Kinship first, exams can wait

We usually cut back on activities during my children's examination period, but this year, we took time out for two family events in the middle of their exams.

The first was to be with our extended family at the wake and funeral of their great-granduncle; the second was to meet up with visiting relatives from China whom they had never met before.

Their great-granduncle was the patriarch of my close-knit extended family. He was my grandfather's brother and treated all of us like his own in the decades after my grandfather died.

He presided over all our family gatherings and always took an interest in my kids' lives, asking them questions about school and friends.

Unfortunately, my kids are not great conversationalists and would often run off to play after mumbling an answer or two.

So I felt compelled to take all three kids, including the toddler, to pay him one last visit at the hospital when his condition deteriorated.

Despite his discomfort, he acknowledged our presence with a weak nod.

After the visit, I took the chance to remind my kids about how their great-granduncle showered us with love and kindness, without which we would not have had the many family gatherings they thoroughly enjoyed.

At 11 and eight, my two older kids may not fully understand or remember the depth of his love for his family. But hopefully sometime down the road, when they look back on these memories, they will know they have an extended family with strong family ties.

I'm the eldest grandchild, so many of my cousins (uncles and aunts to my kids) are just a couple of years older than my children.

During the wake, my kids saw how their teenage uncles and aunts, who are by default their playmates, volunteered for night shifts and kept each other company.

Following their lead, my kids helped to serve drinks to guests and clear the tables each day. I hope the next generation will continue to support one another in various ways in the future too. That would be the best legacy my granduncle could leave behind.

Even if they may not fully comprehend the situation, I hope they felt a sense of family identity, and gained knowledge that they have an extended family that will be there for one another.

Being at the wake daily with granduncles and grandaunts who dote on them unconditionally, doing their part for the family and feeling a part of the family, root them.

These family ties and a sense of belonging are what will hold them together when they grow up and go out into the world.

Likewise, when my husband's uncle and aunt visited Singapore in the middle of my kids' exams and asked to meet the entire family, we could not turn them down.

They last visited 16 years ago, before our children were born.

My son, especially, was surprised. "We're having a party in the middle of our exams?"

Yes, we told him, because the relatives would have left if we waited until after the exams.

My husband's grandfather left China decades ago, but his brother and his family remained there.

The children were surprised to know they have a granduncle, grandaunt and uncles and aunts in China.

That their granduncle and grandaunt were so excited to meet us was touching.

They spoke Teochew and Mandarin, and my children had no problems understanding their stories when they talked about their life in China, the butcher stall they ran and the people they met there.

They came laden with gifts for the family, and filled with questions to get to know us better.

Before they left, they invited us to visit them some day. Grandaunt also added: "It's very good that we have a big family, I feel very happy to finally see everyone,"

She's right. In many ways, knowing their family helps the kids know themselves.

Learning about their heritage provides the kids with an important connection to their own identities.

It hopefully also teaches them that life is not just about them - they are part of a much bigger family unit.

And while preparing for exams are important, I hope they see that there are other things in life that are just as, if not more, important.

Sure, they could have spent more time hitting the books, but I hope they learnt something about family ties that exams will never teach them.

I hope they appreciate that they have family from far away who bother to travel all the way to meet them; that they have a large extended family who will support one another when it comes to the crunch, and that it's okay to cry when we lose someone we love.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline 'Kinship first, exams can wait'. Print Edition | Subscribe