This article was published in The Oxford Student on 20 Jan 2024.
Image description: three young girls sitting on some grass
Taken separately, it’s not too bad to be the eldest, to be a daughter, or to be Asian. But if you combine the three to form a Holy Trinity of sorts, it is probably more of a curse than a blessing.
Growing up, I performed a variety of roles simply because I was the eldest daughter. I was the family therapist, mediating conflicts between my two parents, as well as between my parents and my younger sister. My mum would bitch about my dad, and vice versa. They’d tell me in hushed, conspiratorial tones not to tell the other parent or my sister, because she was too young to understand. And on the rare occasion where they had a big fight, I was the one who had to pretend everything was fine and comfort my sister.
This worked the other way too – my sister would beg me to keep things from my parents, usually her spontaneous shopping sprees which are heavily frowned upon by our mum, or her risque dates with random men at university. Mum would occasionally suspect something and interrogate me, so I’ve covered my sister’s ass multiple times by feigning ignorance. On the other hand, my parents would tell me to pass on messages to my younger sister, such as ‘Work harder!’ and ‘Do not date yet! You’re too young!’. They would sweet-talk me, saying that my sister looked up to me, that these mantras would be far more effective coming from me than them, and that I was the ‘mature’ one in the family. For a short while, I basked and simpered in this praise, until I realised I was being manipulated into being a third parent.
I was also the secretary of the family. As my parents are not completely fluent in English, I have been filling in forms and proofreading emails since primary school. I translated the catalogue for my parents’ small business, helped them send passive-aggressive emails to whoever they were annoyed with, and even applied for American visas for the entire family, which took days off my summers and years off my life. Even now that I’m all the way across the world in the UK, I would wake up on random mornings to messages from my mum asking me to proofread the most mundane texts, or she would send things to me in Chinese and ask me to translate them into Whatsapp messages to her auntie friends.
And let’s not talk about the double standards for you and your younger sibling(s). I had to beg my parents to let me stay out later than midnight – at the same age, my sister saunters back at 2 am, evidently tipsy (she has bad Asian flush) after nights out. When I had my first boyfriend, my parents expressed their disapproval in the strongest terms; when my sister got her first boyfriend, they barely batted an eyelid. There are countless other examples of me painstakingly convincing my parents to let me do something, then watching with gritted teeth my sister being allowed to do the same things and more.
I am not alone in such experiences; many of my friends have suffered and lamented their similar plights. Why is it so particularly bad to be the eldest Asian daughter? Being the eldest child means that you carry the weight of your family’s expectations, especially if you’re the oldest among your cousins. Your entire extended family will be constantly monitoring (and gossiping about) how you’re doing. Your uncles and aunts will instruct their kids to either emulate you, or stay far away from that cousin who’s the ‘bad egg in the family’. Occupying the unfortunate position of a firstborn thus comes with the expectation of being a role model.
As the eldest, one is also expected to take care of younger siblings – this is where the double whammy of being the eldest daughter comes in. Girls are supposed to be nurturing and display a ‘maternal instinct’, even as a child. For example, they are far more likely to be given dolls as toys and to treat taking care of them as ‘fun’. Membership of both thus doubles the ‘caretaker’ responsibility.
Being Asian also comes with a whole set of additional expectations – I can only speak to the Chinese experience, but the academic and extra-curricular pressures are intense. Once a child is born, most parents immediately engage in a rat race to send their kids to the best playgroups, the best nurseries, the best primary schools, and so on, so that they can be well-prepared for the highest-ranked universities and occupations. Children are sent to tons of after-school tutorial classes and interest groups every week, ranging from Olympiad maths to the most obscure instrument possible to maximise their chances of getting into an orchestra. The expectations on the eldest born are thus compounded by being Asian.
One last thing about being Chinese is the language used. At home, we speak Cantonese, where I’m called 家姐 (elder sister), while my sister is called 細妹 (younger sister) – we are almost never referred to by name. It’s just a hunch, but I think being referred to in this way linguistically means that we internalise our birth order and the associated roles far more than cultures and languages which don’t do this.
What are the impacts of this triple threat? The trope of the overachiever kid who is now crippled by the fear of failure and hence reluctant to try anything new definitely applies to me. I shy away from things that might show that I’m not good enough. For example, I was so deterred by a string of spring week rejections in my first year that I simply didn’t apply for anything until quite a bit later. I also filled my schedule with so many things to manufacture a plausible excuse for not doing well in Prelims – I just didn’t try. In the context of romantic relationships, I am a bit of a control freak and a compulsive caretaker, while also being afraid to show vulnerability, which is not the most enticing combination. I don’t chart this entirely, or even mostly, down to my gender and birth order, but it did have an impact on my personality.
Maybe being the eldest Asian daughter is a blessing – I definitely would not have turned out the way I did if I had an older sibling, or if I were a boy. But I would wager that I would be a bit more emotionally stable and a bit less insufferably try-hard had I not been the eldest Asian daughter.