“When we are gone, who will take care of your brothers but you?”
All throughout my life, that was something I would constantly hear my parents say. I have two younger brothers. I am three years older than my middle sibling and ten years older than the youngest. Babysitting is no new task to me since it’s a pretty standard chore for the oldest sibling to take over. However as any first born female in an Asain or immigrant family, our role goes a lot further than that.
Other than taking care of your siblings, the eldest is also expected to take on a lot more responsibilities in the house while being held to higher standards compared to the younger ones, especially if they are a girl. With there being a gap between my brothers and I along with being the only girl, the pressure to always seem like the “perfect child” would be overwhelming and in the end, I felt that I had to grow up and mature a lot faster than my brothers did. As a child, I did not notice the effects of being the eldest until my teenage years when my academics, behaviors, and social life seemed to be under the spotlight for my parents.
It is clear that my experience as the first born daughter in an Asian family might not be universal or the same as every other Asian female’s experience. The fact of the matter is: almost all Asian women feel some form of pressure from their family to be the image that is expected of them. Even the sons in an Asian household are held to a different standard; with parents being more lenient and understanding towards their problems they usually get a second chance. Usually, the male siblings are spoiled and given the independence they need, sometimes even at a younger age compared to older sisters. In turn, the females are given the responsibilities that did not previously go to her brothers in addition to taking care of the younger siblings.
As I got older, I began to notice the different ways I would be treated when it came to my grades, extra curricular activities, and the people I spent my time with on weekends. Despite the age difference with my brothers, I seemed to be under a lot more pressure. Compared to my brothers, I began to have an earlier curfew, was questioned more about my homework, classes, and what I would want to be in the future, and given not so subtle remarks when I decided I wanted to go out and see a movie with friends.
It’s difficult to explain this situation to a friend who does not understand the family dynamic. Oftentimes a friend would ask, “Why can’t they do it instead?” or “You’re an adult, you can do what you want” when it came to constantly asking for permission to go out and not take care of my brothers for a night. Even on several days and nights, I had to sacrifice going out or having time to myself in order to help my parents or watch over my brothers for the day. On a personal level, it was hard to figure out who I was outside of what I did at home. Of course I had a social life, but it had to be scheduled far in advance and around my parent’s and brother’s availability.
That is usually one of the consequences of coming from an Asain or immigrant household. Eastern cultures emphasize unity and family while Western cultures stress individualism and independence. For me, it seemed like a constant battle between the two worlds. In sacrificing personal time or aspects of a social life like some of my peers had, I had trouble figuring out who I was and what I wanted out of life. All those dinners, game nights, movie nights, or study sessions with friends were given up in order to help out at home. Even the times I wasn’t at home were spent thinking about how I can help despite what I was doing or what I would do when I got back.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my family and being an older sister to my brothers. Like every familial relationship, it can get rocky, but I am so grateful for what they have taught me. They have taught me important habits to keep when I am on my own, responsibility when it comes to taking care of someone other than myself, how to love selflessly, and knowing that it’s okay to ask for help.
Now as for you, if you relate to this, you aren’t alone. It is amazing how much can be put on our shoulders and we can still carry on with more. The fact that we are strong enough to have gone through so much when it comes to the adversity we might face as daughters in an Asian household makes us invincible. However, knowing your limits and setting boundaries with family members is key in keeping up with your mental health. Even myself, just recently, I have started that practice in placing boundaries and space between family in order to avoid burnout and further worsening my mental health. It’s hard for sure but it’s necessary. Your family will eventually learn to adjust and stray from their traditional ways of thinking.