Cynthia Kim Beglin

Culture Shocked

Why Do Tiger Parents Want Their Kids to Marry Young?

It's all about a different means to the same end.

Posted Jan 10, 2018

Cynthia Kim Beglin
Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin

As Chinese New Year approaches—in mid-February this year—young Chinese begin making plans to travel to their hometowns to visit their parents. In a country where most people have only one child, singles in their mid-twenties often find the pressure to marry is intense. Men greatly outnumber women (118 for every 100) and must compete for increasingly picky women, even as females over the age of 27 are stigmatized as “leftover” women.  Many will resort to “hiring” a fake girlfriend or boyfriend to accompany them home to appease their parents.  For those who don’t take such drastic measures, I imagine the conversation around the dinner table can be a relentless version of one I had recently with my father about my own children. 

“How is my beautiful granddaughter doing? Did she get that great job she's been interviewing for in the city?”

“Yes, Dad, she did.” I grit my teeth and try to muster as much enthusiasm as possible, even though I had just answered that question for him nine times. 

“Oh! I’m SO happy!” he exclaims, as I brace myself for his next comment, knowing all too well what it will be. “Now she can move to the big city, find a good husband!  There just aren’t enough men in that little town she lives in now! You know, it’s about time she gets married! If she waits much longer, nobody will want her. She's too old.” 

I briefly consider answering what I know will be the next question with a lie. “How old is she again?”  

I hesitate. “She’s 27.”  

“Whaaaaaaaaat?! How’d she get so old? How come you didn’t find her a husband yet?”

I take a deep breath and remind myself, for the ninth time, that he’s from another era—not to mention another culture—that he only has what he considers to be her best interests in mind. 

“She’s figuring out her career, Dad. She has to be happy with her life before she worries about making someone else happy as well.”

“That’s ridiculous!” he scoffs. “How can she be happy without a man?” 

I think of some of my divorced friends’ ex-husbands. “It’s better for her to be alone than to be with the wrong man, Dad. She’s still young. She’ll figure it out.” 

“But even if she meets someone who’s educated, smart, and good-looking, he’s not going to want her, since already she’s past 25! Ayahh!” I picture him shaking his head sadly. “You know what they say in Korea, don’t you?” 

“I know, I know,” I say, fighting the sudden urge to bang my head with the phone in frustration…or at the very least, to remind him he hasn’t even visited Korea in decades.

“A woman is like a Christmas cake…” he begins.

“DADDDDDDD!  Please stop! You’ve told me this nine times today already! PLEASE just be happy for her…be happy she has a great new job with a big title and lots of responsibility!”

“After the 25 birthday…”

“STOPPPPPP!” I know I shouldn’t let him get to me, but I can’t help it. “Stop, stop, stop! She’s not a Christmas cake! She’s a woman!”

He pauses for so long, I wonder if we’ve been disconnected. “… she’s stale,” he declares. I can’t believe him! He’s been using that line since I was 25! “Does she make a lot of money?” he adds without skipping a beat. 

So predictable, I think to myself. “She’s fine, Dad. She makes enough to be happy.”

“But does she make as much as a doctor… or a lawyer? Can’t she find one of those guys to marry? Or a business man, like her brother?”

Ughhhhhh…

“Speaking of my grandson, when is his wife going to quit her job and have the baby?”

“She’s his fiancée, Dad. They’re not married yet.”

“Okay okay. Whatever you say. But when are they going to give me the grandchild?”

“Well first they have to get married.”

“Doesn’t she want to quit her job, take it easy and have a baby?” Where do I even start with that one? I resist the urge to tell him that maybe our son’s fiancée doesn’t want to quit her job when she has kids, that she has a fulfilling career as well. 

“It’s not that easy to stay home and take care of the kids, Dad. It’s a full-time job, and an exhausting one at that.” 

“I’m not getting any younger. I want a grandchild! I'll be dead before they have a baby if they wait to get married! I’m over a hundred already.”

“No Dad. You’re 89, not a hundred. And any child they have will be your GREAT grandchild. And I thought having a baby out of wedlock was a big no-no, back in Korea, that is.”

“Boy, you’re pretty old-fashioned, aren’t you?” he huffs.

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Why do Chinese put so much pressure on their children to marry young and give them grandchildren?  Recent studies show that Chinese mothers derive more of their self worth from their children than moms in the West, hence the Tiger Mom phenomenon. They need to push their children harder to succeed so they feel better about themselves, in part because they know they are being judged by how successful their children are. How can your child be a true success if he/she doesn’t have a child, who can in turn become successful? 

So too there are Tiger Moms in South Korea, where a child’s performance reflects on the whole family. Both cultures have roots in Confucian teachings, and so they value respect for one’s elders, including bringing honor to the family by being successful, and continuing the family line. Then of course, there’s always the worry that if your child waits too long to marry, they will have fertility issues…

While, of course, most American parents are just as excited as anyone to have grandchildren, their self-worth is not as closely tied to their children and grandchildren. Rather, they value their children’s independence and feel they must respect their offspring’s wishes more. In general, all parents just want their children to be happy. It’s just that every culture has a slightly different idea of how to help their children achieve that happiness.