By Jean Wong
Northwest Asian Weekly
“My father (Chinese-born in the Philippines) says he never had a preference on what gender his kids would be, but I heard my mother, [who passed away when I was a year old], really wanted to have a son,” said Johanna Martinez, a Filipino-Chinese American student of International Studies at the University of Washington.
“She thought it would please my dad. She was in her mid- to late-30s when she got pregnant again, a few months after I was born. She was told by the doctor that it would be risky for her to get pregnant again, due to her weight problems and diabetes. However, everybody says she really wanted to give my dad a son, since they already had two daughters. Seven months into her pregnancy, she had health problems and neither [she] nor my younger brother [were] saved.”
According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the male to female birth ratio is astronomically on the rise, particularly in East Asian countries, such as India and China, where the numbers are 112:100 and 121:100, respectively (the normal ratio is about 105:100).
Since the advent of ultrasound technology, parents in Asia have been rejoicing that they can now see whether they’ll be having a son, thereby saving money and having the family name carried on. Though revealing the sex of the fetus is illegal in both of these countries, this has not impeded the abortion of babies based on sex. Often, a small bribe to the ultrasound technician solves the problem.
“My family later moved to the States, where my father remarried hoping that we would have a chance at having a mother,” continued Martinez. “[My stepmom said she couldn’t have kids, but lo and behold, she got pregnant and had a son. My father loved all of us, but my stepmom (Filipino-born Chinese, but identifies as Chinese) believed otherwise. She believed that because she had a son, my father would leave his daughters and they could have a ‘perfect’ family. That did not happen. It gets more complicated than that. It was obvious my brother received better treatment — he got more gifts, toys, and was spoiled rotten by his mother. I heard it was because he was a boy. In my brother’s teen years, the difference in treatment became more obvious. He got more freedom, was allowed to date, barely got any punishment and a car was given to him at 15 years of age. I paid for my car and worked as soon as I was 16. He didn’t work. Nobody asked him where he went or what he was doing … when I asked why, they said it was because it’s different being a boy.”
“My older sister right now has two daughters,” added Martinez. “She also really wants a son. She might have stopped trying with two if she had a son after the first one. Even though kids can be a financial burden and add to stress … I don’t think she will stop. I just hope her fate won’t be the same as my mom’s.”
The right to choose?
Mara Hvistendahl’s controversial book, “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” addresses the issue of sex-selection head on. She notes that contrary to her expectations that preference for boys was a rural and antiquated concept in the East, she found sex-selective abortions started with the wealthy urbanites that had the means and most access to the newest technology.
In his review of Hvistendahl’s book, Jonathan V. Last for the WSJ examines the issue of when a woman’s right to choose and the morality of choosing to abort a baby based on sex collide.
Last’s one critique of the author is the conflict inherent in being pro-choice but also being against the abuse of choice. He writes, “Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s ‘mental health’ requires it. Choice is choice. … There are only two alternatives: Restrict abortion or accept the slaughter of millions of baby girls and the calamities that are likely to come with it.”
In China, after the one-child policy was instated in 1980, there was yet another reason why parents would choose not to have a child until they got a son. Because of a deeply-rooted cultural preference for boys, there is pressure for a woman to produce sons.
This has resulted in what Gu Baochang, a leading Chinese expert on family planning, described as “the largest, the highest, and the longest” gender imbalance in the world, according to msnbc.com.
U.N. Multimedia explains a recent report by U.N. agencies, saying that “sex selection favouring boys can lead to violence, abandonment, divorce, or even death among women who give birth to girls.”
Both Last and Hvistendahl explain that there are far reaching consequences to tampering with the natural male to female birth ratio, some of which are already happening.
“High sex ratios mean that a society is going to have ‘surplus men’ — that is, men with no hope of marrying because there are not enough women,” writes Last. “Such men accumulate in the lower classes, where risks of violence are already elevated. And unmarried men with limited incomes tend to make trouble. In Chinese provinces, where the sex ratio has spiked, a crime wave has followed. Today in India, the best predictor of violence and crime for any given area is not income, but sex ratio.”
In China, there is widespread prostitution and sex-trafficking, as well as the purchasing of brides from poorer countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam.
An imbalance in America
Asian Americans also grapple with the gender imbalance, albeit on a smaller scale. Often, when grandparents or parents pass away, assets are distributed among their offspring, with the eldest grandson or son receiving the lion’s share.
Parents and grandparents may also treat male family members better than female members, even if the female puts in more time caring for the family.
In Chinese culture, some have the perspective that once the daughter gets married, she is lost to her birth family, absorbed by her new one. Her children will carry her husband’s name, and it will be as if she never existed. It is the son’s responsibility to take care of his parents and ensure that the family’s legacy continues.
Though the local Asian Americans interviewed did not think that their parents would opt for sex-selective abortion, some expressed that they either experienced in their own family or observed in others, preferential treatment for boys.
Alexander Joo, a Korean American Seattle resident, said, “I suppose my parents happened to have three sons, but I don’t believe this was planned for … when I was growing up in Korea, in middle school, we had a 1.5:1 ratio of males [to] females. It sucked. Here in the U.S., I can’t imagine that actually being desired.”
An Indian American brother and sister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, shared their thoughts on preferential treatment within their family. They have differing views.
The brother said, “[There is] no preferential treatment for us, but our family is educated and fairly Westernized.”
The sister doesn’t think their parents play favorites on purpose, but perhaps on a subconscious level, she is treated differently. “I think my mother, although she doesn’t do this intentionally, babies him a bit more. And my parents are definitely more cautious with him because they are worried about hurting his feelings. I have seen it in other Asian families, that there is pressure for boys to follow a more traditional job path. My friend decided to be a fashion journalist and her parents accepted it, but when her brother decided to go into teaching, it was like a two to three month battle with his parents. They were worried that he would not be financially able to support himself.”
On a recent trip with her mother to visit her brother in Seattle, the sister noted, “My mother has been cooking for him nonstop. She never does that for me.”
Diane Vinh, a Vietnamese American Mukilteo resident, said that she never noticed any preferential treatment for boys in her immediate or extended family. She concedes that girls may be treated differently, but not because they are valued less.
“I think a lot of girls think that parents give preferential treatment to boys because they’re much looser with rules on them, but I believe it’s more of a cultural phenomena. No parent wants their daughters to be harmed or hurt, so they restrict the daughter’s freedoms more. They’re more OK with their sons having sex and dating than their daughters because the thought of them ‘losing their little girl’ is repulsive and gives them more of a sense of loss, and understandably so. … Asian parents want to protect their daughters, and this is the only way they know how to do it. But seeing as how [Southeast] Asians tend to be of the patriarchal order, this shouldn’t be a surprise to a lot of people. … Men are the breadwinners. Women are submissive and stay at home — [they say] if you can’t be a doctor, marry one — these are the gender norms for [Asian] cultures. But when it comes to preferential treatment for males, it looks like that view is a dying idea, at least from what I’ve observed in Vietnamese American society.”
Julia Do, a Vietnamese student at Shoreline Community College who is studying business and accounting and the only child in her family, said that though she never experienced sexism in her family, her parents certainly did. “The oldest son is the one [to] pass on the family name and takes care of things, so my grandmother always favored my uncle out of all her children.”
Do, who moved to Shoreline five years ago, relays a story of her neighbor in Vietnam. “[He] wanted to have a son. After three tries, they ended up with three girls, and the wife was [finally] pregnant with a boy when she was 43. This is pretty old for a woman to give birth.” (end)
Jean Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.