Geographical Mobility and Kinship

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Not all migration was long distance or by sea. Shifting cultivators were accustomed to moving in search of new land, which was abundant in this region. There were few political barriers to migration. Like the maritime traders, people frequently pulled up roots, settling in or founding communities elsewhere. Mobility was made possible by the fact that many Southeast Asian kinship boundaries are vaguely defined, fading out on both maternal and paternal sides from close to distant, “like the smell of a mango tree” (bau bau bacang). Beyond the immediate family, Malay kinship is not based on biology or blood and there are no group surnames: everyone is either “son of” or “daugh�ter of” their father, and genealogies rarely go further. Kinship terms are used strategically for those with whom there is a need to cooperate or have a relationship. Kinship can be created by fiction, adoption, or marriage, includ�ing with foreigners and immigrants, where physical traits seem not to be an issue. In Malay society, nonbiological fictive kin are plentiful: “aunties” and “uncles,” “older siblings,” “younger siblings,” “cousins,” “grandparents,” and gender, relative age, and personal closeness to the speaker determine modes of address. This writer is “auntie” or “older sister” to numerous younger friends or children of friends in Malaysia. Whatever one’s own self-perception of youthfulness, it is the speaker who chooses the term of address, revealing their own perception of age difference and the relationship. Promotion to “grandparent” status may be less a measure of gray hair than of deference: even youthful teachers can be addressed by the grandparental term tok guru (“grandfather teacher”) as a form of exaggerated respect. If I am addressed as “grandmother,” is this a reflection of anticipated exam results or affection? One can also signal rejection of biological kinship by changing terms of address. For instance, an upwardly mobile couple who migrated from the village (kampung) to Kuala Lumpur invited along a poorer country cousin as a live-in helper, who was initially introduced as a “younger sister” (adek). A few months later, she was referred to as a “maid” (orang gaji), a denial of kinship (“she is too poor to be our sister”). Malay kinship, then, is a symbolic way of expressing social closeness or distance, and of adjusting to changes of status. In Malay society, women generally enjoy relative freedom of movement for economic and petty trading activities. East coast Malay Muslim women are accustomed to leaving their families for days on end to trade cloth, crafts, and special foods up and down the coast in local markets, where they are famous for their brazen promotion of their wares and for telling bold jokes in public, to men and women alike. In their absence from home, there are always plenty of sisters and aunties to take over domestic needs, even through temporarily adopting children from other households. One woman active in small business told me that she had “too many [sixteen] children” to pursue her trading, so she decided to place three of them with a sister who only had two. Passing children around between households to balance resources is not uncommon, and Malay families sometimes adopted unwanted/�orphan Chinese girls, who were then raised socially and culturally as fully accepted Malay Muslims (anak angkat). For centuries, such flexible family arrangements have enabled immigrant or foreign spouses to merge into Malay life.

 

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