Patrilineal Pressure: Unpacking Chinese First-Born Male Identity
Patrilineal Pressure: Unpacking Chinese First-Born Male Identity
Introduction to Chinese Patriliny
For more than two millennia, Chinese families have traditionally adopted the patrilineal descent system. This is a descent system, where family relational dynamics are organized by a series of strong father figures (patriarchs) passing down their beliefs, behaviors, and riches to the oldest son in the family. Eldest males in the family often shoulder the hopes and dreams of their parents, and are considered vital to the family’s survival. These high expectations create a tremendous (and oftentimes overwhelming) amount of pressure to make the family proud.
Although being the eldest male in the family also means getting the biggest entitlement to inherit, these males are stuck between a global landscape that encourages individuality, and centuries of family pressure that dictate there are rigid rules to how life must be lived. This is why Dorothy Mills calls this generation the “sandwich generation”. Every move they make is heavily scrutinized, and can become a divisive point of tension between parents and children.
There are many questions that male, oldest children in Chinese families must ask themselves. How can they balance familial expectations with the ability to assert their individuality? Will they pass on this parenting style to the next generation? Does the buck stop here, or must the patrilineage carry on indelibly? On a hot summer day in June, an Inheritance Project team-member, Angela Renata, (IP) sat down on a balcony with two first-born male-Indonesians of Chinese descent, Brahma Putra (BP) and Charles Richie (CR), to get the story.
IP: Hi. Can you please tell us your full name and if it has any specific meaning or story behind it?
BP: My name is Brahma Putra. “Brahma” is actually the name of one of the most powerful Hindu gods. He is the creator of the universe. I am not Hindu, though. “Putra” in Indonesian means “boy” or “male”.
CR: My name is Charles Richie. It is very common for parents to name their kids according to the things that occurred or were seen on the day of birth. When I was born, my father was watching the hospital TV and saw King Charles. Hence, he made “Charles” my first name. Later that evening, he watched the movie Richie Rich and so named me, “Charles Richie”.This symbolized his desire for me to be both rich and a ruler.
IP: Do you know how your ancestors migrated to Indonesia? Which part of China were they from?
BP: My ancestors came from the province of Fujian in China. I think that I am the sixth generation in my paternal family. They likely migrated to Indonesia around a hundred years ago. My mother’s family migrated to Indonesia around 80 years ago and I am the fifth generation now.
CR: My ancestors came from Jiangsu province, of China in Nanjing City. I am the first descendant of the fourth generation on both sides of the family. This makes me the first great-grandchild, grandchild, and son of both families.
IP: Under former Indonesian president Soeharto’s regime (beginning in 1966) in Indonesia, Indonesian Chinese descents were forced to acculturate their family names into an Indonesian family name. You can read more about the history here. What is the story behind yours?
BP: My full-name is “Brahma Putra Sutanto”. Under Soeharto, it was mandated by law that we couldn’t have a Chinese name. My Chinese name is 陳鴻年 (Chen, Hong Nian). Chen is my family name. In our local language, Chen can be translated to Tan. So that’s why my family name was changed to Su-Tan-To. We incorporated the Chinese family name into a more traditional Javanese family name.
CR: My Chinese name is 蔡振宏 (Chai, Zhen Hong). My family lived in Pontianak, Indonesia, where the majority of the population is Chinese. We were not forced to change our family name. Therefore, the name and Chinese name stayed the same: Chai. In Teochew (a common Chinese dialect in Indonesia) our name is pronounced “Chua”.
IP: What’s the one part of your inheritance you’re most proud of? Please share the story behind it.
CR: I’m proud of the thick Chinese culture in my family. I am a Buddhist, and we also practice Confucianism. The Indonesian government considers Confucianism an official religion. While we do have rituals such as bringing incense to the temple, Confucianism isn’t exactly a religion. It is a Chinese philosophy that dictates a particular lifestyle. Sometimes, people mistake it for Buddhism and conflate the two.
BP: I love the food. There aren’t many dietary restrictions in Chinese culture, so you get to enjoy a lot of different types of food. My culinary upbringing is undoubtedly interesting, since my father’s side is still a very traditional Chinese family, while my mother’s family converted to Catholicism. My father’s side cooks a lot of pork and primarily makes traditional Chinese foods. My mother’s side cooks more beef and local Indonesian cuisines. Good thing that I get to taste a little bit of both!
IP: As a first-born male in a Chinese family, your predecessors and family have a quantity of expectations towards you. Can you please tell us some of them?
BP: The expectations are very clear. You have to marry a good wife, have one to three children, have a good education, find a good and normal job. You have to take care of the family, participate in some family tradition meetings and events… there are always plenty of things you have to do.
CR: It’s simple — be rich and powerful. Both sides of my family were extremely poor because they migrated from China to Pontianak, Indonesia only recently. They were impoverished and now want me to excel in everything, and to become the backbone of the family. Even though my father has succeeded in increasing our financial condition, I still carry this burden on my shoulders.
IP: How do these expectations affect you personally?
BP: I am not a fan of them. I value freedom a lot, and most of these expectations ask me to follow a designated path. Every time I make a life decision, I have to anticipate how my family will react. I also have to be responsible for how I’m going to live my life in a way that they’ll perceive is right. It’s a lot of pressure. I understand where they’re coming from and how they want their descendants to have a good life… I understand that very well. However, I also feel that there has to be a certain degree of freedom given to your children if you want them to succeed.
CR: I was depressed in high-school due to the amount of pressure I received from my family. But eventually, as I grew up, I understood the intentions behind these expectations. We cannot ask somebody for something they don’t have, so when we didn’t have a lot of money or resources, we felt the pain of that shortage. My family wanted me to be powerful — in terms of being able to do anything in my career and wanted me to be rich. This is due to their financial difficulty, and also the discrimination they had to face in China — which led them to migrating to Indonesia. They’re expecting me to be better to help them. I realized that I need to be strong for my family. This pressure also taught me to be selfless.
IP: What is something you wish people knew about you, or something people often assume about you that isn’t true?
CR: Many people think that I look scary, big, strong, and manly. Truthfully, deep down inside, I feel weak. I cry a lot before bed. I am overthinking at all hours of the day and night. There is a lot of pressure that I’m bearing. Yet, I am also aware that I need to accept this burden since no one else in my family can.
BP: I am not a fan of that stereotype which assumes Chinese people are good at business. I think that’s a toxic stereotype. I’ve met many Chinese people who are terrible at doing business. A lot of Chinese people are struggling as well, just like every other ethnic group. This kind of stereotype makes people feel pressure and makes them feel like they’re forced into a certain kind of life. But you don’t have to accept this, you know? These are just certain stereotypes. It’s not something you need to fulfill.
IP: Does it have a specific effect on you when it comes to socializing?
BP: Yes. When anyone asks me what my defining feature is, I tell them I always avoid trouble. If I see someone that I think is going to give me trouble in the future, I’m not going anywhere close to them. If I see a certain activity in which I might be going into trouble, I’m not going to do it. I never take a gamble because of all this pressure that surrounds me — it makes me become a person who hates failure and tries to avoid problems at all costs. I always feel like I’ll never get a second chance if I make a mistake.
CR: I cannot get along very well with people of the same age as me. My family is so big that many generations lived in the same house. There were around 20 people in the house, and I didn’t have any siblings until I was five years old. I socialized and learned from the people who were way older than me, making me mature faster than other people of my age.
IP: Are you thinking of passing down these patrilineal expectations or leaving it behind? Why?
BP: I’m not going to continue it. I feel that most of these expectations are very toxic, and so do my friends. For those that can get over the expectations — good for them. However, I know that a good portion of first born Chinese males can’t deal with the amount of pressure poured over them… even though they have to try.
History is something for us to learn from and change, not something to repeat. I don’t think it’s something that we necessarily have to pass down. I’ll teach my future children about my life experience, but I’ll give them absolute freedom. It’s up to them if they want to continue with this pressure or to choose a different way of life.
There are good values in Chinese culture: The desire to do better with emphasis on education and employment isn’t necessarily bad. In moderation, it can be motivating, so I wish to pass this on to some extent.. But regarding the excessive pressure and limiting their life options — I will not continue.
CR: Like Brahma, I will continue some values, especially Chinese moral values. But I will definitely stop the excessive pressure. If I’m going to be a parent in the future, I will inevitably have expectations for my child, but won’t excessively pressure them or limit their dreams.
IP: Can you please specify what aspects of Chinese morality you’d like to pass down to future generations?
CR: I think that I’ll pass down the patriarchy culture in my family, where the man will take the wheel. Sometimes, I empathize with women who are the backbone of the family. I’m not saying that they’re fragile, but in situations where the family is poor and the women have to do rough jobs (bus driver, construction work), I feel that they deserve a better condition.
BP: That’s a counterpoint in my family. Most of the financially successful people have been the women. It’s always been females in my family who have a lot of economic power, even if the dominant decision-maker is still the father.
I understand the point where you’re coming from, feeling kind of sad about how hard the women work. I feel pity as well because a lot of times you see your mother or your grandmother having to work long, long hours every day, both within and outside of the home.
But I feel that again, because I am a person who’s very invested in freedom, if that’s how they want to live, then it should be their decision. I’m trying to be a useful person, and a lot of my motivation to do so is a direct result of my family’s history. I don’t want to put a lot of burden on my wife by not being successful. If I have a wife, I want it to be on equal standing.
IP: Is there any message you would like to tell first-born Chinese males that are experiencing this?
BP: Do what you want, find what you want to do, marry who you want. I understand that this means that you have to fight with your family. I understand that it can be strenuous. I understand that in the Chinese culture, family importance is one of the crucial values…
But I also want you to understand that standing up for yourself is essential. Even though family is very important, ultimately it’s your life. Have a good relationship with your family, but try not to have it at a cost of your own future. Think of yourself when you’re older. Maybe following your families every wish will work out for you, but I know that in a lot of cases, it doesn’t work out. Then you’re the one left that has to live with it.
CR: As a first-born male, there are certain things that you need to accomplish and need to do. Individuality is important, but you need to remember that you’ll be the head of the family when your parents (in certain circumstances) have to leave. You’ll have the responsibility of taking care of your family. Go ahead and dream, but don’t forget your family. To forget your family is just egoistical.
Our inheritance creates a large portion of our life. It shapes us as who we are now. What’s passed down to us can affect our decision-making skills and our way of thinking. Chinese patrilineality is something more than having the males of the family taking control of the steering-wheel. It is a mindset.
Extending and Reflecting
This interview provides a fascinating insight into the lives and inner most thoughts of Chinese eldest male children. The pressure is intense, the expectations are high, and the family is counting on them to transform the lives of future generations. What has their stories brought up about your own relationship with gender roles, familial expectations, and choosing what to pass down to future generations?
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