Friends and Family

by MT

I finally got a cable when I switched my broadband service in September. Since then I have been watching TV dramas sporadically, among them Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond. In the reprised episode of the Friends yesterday Phoebe visited the wealthy parents of her boyfriend Mike. Overwhelmed by the affluent loft of Mike’s parents, she began to imitate the British accent and carry a gentile vocabulary, such as “holly crap” for “wow.” In another episode Chandler, then working at Oklahoma, had to lie to Joe in order to reject his invitation to a game with courtside tickets so that he can have dinner with Monica. Afterwards his lie was caught, but Monica was willing to give up the dinner and let the boys go to the game. In the Everybody Loves Raymond I watched yesterday, Raymond was awarded an honoral doctoral degree and needed to give a speech in a college. He was nervous about the speech and hid in the closet until his wife encouraged him and gave him confidence. After the speech the family members—the parents, his brothers and sister-in-law, and his wife—started to compare, complain, and argue about who gets more credit and who was ignored in the speech. Perhaps one of the reasons these TV dramas are popular and successful is that they reveal a common and grimy fact—that is, nobody is perfect. Therefore, despite (or because) of the good intentions of everybody, close friends and family members tend to engulf in all sorts of conflicts in everyday life. The difference between TV dramas and real life is that in the former the conflicts are often resolved within an hour for theatric purpose, while in our own life the embarrassment may linger for quite a long time.

Since the summer I have been thinking that the history of a family is indeed a social history in microcosm. Just as generational conflicts we see in politics, in the family we also see the clashes of different social conducts and values in the changing society. Sociologist Ulrich Beck points out that the rise of individualism still needs to be examined within the larger frame of the existing structures and social norms. Since young I had been taught that my family is a nuclear single household family and assumed that it was an epitome of individualism. In recent years, however, I am struck by the invisible but strong ties among my family and the families of my uncles scattered around the southern Taiwan. Perhaps further transformation of this saga of individualism are carried out in my generation—my brothers, my cousins, and myself. There is a general tendency in our parent’s generation, though forming nuclear families of their own, to retain a hierarchical order of normative power, sometimes explicit, sometimes delicate and invisible. With the rise of individualism comes the disintegration of old order, and the existing boundaries are shuffled, transformed, and reorganized. What would be the basis of the new boundary between individual members and norms of conduct at the disintegration of the preexisting (Confucian?) order? It isn’t easy for all of us; and we are still looking for (and hopefully heading toward) the next stage of resolution in our real life drama. What we see in TV dramas might still hold true—excessive good intentions are still good intentions, and everybody still loves everybody. There are four elements in the world—wind blows, earth gains, fire grows, water rains. The quintessential element of life, however, lies in the etymology of the word quintessential, aka the fifth element.