My Afghan family obligations

As the eldest son, how long must I support my sisters, parents and relatives back home?

Published March 28, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I hope you are doing well. My question is in regards to family obligations and cultural differences. I'm 28 years old and originally from Afghanistan. As the oldest son in the family, I am expected to play the role of a financial provider, which I have done since high school. I am providing for both my sisters, who are attending post-secondary school, and my parents, who are too old to work. A good portion of my income is also being sent abroad where we have relatives (uncles, aunts, cousins) in similar situations. While I sympathize with my extended family, I believe my responsibility should only be to my immediate family members.

I am also feeling anxious about the future, as I don't know if this particular arrangement will ever allow me to start my own life, i.e. get married, have children. Do you have any advice on how I can best articulate this to my parents, who I feel don't understand that I don't share the cultural beliefs as strongly as that they do?

Confused Young Man

Dear Confused,

Thank you for your letter and your concern. My health is good.

Your question caused me to consider how, as an American, I have been raised to strike out on my own, yet have paid a high price for leaving the area I was raised in. So I am sympathetic to your situation. And I am a problem solver. But how can an Internet advice columnist from San Francisco know what words you can use to tell your uncle in Afghanistan that you can no longer help his family keep their kids in school? In America, we say, I am an individual, I am going West, I am seeking my personal truth, my individual destiny, this is what we do, deal with it. That is the language of our culture. Those are the bells we ring. Those bells sound out our values. What is the language of your culture? What bells do you want to ring? How can you ring those bells?

I do not even know where those bells are located. But you probably do.

I think the most helpful ideas will come from others from your own culture. I suggest you identify agencies and cultural centers where Afghan-Americans gather, and begin building connections. Ideally you would have a best friend in the same situation, another Afghan eldest son in his 20s with family back home. You could talk this situation over and look at how each person might react to various changes. But even other Afghans of different ages, genders and family positions can help you express your problem in the language of your own cultural values. Think about the literature and myths you were raised with. My understanding is that Afghanistan has a proud and heroic history of resistance to outside domination, but what kinds of stories does it tell about the expatriate experience? Where are your cultural models? Wikipedia's entry on the Afghan-American experience may yield some good hints.

In reaching out to others, you might start with the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Examine what the USAID is doing in Afghanistan, and see if you can make contacts with the organization here in the U.S., or if its representatives can point you in a helpful direction.

Beyond that, I'm sure there are many informal ways you can reach out to others from your region through church, school and work connections.

Plus there are writers you can reach out to. I don't know Tamim Ansary personally, but he's written for Salon and I've seen him reading around town. If you have writers and cultural figures in your area with a similar background, get to know them. They may have relevant firsthand experience, or know others who do. They may know what bells to ring.

Please note that I have not said, "I'm sure your parents will want to support you in raising a family," nor have I said, "It is every man's right to choose for himself." These things may be true in America. Big deal. Nothing is true for all cultures. So talk with people from your own background who understand the nuances of the situation and can suggest ways to negotiate.

Talk with your sisters if you think they may by sympathetic and can talk in confidence. And think long-term. You may want to shrink your contributions gradually.

Your yearnings to strike out on your own are valid. So are your feelings of obligation to family. Your deep connections are not hindrances, encumbrances or archaic ties to a dying way of life. They are living strands through which blood flows. Do not sever them lightly.

Creative Getaway

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