Gender in the family by Martin Gee final

My Parents Always Wanted a Boy

Writer Irene Zhang weighs in on big sisterhood and the lessons in feminism she unexpectedly learned from her Chinese parents

Words by Irene Zhang

Combine 女 (daughter) and 子 (son/child) and you get 好 (good). My parents get compliments about their children everywhere: what a perfectly gendered set!

My brother was born six years ago, when I was thirteen; until then, I was raised an only daughter in Beijing, then Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (where I held him for the first time). Coming at the tail-end of the One-Child era in the diaspora, this age gap is not so uncommon: birthright citizenship in adoptive countries means that the opportunity to raise a bigger family often comes further down the line.

Neither my dad nor his older brother had produced boys before my little brother came into the picture, much to the disappointment of extended family members. Even as a child, I understood from whispers and glances at annual visits that my birth, somehow, killed the family lineage (never mind that our last name is the third most common one in the most populous country on earth).

My brother’s sex must have created an impossible dilemma for my parents: here was the son that everyone practically demanded of them, but what would that mean for the daughter they’ve tried to educate as an equal to any boy?

Is it possible to love a child innocently when the imposed value of his gender has so much power to taint that love? When others have the audacity to openly assume that my parents only had him because he was a boy, how do they reconcile their own gendered dreams for the new baby

Rarely do children get to witness their parents’ parenting as a third party observer, and most of the time the sibling age gap is too close for observations to be disinterested. I watch, then, from a unique vantage point: after all, there is little comparable behaviorally or developmentally between a preschooler and teenager. As a Chinese Canadian eighth-grader from the days of that green-background Korean dad meme, I decided that I’d have to be the progressive influence for my baby brother. Dad and Mom still used words like “sissy” and commented too frequently on our weight. When my brother asked how many boys and how many girls there are in the world, I took him aside afterwards and told him that there are “more options than boys and girls.” I was uncomfortable with how often the word 男子汉 (manly man) came up; when my mom tried to get my brother into taekwondo by saying that “all the strongest boys do it,” I hurriedly added that “yes, exercise makes everyone stronger and healthier.”

Custom has it that speaking over them in parenting matters would be disrespectful, but in diaspora families such as mine, our lived context subtly inverts these dynamics. From translating at parent-teacher conferences and playdates to taking my brother to after-school lessons, my expanded role as child and sibling is not just tasks but also responsibility; in return, my parents tacitly acknowledged my active input in his growth.

I learned very quickly, however, that I didn’t always have the right words for any situation. When my brother found out that dad and mom are “married,” he didn’t like the idea that he may have to marry a girl, because he liked playing with the boys in class more. On the car ride back from school he asked mom if he could marry a boy when he grew up, and my mom told him: “well, that’s less common, but some people do that and it’s okay.” I was completely quiet beside him, reeling from this unexpected roller coaster of emotions; his innocent question filled me with terror for some kind of homophobic lecture, and her answer almost brought forth tears of joy. (After all, I chuckled to myself, they do adore Leslie Cheung.) I ended up keeping it all in, too afraid to have my enthusiasm misread as somehow personally motivated.

Never mind that I’ve misread my parents for so long. I knew so little about the nuances of their experience back then, but assumed that they could not possibly be accepting of LGBTQ people.

I now recognize I was misdirected by the exclusionary imagination shaped by white feminism that I once bought into, which sees progressive politics as a prerogative for the majority and does not recognize non-white cultures’ radical potentials.

I’ve been asked countless times by well-meaning, like-minded peers whether my family is “conservative on social issues,” solely due to the color of my skin; how could I capture the complexity of my parents’ sociopolitical worlds on a conservative-liberal spectrum. Too often the “Asian Parents” hegemon has us imagining our families and our cultures as stagnant, somehow incapable of the same complexities and rationales that white families embody in media and society. This memeified and deeply boring discourse that runs rampant on Asian diaspora Internet effectively alienates us from our own parents and elders, not to mention depriving them of personhood. I was guilty of seeing them as a flattened median value of the world they came from, not as two distinct humans with independent minds.

My dad and mom are Chinese parents, who get very anxious when Canadian schools don’t set exams for Grade 1, and who still tell their son “big boys don’t cry” with some frequency. But so much of their stories also fall outside the narrow tropes: my maternal grandmother was the first educated woman in her rural family in northwestern China, and worked tirelessly as a county judge for decades, while my mom became a full-time homemaker. There were only three women in my dad’s law school cohort, but nowadays he works with more women than men. In recent years they’ve been watching the same world as I have, making sense of everything from irrepressible rise of #MeToo in China to intensifying authoritarianism and crackdowns on gender expression in media.

Some cultural iconoclast is harder to swallow than others. My dad tells me plainly that he wouldn’t want my little brother becoming “one of those guys doing makeup on Douyin” (TikTok’s Chinese counterpart), but also doesn’t think the state should regulate popular culture. My mom worries that my brother’s shyness makes him “girly,” but has also read many books about raising emotionally intelligent boys. Navigating the old and the new in a polarized world means not being right all the time; none of it is reducible to a game of feminist-or-not, or degrees of conformity to some essentialized North American culture. Doing right by the little boy we love means leaving expectations at the door and building our collaboration anew.

These reflections, on my end, led me to truly admire how my parents practice what they preach.

Seeing my parents teach my brother how to clean and cook, admittedly, is as moving for me as attending protests sometimes, a kind of immediate, intimate proof of rejection of the rigid gender roles they had inherited.

I don’t hear them speak of “your future wife” or “manly responsibilities” to him, and I can only assume they don’t believe these are essential to his happiness.

My parents truly believe that he will live in a better world, a belief I can’t always share. My mom told me once that being a mother means for her “building a utopia of some kind, starting from one good boy.” Any kind of radical politics is about dreaming, after all, since daring to dream of a just world is subversive at its core. Like many Chinese women, my mom doesn’t call herself a feminist, but her capacity to dream often surpasses mine; while I agonize internally about perfect commitment to my politics, dad and mom are already embracing uncertainty and exploration in our little imperfect utopia.

There’s no defined happy ending to work towards, but a lifetime of conversations is more than enough to rejoice in and look forward to. These days I still gently correct my parents when they use prejudicial terms or misogynistic tropes, but I’m no longer dedicated to being a perfect feminism evangelist. Feminism doesn’t need my flawed insistence, and my brother is already the best little boy in the world. We are flawed parents and sibling to him, but that won’t hurt him if being faultless isn’t the expectation in the first place. He will find his place in a future we can’t even know yet; we won’t have a big say in that, but we’ll always be there to help him navigate it. In a world that’s uninterested in our complexity, the very best we can do is to be generous with one another.

Published on July 13, 2022

Words by Irene Zhang

Irene Zhang is a social media strategist from Vancouver, BC. She just got a BA in History and English from the University of Oxford and isn't quite sure what to do with it. Find her at @irenearz on Twitter.

Art by Martin Gee

Martin Gee is a multidisciplinary artist who just wants to draw all day. He is a cat dad to Lady Gucci and Lady Echo Bass. Find him at