Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Son's A Son

After reading this lengthy piece in The Atlantic (and watching the more easily digestible TED talk talk that author Hanna Rosin gave on the same topic), I couldn't help but apply Rosin's thoughts to my experience in Taiwan. Let's begin with where it discusses the traditional preference across much of the world (for our purposes, Asia) for a son. Rosin says:

And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children, worldwide. Over several centuries, South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children.

Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labor force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. The traditional order began to crumble soon after. In 1990, the country’s laws were revised so that women could keep custody of their children after a divorce and inherit property. In 2005, the court ruled that women could register children under their own names. As recently as 1985, about half of all women in a national survey said they “must have a son.” That percentage fell slowly until 1991 and then plummeted to just over 15 percent by 2003. Male preference in South Korea “is over,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer and Asia expert at the World Bank. “It happened so fast. It’s hard to believe it, but it is.” The same shift is now beginning in other rapidly industrializing countries such as India and China.

I'm not sure I buy this. First of all, the survey doesn't seem to cover the nuances of male-baby preference in Asia. It asks women if they "must" have a son, and notes that rates of women who feel they must have male issue have plunged.

That's great - I do hope for a world in which parents in all countries welcome children of both genders equally and give them equal opportunities and treatment (though I realize that day is far off) - but the "must" is misleading.

Go back and ask those women if they want a son more than a daughter, or if they would prefer a son. Ask them which gender they'd choose if they could - a conditional statement that's becoming more of a real option to families. I bet you'd get a far higher number. I imagine from my own observation that the results would look something like:

45% (or thereabouts) would actively prefer a son including about 15% who feel they "must" have one

20% (or thereabouts) would actively prefer a daughter, including maybe 2% who feel they "must" have a daughter, if that

35% (or whatever's left) don't mind either way

Of course these numbers are so unscientific it's not funny; do you, however, disagree? (If so, I'd love to hear it in the comments). Does your own observation vary greatly?

So what you still get - according to my guesstimates - is a strong preference for sons, including the small percentage who feel they "must" have a boy plus all the parents who don't feel they "must" have a boy but would still prefer one. The dramatic drop in mothers who don't feel they "must" have sons would be caught mostly in the "prefer" category, or moved to the "don't care" category. Almost none would move from "needing" a son to preferring a daughter.

Who still wins? The sons, as always.

As for those who would actively prefer a daughter, well, one thing definitely is changing. Anyone who lives in Asia knows about the cultural custom where the oldest son, specifically, is charged with caring for his parents when they are elderly. I'm going to argue below that this is slowly changing, and that Western ideas about caregiving are becoming more prevalent.

You still see this in India, for instance: notice how the eldest son of many families rarely moves abroad and, fairly often, stays near the family home - or his parents, at retirement age, move to wherever he has settled and built a career. The son who moves abroad or travels widely is usually the younger brother.

In Taiwan, you'll note how many offspring, as they establish themselves, buy real estate for not only themselves but their parents. I once made the mistake of assuming my forty-ish, single male student, an R&D engineer, lived with his parents when he said that he, well, lives with his parents (you can see how I was confused). Not true at all: his parents live with him; he owns the property. Another student of mine, another elder son: he bought a new apartment for his young family, and moved his parents in with them. His mother didn't really like the apartment and wanted to move back into their old apartment...with her son and his family. So they did. Because Mom said so. He currently rents out his nicer, newer property.

However, most of you also know that in the West, we have a saying: "a son's a son until he takes a wife, but a daughter's a daughter all her life". I don't actually agree with this at all. I personally feel that my relationship with my parents and my husband's relationship with his parents are roughly equal, and neither of us is 'more' or 'less' still a child of our parents than the other...but it is a widely-held notion. (I am curious as to what the actual statistics are of daughters vs. sons as caregivers to aging parents in the USA. My bet would be more daughters than sons take this role, but I'm not sure).

It is becoming so in Taiwan, as well. Again and again, I've had friends and students tell me that they, as daughters, expect to be the primary caregivers or from parents who now feel that their studious, family-oriented daughters will better provide for them in their old age.

Back to the made-up numbers I postulated. I have a few reasons for these estimates in Taiwan, keeping in mind that the survey reflects results from South Korea, not Taiwan. It's sadly clear that there is still a trend of aborting female fetuses in Taiwanese abortion clinics, for starters. If I am remembering correctly, there are still more men than women in the population in Taiwan, and until recently (as in, within the last generation) unwanted daughters were openly adopted out. I have several students who talk about "aunts" who are genetically aunts, but were given to other families as children to be raised. My neighbor, Old Fang, spent thirty minutes telling me in a combination of Chinese and Hakka (which I don't speak) that her parents "didn't want her" and "threw her away" to another family so they could "spend money on her brother". Old Fang is, as you have surely guessed, quite old - my guess is 90 - but she's evidence that this was commonplace even in living memory.

I know another woman who is currently on leave from work because she got married recently and now "really wants" a son: her traditional in-laws expect a grandchild soon, and they expect male issue. Another student, in a toast during a group dinner not long before my own wedding, said "A toast with my best wishes to Jenna...I hope she has a happy wedding party and makes many sons!"

So, Hanna, don't tell me that sons are no longer preferred in Asia. You're skewing the surveys in the way the question was worded.


catherine_sr. said...

Reading this reminded me of a Chinese saying my Mom shared with me just before my wedding: "A daughter is like a leak, she flows out the door of the family home." It has to do with the tradition of eldest sons providing for parents in their old age, while all the effort you put into raising a girl just goes to another family once she gets married. My Mom thought it was a really gross saying and, obviously, I agree.

I agree with you that it's premature to say that boys are no longer preferred over girls in Asia. I think things are different now in the US, though. I don't remember where, but I read somewhere that a majority (by a slim margin) of expectant parents now prefer girls. I wonder how much of that actually has to do with the idea that girls are supposedly quieter, easier to manage and more obedient than boys.

Jenna said...

Yeah, that saying grosses me out too. It *is* interesting that more Taiwanese families are starting to believe the opposite; that they can depend on a daughter to care for them more than a son, but yes, I do think that the announcements in this article are premature.

I do think preference for a girl in the USA does have something to do with how they are perceived to be "easier", and maybe the fact that a family can now expect that their daughters will do as well as, if not better than, their sons, rather than just a generation ago when it was expected that a daughter would marry, produce children and not much else (marriage and children are not small achievements; it's just that this was ALL that was expected of the daughters whereas it was taken for granted that sons would do that *as well as* succeed professionally or at least in some form of self-realization.

It's funny, though. I was once a young girl, too, and I can honestly say that raising me could not possibly have been easier for my mother than raising a son. Same for my sister.

We were both just as hair-raising as boys, but in different ways (I had an opinion on EVERYTHING and tended towards destructive art and cooking projects - but did well in school - and my sister was less notorious as a destroyer of kitchens but didn't take easily to academics and was a firebrand outside the house, getting into all sorts of mischief). My mom may have thought she'd have it easier with girls...oooooh no. I have a memory of her remarking once that "Jeez - I thought I had GIRLS!" after I'd painted another wall in my bedroom with weird murals and my sister was caught playing with an abandoned propane tank in the woods.

I honestly think, given how laid-back, easygoing and gentle my husband is, that he was probably easier to raise as a son than I was as a daughter. :) (I am sure if I am wrong that I will be regaled with tales of his upbringing in the future).

catherine_sr. said...

I was totally a little hellion growing up, too. The ironic thing is that up until a little while I really thought I would prefer to have a girl. Then I realized I'd internalized all these different gender expectations, even though it's not like I was any easier to raise than my brother. Now I'm on a feminist child-rearing kick where I want to give our kids gender neutral names, dress them in nothing but gray and yellow and let them chose their own gender (though of course all this is purely academic because I don't plan to have kids for a while).