Warning: This note is more a personal reflection than an investigation.
This semester break I was fortunate to welcome my parents for the first time in Bremen. They traveled from Mexico to Europe specifically to visit me and spend some time together. They stayed for a month. In that month we hardly separated at all: I took them to meet my friends and made them sit next to me while I worked. We traveled a lot, we talked daily, and we always ate at the same table. There were no private spaces and we felt so close. That seems normal to me. Before I moved to Germany it was always like that.
When they went back I was left missing them so much, despite the fact that I have lived away from the family house for more than a decade. I remembered the family dynamics I had before coming to study at Uni Bremen. It even took me some days to adapt again to my routine as a very independent and self-sufficient foreign student (wink). I realized that I missed my mom’s cooking, and how my dad can’t sleep —regardless of the late hour— until I get home safe and sound from a party (which at some points was kind of annoying, I must recognize). I missed all their attentions and their many opinions, but above all I missed what I call the “Mexican muégano feeling”: knowing that all the activities, meetings and decisions will be made together, with such total integration that any pre-existing trait of individuality practically disappears.
Recounting the best moments of this time, I shared my feeling with two friends from different cultures. Their impressions were very different and that motivated me to reflect on the family dynamics in our stage of university life and on the importance (or not) of the role we assign to them. My Pakistani friend perfectly understood the muégano sentiment. He told me that in his culture, generally, family is the most important thing: family is the people who are not only part of his decisions, but also sometimes make them. His parents are his compass, figures of respect, stuffed teddy bear models whom he must (want to) love above all and fill with the cotton of pride. For him, his family is the greatest motivation to successfully complete his university career abroad. In Mexico it is (or at least was) common to hear similar versions.
On the other hand, my German buddy has a very different perception of family. His has a much more diffuse role, and his incredulous reaction upon hearing me was impressive. He didn’t understand how I managed to spend a whole month with my parents without overloading myself, without needing a time and space for me. Then I began to understand why that seemed so impossible for him, extravagant. Our life histories or family models are clearly not generalizable, but they do show a number of differences that in a certain sense I consider cultural and extrapolable, as well as interesting:
- I never questioned the hosting situation. From the beginning it was clear to me that my parents and I would sleep in the same room during their entire stay because we are used to sharing a space. In Mexico, the age to leave the nest is much higher than in Germany. As I understand it, most German students leave the family home around university time. This is why the Studentenwohnheim concept is so well received. Here, the idea of becoming independent and living alone is extremely important.
- I also did not question the idea of needing privacy. In Mexico many houses work with the open door policy. I don’t know if it’s my perception, but houses usually have fewer divisions and more open spaces, fewer rooms, and also fewer doors. What each person in the family is doing is transparent at all times, even to people our age. Not to mention locking yourself in your room with a partner, that would be shocking for many families.
- During the holidays, in addition to my parents‘, I felt the constant presence of my sister, aunts and cousins. It seems to me that families tend to be more numerous and compact in other countries, even with members outside the basic nucleus. For example, grandparents and grandchildren often live in the same house. The elements of a German family seem to me a bit more scattered and independent.
- Finally, I realize that at this stage I still involve my parents in most of the personal, educational and love decisions I make… I value their opinion very much (they ALWAYS have opinions) and they know more about what happens to me than even some of my friends. According to the statistics compiled by the World Values Survey (2023), society in Germany tends to give more importance to friendships (the family one chooses) or to WG flatmates (for some second families), than to the blood family.
I would like to know what you, dear readers, think about this. What role does your family have in your university life? In what way do your parents participate in this stage? Are they mere providers, or advisers and confidants? How does their presence feel? Do not stop exchanging your experiences and perceptions with us.