pleased for her" and leaving people confused about how this can possibly translate as them being good parents. How can they be "hands-on" in my life if they are 6,000 miles away?

Hands-on is, as many will have noticed, the way local families tend (I am generalizing of course) to operate, and as someone who was brought up with relative freedom, I find the prospect alarming.

I can see that, in some respects, the family closeness in Malaysia is a wonderful thing. Family units become strong support systems, and they share in each other's lives and build bonds that will last a lifetime. Back in the West, too many parents serve simply as taxi, food and laundry services, depositing their children at school/a friend's house/a club and having little idea of who they are or what goes on in their lives. Malaysia seems to have got the balance right.

But a balance is hard to maintain. The flip side of this involvement is that families become so entwined in each other's lives that they begin to feel they have a right to judge, to meddle, and to dictate decisions.

That is all well and good when the child in question is five and trying to stick a crayon up their nose, but it is not so healthy when a youngster is trying to spread their wings and carve out a life of their choosing.


I recently met with Dennis Lau, a hugely talented Malaysian violinist. He was something of a child prodigy, and from the age of three he was bashing away on the piano with pleasure. But, by the age of ten, he wanted out. No chance. Mother Lau was determined her only child was going to be a star.

"I hated music from the age of ten until I was 18," Lau told me, with remarkably, no trace of resentment for this commandeering of his childhood. He told me he was grateful for the remarkable skills he now has, but was quick to assure me that he wouldn't do the same to his children.

This over-zealousness is not limited to Malaysian mamas. There are plenty of "stage mums" the world over who preen their girls to be tween stars, and armies of parents who insist on tuition from morning till night. Whenever I hear these stories, I wince a little in side, secretly pitying those children who may have ace grades or be appearing on TV, but have had to sacrifice something, and lost something they never knew they could have had. They have missed out on the freedom to be, to play, to explore, and to learn that being normal was ok too.

Being a parent is a difficult thing (I hear), so I would not for a moment want to judge or condemn. Rubbing up against different cultures and different approaches to life is what makes expat life so rewarding, but for my lot, as I waved my parental pair off at Departures and returned to my solo life once again, I was grateful that I was allowed to be average.

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