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Getting to Know You


At one point in our trip to the Philippines, I had a chat with one of Eileene’s granduncles. He was eager to assure me that the Bautista clan—the maternal branch of Eileene’s family—was much larger than was in evidence that day. I knew it to be so; I’d seen far more assembled some ten years earlier. Bu time passes, and families grow, and the common ancestor becomes too distant to tie families together. I don’t meet my great-grandparents’ children any more, and rarely met them in the first place; I never met my great-great-grandparents’ children as family. It’s a natural and inevitable process.

But this bothered the grand-uncle, who expressed a sincere need for these ten-year reunions. “I don’t know them all any more. You live far away, and don’t take the time to meet family. Babs [a nickname for my mother-in-law]…Eileene…if you didn’t come to visit, I wouldn’t know you. Now I know you.”

Well, if it makes him feel better to think so, let him.. But two five-minute conversations spaced a decade apart doesn’t strike me as “knowing me” at all. The exchange had a peculiar, atavistic flavor to me, harkening back to a time when the clan was not only the fundamental social unit but a very real expression of power, political and otherwise. Family wasn’t sought as a natural source of friendship, but cultivated as a resource, and a big clan was always better than a small one. The discussion rather rubbed against my more American sense of frontier independence and lack of concern for the clan as an end unto itself. I didn’t like the sense that we owed the elders of the Bautista clan more attention, quite independent of whether the Bautista elders ever bothered to reciprocate.

The conversation also put me in mind of a bit of anthropology I ran across years ago. I can no longer remember even whether I read it or heard it on the radio or watched it as video, but the story left a strong impression on me, nevertheless. The author or speaker explained that humans have a natural conflict on meeting a stranger between a desire to protect territory and a desire to live and let live. The sharper the competition for resources, the more likely conflict is. In some of the Pacific island chains—I think the specific island related in this story was Papua New Guinea—the protein-deficient environment even drives people to occasional cannibalism. On meeting, strangers immediately settle down to a discussion of their family trees, attempting to establish a common relation. If one can be found, the strangers are now relatives, and can settle down to swapping stories; if none can be found, a duty to protect tribal territory compels them to try to kill one another, so a serious effort is made to cast the net as widely as possible, and remember even the most distant relations.

Even more atavistic than a desire for a large clan as a demonstration of wealth and power, this story, or a social mechanic very like it, seemed to lie behind the statement “Now I know you,” and bothered me even more than the implication that we owed the elders of the Bautista clan more attention.

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