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Cornell University Press

What Counts as Care?

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Lulu Wang’s critically acclaimed film The Farewell is “based on an actual lie.” Debuting this year at Sundance, the film tells the story of a Chinese family shielding their matriarch from her terminal cancer diagnosis, and how her granddaughter, raised in the US, comes to terms with this form of care.

“If you tell her, you’ll ruin her good mood.”

The film takes on what is in many parts of Asia a common occurrence: not telling someone they are dying. Understanding how such norms function as “care” – how they are felt as well as how they are practiced – is a core focus of my book, Rituals of Care: Karmic Politics in Aging Thailand.

With population aging trumpeted from nearly every corner, and projected burdens of care a pressing concern for families and nations alike, Rituals of Care offers a chance to step back and challenge common presumptions about the universal nature of “caring.”  I begin at the bedside, describing two middle-aged sisters bending and twisting, bathing and feeding, powdering and massaging their bedridden elderly mother. Their story is a familiar one in Northern Thailand, as elsewhere, and speaks to the everyday realities of providing care in a rapidly aging society. Their habits, I argue, can productively be understood as ritual: repetitive acts that achieve effects through their correct performance, rather than from any particular internal orientation to the tasks.

With population aging trumpeted from nearly every corner, and projected burdens of care a pressing concern for families and nations alike, Rituals of Care offers a chance to step back and challenge common presumptions about the universal nature of “caring.”

This matters so much because it interrupts the common emphasis on authenticity and individual autonomy that dominates so much work on care – from the academic to the clinical. Further, it invites us to keep what is actually done, the very gestures, day in and day out, at the center of analysis.

By tracing what people pay attention to, and how the social world trains their attention and their responses in particular ways, I develop the argument that religious, social, and political structures are embodied, through habituated action, in practices of providing for others. Providing for others does not just occur between individuals. Close attention can be paid to care practiced in more general ways – care for one’ group, care for the polity. And doing so, examining particular sets of emotional and practical ways of being with people – and the historical and philosophical lineages undergirding such practices – shows an inseparable links between forms of social organization and forms of care.

By tracing what people pay attention to, and how the social world trains their attention and their responses in particular ways, I develop the argument that religious, social, and political structures are embodied, through habituated action, in practices of providing for others.

The Chinese American granddaughter in The Farewell does indeed end up following the directives of her family. Keeping her grandmother’s prognosis a secret is of course more than simply not saying: her every move and mood are shown to have communicative effect. We can begin to see that, further still, what it means to be a person and the proper way to be in the world are wrapped up in the smallest gestures of care. Unearthing the ways people are habituated to provide for others may thus not only lead to greater understanding of the strictures that bind, but the tiny changes that can transform.


Felicity Aulino is Five-College Assistant Professor of Anthropology based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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