Embracing the joy of the big reunions

My mum was the eldest of seven, raised in a village in provincial Malaysia. Ask any eldest child in a big family what it was like growing up and no doubt there’ll be some mention of the burdens of responsibility; of having to look after younger siblings, of being the first to weather their parents’ disappointment, of shouldering the expectations of many.

But ask my mum and she might also tell you about that time three of my uncles tried to ride the local village water buffalo … simultaneously.

Dewi Cooke’s mum (far left) and her six siblings.

Of how she and her siblings would sprint past the banana trees at night so that the feared Pontianak ghost, with her long hair and cackling howl, didn’t snatch them up like folklore said she might.

Or, when my policeman grandfather was transferred to the east of the country during mum’s final years of high school, she was taken in without a second’s thought by nearby relatives until she graduated. Because family, in our family at least, means a kind of soldered-on devotion that persists throughout the chaos and the tears and the wild buffalo rides of life.

It’s not because we’re Muslim that our family is big, although research tells us that religion is often a delineating factor for family size (hello, Dominic Perrottet). And obviously, it’s not just a Malay thing either – one of Australia’s biggest families, apparently, are the blond-haired Bonells from Toowoomba with their 16 children.

But culture plays some role, especially in diaspora communities, and I’m sure what I’m saying resonates with those of you who find yourselves yearning to finally reunite with big families of your own across the seas, or maybe even just across town.

Through lockdown, “large families” became a risk factor for some and a code word to describe culturally diverse communities for others. How do you socially distance in a multi-generational family or in a small home shared by many? That thing which has been at the core for so many strong and healthy communities – a family bond – is it becoming our weakest link?

In thinking about how we might view big, extended families in the light of a pandemic, which demands distance from the very people we’re close to, I came across some research from a couple of Western Sydney University academics, Nidhi Wali and Andre Renzaho.

In interviews with 164 people from different multicultural communities across Sydney’s west, they looked at the impact that moving from collectivist to individualistic cultures had for migrants to Australia. In their research, their participants would often refer to their own families in terms of capital or as an “asset” – something precious and irretrievably valuable.

“Our riches,” the authors wrote, “are our family”.

Aunties, uncles, cousins, second cousins, their kids and their kids’ kids – people piled onto couches … or shared bedrooms.

It’s this idea of preciousness that I want to hold on to as this year unfolds and the pandemic rolls on. It’s what I’m reminded of when I remember the last time my family and I returned to Malaysia, pre-2020, and our relatives drove across the country so we could celebrate the end of Ramadan together.

Aunties, uncles, cousins, second cousins, their kids and their kids’ kids – people piled onto couches and slept on the floor or shared bedrooms in the post-prandial fog.

Sleeping on floor mats is totally my family’s thing, by the way, or at least that’s what my memories tell me. I can’t count the times I’ve found myself wedged between my brother and parents or maybe some cousins in the ancestral home back at mum’s kampung (village), so uncomfortable but also so happy to be part of that single, sleepy mass.

To this day, members of our extended family can sleep in any circumstance even, my mum tells me, on a single plank of wood. My own three little kids love to cuddle up to sleep on the mattress we stole from mum ages ago. And after the year we’ve all had, even floor mats now feel precious.

It all seems like an impossible dream to have once been able to be so close to people like that, a stop-breathing-on-my-face kind of close.

But as we’re slowly freed from the restrictions that have held us from each other for so long, I’ll be looking forward to one day reuniting with the glorious rabble that family brings.

OK, not squashed together on the floor just yet, but grateful to be near them somehow, in the glow of my abundance of riches.

Dewi Cooke is a Melbourne writer and CEO of the not-for-profit The Social Studio.

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