If You Grew Up as the Eldest Daughter in an Asian Household, I Feel You
“You’re not a personal babysitter,” read the text from my friend after I told her I wouldn’t be able to meet up. “Tell your parents you don’t exist to serve them and that you have your own sh*t to do.”
“I can’t,” I replied. “I mean, if I don’t do it, who will?”
I have two younger sisters. I’m five years older than my middle sibling, and 13 years older than the youngest. When both my parents are out working, I’m entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of them. Still, that’s a pretty standard job for the oldest sibling. But when you’re the firstborn in an Asian or immigrant family, the line doesn’t stop at merely babysitting.
In addition to taking care of your siblings, you’re also expected to take on more household chores, help with homework, and be held at an overall higher standard. With such a large age gap between me and my sisters, this burden can sometimes feel heavier than usual. It’s hard not to feel like a third parent to my siblings as opposed to a sister. I can’t really confide in them when I’m the person they should be going to for support and guidance.
My experiences as a firstborn aren’t exclusive to Asian families by any means. But when you’re a part of a culture that values collectivism and filial piety, it’s pretty common to hear stories like mine from other Asian firstborns, especially from Asian eldest daughters. Sons are traditionally preferred and valued above all else in several Asian countries – often at the expense of daughters. Some Asian daughters are confronted with this overt inequality when it comes to how they’re treated compared to their brothers, regardless of age difference. Sons are more likely to enjoy more independence and be coddled, while daughters are tied to stricter curfews and pushed to take on more obligations at home.
In a study led by Kaidi Wu, a University of Michigan doctoral candidate of social psychology, she examines why Asian American firstborns are so heavily relied on and how they are affected by their family role. She explains that the emphasis on vertical hierarchy in East and South Asia results in a distinctly defined sibling structure, which often leads to an overreliance on firstborns. Firstborns in immigrant families tend to serve as “language brokers” and “decision-makers” for parents who haven’t adapted as quickly to a Westernized culture and environment. This causes an increase in pressure on eldest Asian siblings from their parents. “Regardless of gender, greater familial obligations may have adverse impacts on the older Asian American siblings,” Wu wrote. Some of these effects include greater levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Another consequence that isn’t discussed in the paper is the social impact of being the firstborn in an Asian family. More responsibilities means less free time for yourself. It means having to miss out on some friend hangouts and parties. It means less time for you to discover who you are as a person. In my experience, many older Asian siblings express that they mentally feel younger than their actual age. They feel behind on life since they had to “grow up” so quickly.
I’ve found it difficult to relay my family position and its importance to friends and acquaintances who simply don’t share the same experience or culture. The friend mentioned in the beginning was particularly vocal about how unfair my family treated me and my lack of a backbone, but she failed to see it from my parents’ perspective. It’s true that their expectations can be exhausting, but I know that they’re like this because they place a unique level of trust in me.
Despite everything, I’m proud to be an eldest sister. I’m cognizant that I represent something much larger than myself. In everything I do, I have an underlying awareness that my siblings emulate my behaviour. I want to be someone they can look up to. Growing up, I can’t deny that I got the most attention – for better or worse (but mostly for the better). That’s something I’ll forever be grateful for. I hope that I can remain a steady and reliable presence in my sisters’ lives as our family grows older.
If you relate to this in any way, I see you. Your resilience and ability to manage so much on your plate makes you unstoppable. There truly isn’t anything in the world that you’re not capable of doing. However, it is important to learn how to establish boundaries if you’re taking on way more than you can handle. This is a process I’m still working through myself. Burnout is real, especially if you’re a massive introvert like me. It’s never selfish or dishonourable to prioritise yourself and your mental well-being. Your family will simply have to catch up and let go of some outdated cultural beliefs.