The responsibilities of the firstborn
It’s not unfair to say that Koreans are rather preoccupied with firsts. So preoccupied, in fact, that MBC News criticized the phenomena of the modifier (“the first”) prefacing all news articles. Figure skater Kim Yuna is celebrated because she brought home the Olympic gold in 2010, not the silver. Korea’s chances of producing a Nobel Prize laureate in literature is openly discussed and pursued.
But not all Koreans want to be first.
Much has been written about the first-born phenomenon. The first thinker to devote serious attention to this subject in the West was Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud.
According to the magazine Scientific American, since then more than 65,000 data-based articles have been devoted to birth order, but most were based on flawed or limited research.
But the recent research is more scientific, and more provocative, even linking lower IQs to the descending order in siblings, due partly to a diminishing level of attention on the parents’ part.
The term “first-born syndrome” has become common currency in the field of psychology. In Frank Sulloway’s iconic study Born to Rebel, the firstborn is characterized as “achievement-oriented, antagonistic, anxious, assertive, conforming, extraverted, fearful, identified with parents, jealous, neurotic, organized, planful, responsible, self-confident and traditional than their siblings.”
But generalities fall away in the face of the particular. One person’s battle with cancer is not like any other cancer patients’ experience. And the experience of being born the first child in Korea, a country where tradition and modernity is embraced, seems to me a timeless and unique challenge.
The story of the firstborn is also the story of a family. As soon as the first child is born, the mother literally loses her name, and implicitly, her identity. From now on, she will be called Eun-joo’s mother, or Won-taek’s mother, by her acquaintances as well as those closest to her, including her husband.
With birth comes a death. It is a moment to celebrate, and a moment to mourn. As engineer Lee Won-seok said, “It made me kind of proud to hear my mother called by my name, but it also gave me a great sense of responsibility. Whatever I did from now on would reflect on her.” The mother becomes a mirror, a watery reflection, and the firstborn, an affirmation, a result and consequence. This is the role behind the role: the endless echo of a name whose effect is as deep as rivers.
But blood can also be thicker than water, according to the expression that dates back to the German medieval poet Heinrich der Glichezare.
A young Korean and unmarried CEO of a construction company said, “I have the responsibility to carry the bloodline. If I had an older brother and he had kids, I wouldn’t be concerned. I could do whatever I want.” This sentiment was echoed by several other firstborn men - carrying the bloodline, as if it were literally a heavy trunk that they bore on their shoulders.
And where are the firstborn women?
For a woman in her early 30s with a younger sister, that is not the case. Like many firstborn Korean women and men in the post-war period, her own mother sacrificed her personal dreams to earn money and support her four siblings.
Likewise, she said, “My father died early so I feel the pressure to become a kind of father figure and take care of the family.”
And though the oldest man of the family is still expected to carry out ancestral rites for the family, when a son is studying overseas, his female sibling has been known to step in.
But for many firstborn women, despite their ambitions and dreams, the main pressure is still to marry for the sake of marriage. Times have changed, more women in Korea are succeeding professionally than ever before, and though the overall situation has improved, the architecture has changed little.
Song Dong-rim, a firstborn female university student, said, “Men in Korean society are expected to do everything - literally, everything.”
Another man confessed, “As the firstborn son, my father was the center of the universe, and I was the center of the universe, too. Great power comes with great responsibility. Very simple.”
When it comes to birth order in Korea, gender still trumps birth order. So goes the story. But when it comes to the gray area of daily life, it’s hard for me to tell who’s getting the better end of the deal.
*The author, a Korean-American writer whose novel “Drifting House” won The Story Prize Spotlight award in 2012, teaches creative writing at the Underwood International College at Yonsei University.
By Krys Lee