Saturday, August 6, 2011

Some Thoughts on Having Children in Taiwanese Culture

Thought #1 - the preference for male children is going to end within one generation.

I recently had a conversation with someone who is recently married and about to try to start having a baby - and one of the things we talked about caused me to do some thinking.

She said that because she wants to have only one child - although she admits she might change her mind after having that child - that she would prefer it to be a boy.

Oh no, I thought, so this whole 'preference for sons' thing is still alive even in the younger generations? (I realize it's culturally motivated but I don't care - a preference for sons is something I will not condone. You can get rid of a societal preference for male children and not destroy the culture).

She clarified - she wants a boy because her mother-in-law wants a grandson* to carry on the family name and lineage. It's OK if she has a daughter, but the mother-in-law will then pressure her to have a second baby and try for a boy. If she has one baby and it's a boy, she won't get the pressure because the male lineage would have been assured.

[sarcasm] Of course, it is clearly unthinkable that a granddaughter might carry on the family heritage. Everyone knows women can't do that. [/sarcasm].

I want to say that my first thought was uuuuggggghhhhhhh but that I tempered it: in some ways, this is actually a good thing. The person I was talking to - a member of the current parent-aged generation - doesn't personally care if she has a son or daughter. When she has a child of any gender, she won't care if that child has a son or daughter (I didn't ask what she'd think of a child who wanted to children of his or her own).

It's a member of the older generation that cares, and that makes all the difference. It sucks for my acquaintance, who has to deal with that pressure, but the fact is that the older generation is done procreating and their influence can really only stretch into the current generation (maybe - maybe - the next one if they try to pressure their grandchildren, but given the later ages to which couples are delaying parenthood, I suspect most Taiwanese grandparents won't be around to see their great-grandchildren. I'd add that my grandparents' expectations of me never changed my life plan one jot, although I love and respect all of them, but then neither did my parents'...and Taiwan has a different family culture. My reactions to family expectations don't apply).

That means that if this is a trend, and I believe it is even though I'm only illustrating it with one example, that the whole 'preference for sons' thing is going to die out with the next generation and we will hopefully see a more egalitarian, sexism-free take on procreation. I don't mean that all preference will be eradicated, but that preferences will be individual and will include parents who want girls, not just the social mandate to prefer boys. I'm seeing a lot of "we don't mind either way" or "actually, I want a girl" and "my mother wants me to have a son but I don't care personally" in the current generation of parents, and very little "I want a boy who will take care of me in my old age/carry on the family name". This is a good thing.

We then had a great discussion on how one handles parents and in-laws post-marriage, when you become your own family unit. I had little to say because these aren't problems I have (my in-laws thankfully don't do this, and while my parents do, we are close enough that I can tell them to shove off - in those words - without any loss of love, because that's the kind of relationship we have). I shared how I handle pretty much anyone who gets in my space who is not my husband, by at first deflecting and then, if it persists, telling them that really that's a personal issue. If that doesn't work, flat out saying that I'll do as I please and my decisions are not theirs to make, and their opinions are their own but I don't want to hear them. I'll end with an unapologetic "I'm sorry you feel that way" and do as I please anyway, without explaining myself, because why should I have to?

She admired the approach but admitted she couldn't practice it - it's my mother in law! I can't say that!

(Sure you can, maybe more politely but you can. But yes, I do understand that there are cultural issues at play).

Which might all lead to another post on dealing with family in Taiwan once you are married - when I have more time I'd like to expand on that.

*note to my mother-in-law - thank you so much for not being like that!

Thought #2 - I'd really like to see the demise of the assumption that it's best to want kids, but it's not going to.

Heck, it hasn't gone away in the USA. I still have family who pressures me about this. But here...well, this may be TMI but it's a women's issue in Taiwan so I think it's worth sharing. I was visiting my doctor and discussing various options and she said "So you can take this for a year or so, and then when you have a baby..."

"I'm not planning to have a baby."

"Really?! But...why? You really don't want to have a baby?!"

Because for this particular doctor it is kinda, sorta her business when she's dealing with my health, instead of telling her to shove off I said "Yes. I really don't."

In the USA I would have dumped her right away and gotten a new doctor, but this is Taiwan and I can't expect the same attitude here. I did see a different doctor only because it was more convenient to work, and got a similar reaction. I get the feeling that I'd get that reaction no matter who I saw - because I also get it from taxi drivers, new acquaintances, random people, the old ladies in the lane, you name it. I don't tell them my plans mostly, because it's not their business, but I get that shocked expression when I tell them I'm 30, married and yet do not have a child (I'm not sure why - the Taiwanese are marrying later and later and also delaying childbirth, if they have children at all. "DINK" is actually a word here, too). They are shocked when I say I have no immediate plans for a child (something I wouldn't divulge in the USA but the boundaries for personal questions here are different - if I had not been influenced by the culture here I wouldn't even be blogging about this). I don't tell them that I don't have any plans, because that's just not a conversation I want to have with perfect strangers.

I don't see this going away anytime soon. It's a shame - people (especially doctors) really should respect others' decisions to have or not have children. Unlike a preference for sons, however, I think the expectation that having children is the best route, the correct path, is not going to die out within a generation. Too bad.


Pierre said...

Having a boy to carry on the family name... Which is going to be 李,陳,黃 or 曾... like hundreds of thousands of other people :)
(sorry for being a bit mean here ;))

I really hope this is going to vanish with the older generation, but I kind of feel some men in the younger generation are thinking a bit this way...

Anonymous said...

You're welcome, Jenna. Love you.


Holly said...

I had thought there was a lot more open-mindedness about the sex of offspring here until looking through the prayers people leave at the temples where people go to pray for children (I can't remember the name of the deity at the moment, but she's found in a number of places). Since seeing the prayer cards for the first time, I always make it a point to browse them thanks to the very topic you've brought up. At the ones I've visited, I'd estimate over 90% asked for a boy, some 9+% said either is ok, and the prayers for girls could be counted on both hands at each temple.

I do wonder, though, what the breakdown would be if it were so easy to see people's preferences in the US. I'm guessing there would be far more "I'd be happy with either," but that boys would still far outstrip girls. It seems like the "you absolutely must have children" concept has a better chance of dying out in the US, though. I have a lot of married friends in their 30s (many of whom have been married for 5 or more years) who don't have children. The older generations get on them about it, but I think younger people tend to find it more reasonable. In Taiwan, though, the vast majority of people I know who've gotten married have had a baby within a year and a half of the wedding. The others have waited only for financial reasons, not because they never planned on having children.

Good topic! Makes me curious as to how a lot of my more "typical" (non-bohemian, non-gay) Taiwanese friends feel about these things.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Hahahha...yeah, I get it. "We must have a son to carry on the Chen family name! Otherwise the Chens might die out!"

Yeah. Well.

Holly - I am not so sure that desire for boys outstrips girls in the USA. I bet there are statistics out there. When I have more free time I might seek them out.

The goddess you mean is Zhusheng Niangniang. And according to my student it is technically not appropriate to ask for a specifically gendered first child. She did, and said she felt bad because it was considered "selfish".

Very few of my Taiwanese friends are married and even fewer have kids, so it's hard for me to say. That said, most people my age or thereabouts (late 20s to mid 30s) can understand the desire not to have kids. It's exclusively the older set who assume we will...but that's something I can imagine being passed to the younger generation as they do start to have kids.

Little Dog said...

the tone of your points brings out the "foreign friend-ness" over some very senstive issues that we locals probably need to be careful with. haha.
what haunts the nation now is the low birth rate, which results from very complicated social economic reasons in the last one decade (our central bank governor was blamed for the low birth rate one time. and the argument against him is absolutely true from my point of view).
we start to have three groups of poeples now who make babies in taiwan: those with their parents who can afford and support; those who need to carefully plan given the cost and other consideration; those who do not care or bother to think too much.
from my own observation, it is usually in the category one that couples have been pressed aggressively for a male child. for the rest, i see a much more relaxed attitude.
taiwan has a number of issues to resolve the low birth rate. as long as we resolve the category two, the balancing of the boys and girls will naturally come.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Good points, Little Dog, although I'd add one thing.

I don't think the low birth rate is a bad thing. Taiwan is too densely populated as it is, and its environment can't support a much higher population. Even now, it rains so often especially in northern Taiwan and yet there is always a water shortage, because of infrastructure that needs improvement and the country's geography - add more people and you get a more serious shortage! If anything, Taiwan's population would best stay at the same level or even decrease a bit as some areas are just too densely packed for environmental safety.

Instead of plowing all this money into getting couples to have babies, I'd like to see the government plowing it into social programs for seniors to get over the generation hump that's coming and will continue to get worse. Take care of the seniors so we don't need to produce little workers to care for them and encourage a population policy that levels off at a number that the land can support.

So, actually, I'm in favor of DINKs. The world needs more of them.