An employee of a financial institution located in the affluent area of Gangnam, Seoul, Mr. Lee is in his early thirties and into his second year of marriage. Every lunch hour, he will comment on the food he eats, saying, "This is supposed to good for getting sons." Needless to say, he is frowned upon by his female colleagues.
"That's all he talks about. Sons, sons, sons, sons…. He talks like a grandfather."
Mr. Lee's obsession with sons is not that uncommon. The back page of wedding albums lists the dos and don'ts during intercourse in order to beget a son, and health magazines feature articles that teach readers how to give birth to sons. There are many couples who seek out fortune-tellers to raise their chances of having sons, and we can easily find people who visit temples to pray to Buddha to give them sons.
Children must be acknowledged and loved for who they are regardless of their gender. Contempt of daughters and high expectations of sons have negative influences on the growth of both sons and daughters. For children and families to be happy, we must be cured of this obsession with sons. <photograph by Min Won Ki>
Fixation on sons has serious repercussions
Mothers-to-be often resort to nameless medicines that supposedly ensure that they will give birth to sons. And the ever-increasing abortions that follow the discovery that the fetus is a girl...
Korean society does not just 'prefer' sons; it is suffering from a serious disease called 'obsession with sons.' Why does this obsession remain a chronic illness despite the changing times? Perhaps because people think of this 'son obsession' as simply a personal preference and fail to recognize its extremely negative effects.
A few words from the daughters themselves - victimized from the moment of their births - regarding the pain they and their families have suffered because of the 'obsession with sons.'
50 marks off for being born a girl
"My mother, who had given birth to three daughters in a row, dreamt of chili peppers (symbolizing sons) in her desperation to give birth to a son, and prayed to Buddha day and night for a son when she was pregnant with me. But I turned out to be another daughter! Her mother, that is, my grandmother, was so filled with disappointment, or rather despair, that she just left me face down to die and didn't even help my mother recover from the childbirth. If pregnancy was a clamp-a-toy game, my very existence meant that the prize-toy had once again slipped from the clamps. On the other hand, the birth of my younger brother, born with the coveted XY chromosome, was celebrated with as much joy as the birth of Jesus Christ. Neighbors we didn't even know we had came by to congratulate us… It was definitely one of the happiest days of my mother's life."
Twenty-six-year-old Kim is a career woman living in Busan. She recently wrote a column entitled "50 marks off for being born a girl" on the website called 'Uhn-ni-ne,' which means 'Big Sister's.' (www.unninet.co.kr)
"I recall fighting with my younger brother constantly. Even if I was not in the wrong, adults would scold me for 'putting down a boy.' Seeing all their love poured on one kid and never on me made me feel terribly left out. I was constantly comparing and fighting with my brother. As I was growing up, I always felt that Mom and Dad would never be on my side."
Kim still feels hurts whenever her mother mentions, "I was so grieved and disappointed when I gave birth to you that I still ache when winter (the season Kim was born) comes around."
Never once a warm hug
Ahn, a housewife living in Cheonan City, is the first-born of three daughters and one son. Ahn's father was an only son with twelve older sisters. His grandmother waited on him hand and foot, spoon-feeding him and warming his shoes on the stove, and the coddling continued even after he became a grown-up. To such a man, his three daughters did not count as his children.
"When we sisters were born, he did not even hold us once. He was afraid that if he cuddled a daughter, the next child would be another girl… Do you know what my father said to me when I was staying in the hospital after giving birth to my daughter? He said, 'Your mother stayed in the hospital only after giving birth to a son. She went home in three hours when she had you daughters. What's wrong with you?' He had thought that women who give birth to girls left the hospital straight away because they didn't hurt that much, whereas women who had boys stayed two more days to show off."
The three daughters had more downs than ups during their childhood thanks to their precious brother. "It was particularly hard for my youngest sister, the third-born. The grown-ups were really abusive with her. And because of them, we kids thought treating her like that was OK. Once we kids surrounded her and beat her up. She still feels uncomfortable around the family, acting like a loner…"
Kindergarten, extra-curricular activities or supplementary tuition were luxuries that daughters did not deserve. "Dad always said, 'All a girl needs is a husband. What are you going to do with a college degree?' In contrast, my brother was denied nothing, from taekwondo lessons to whatever there were classes for. So much so that we thought, 'With all that money plastered on him, the kid simply has to be a genius.' Even now, my brother's wish is my parents' command. He wanted a car, and he got it in a month."
Despite the obvious discrimination she had to put up with, Ahn is not a 'resister.' "Well… I guess because the whole family was like that, we just accepted it; we were brainwashed. Thanks to my father, my little sister still thinks that she's a good-for-nothing and that all she needs is a husband. She's 24, for goodness sake."
Did the son you so wanted make you happy?
Park, the eldest of two girls and a boy, has painful memories of fighting with her brother and then crying buckets of tears asking her mother, 'Why don't you ever have a warm hug for me?' Park's father, considered quite the family man, did not come home for two days when the second daughter was born. "Whenever my parents have a row, my mom always brings that up, telling my dad how hurt she had been." During her elementary school years, there were many days Park gnashed her teeth and cried lonely tears, hating her brother for receiving all her parents' love."
Did the 'precious little brothers' of Kim, Ahn and Park really bring happiness to their parents? Kim's brother - more precious to his parents than all four of his sisters put together - could not bear the burden of his parents' expectations and resorted to running away from home or turning to juvenile delinquency, something his sisters never did. Ahn's brother, whose mother went through such pains to give birth to, is no different. Says Ahn, "Mom and Dad should have realized by now that a son isn't that big a deal. Why all that fuss over a kid who didn't turn out special just because he's a boy?" Park's brother, currently studying for his third attempt to pass the college entrance examination, grew up with an inferiority complex because of his much smarter and more capable older sisters. "He over-reacts whenever he feels someone said something to cut him down."
May the daughters of daughters be raised with love
Daughters, raised to think of themselves as burdensome misfits, often grow to rely on each other. When Ahn got married and started a family of her own, her two younger sisters came to regard her as their 'maiden home.' "My sisters say that even if they stop visiting our parents, they will still continue to come to my place. We formed our own family unit driven by our need for love. It'll grow stronger with the years."
On the other hand, the sisters are not close to their youngest sibling, 'born from the same womb but to a different world.' "We treat him with kid gloves. Like our mother did, we end up giving him everything he asks for. But that doesn't mean we're fond of the selfish person he's become. My youngest sister still treats him like a distant cousin."
Park also feels "particularly motherly" about her sister, who grew up without enough parental love and attention.
Daughters, who brought not joy but disappointment from birth, who had to suffer discrimination from those closest to them, should be the ones leading the way to curing Korean society's deep-seated illness named 'obsession with sons.'
Ahn, now a mother of a one-year-old baby girl, says it is not that easy. "Because women lose out in everything in this society, because I have to bend over backwards for my in-laws, because my husband is the center of the universe to his parents … so even I hoped for a son, so that I wouldn't fall out of favor with my in-laws. When my baby girl was born, I did feel a little let down."
However, Ahn wishes for a world where daughters will also be loved. "Since I grew up lacking love, I want to give as much of it as I can to my daughter. Fortunately, my husband loves our baby girl. That means we can bring our daughter up in a family that loves her."