My Chinese Husband, Almost Switched at Birth

Some old dolls packed together
When my Chinese husband was born, the neighbors wanted to swap him for their baby daughter (photo by Onclebob)

When someone gives birth to a baby boy, you wouldn’t say “can we switch babies?” Unless, of course, you happened to be neighbors to my Chinese husband’s family.

As the third son in the family, John dashed his mother’s hopes of finally giving birth to a girl. Their neighbors had the opposite problem — they had just birthed another girl, the third in their family. So the neighbors came to John’s parents, with a different kind of indecent proposal.

The way my mother-in-law and father-in-law tell it, there was no question what they would do. “He’s our son, we could never give him away,” my mother-in-law declared emphatically at lunch one day, as my father-in-law nodded his head, adding how the neighbors “had a crazy idea.”

But what about the neighbors themselves? I never got a chance to talk to them, but I have to believe they were simply anxious to get a son. After all, according to China’s longstanding Confucian values, it’s the son who must care for the parents. To the traditional Chinese, not having a son is like not getting a social security package. Plus, it’s just unfilial — sad, but true.

While I’m glad my in-laws never traded John away, I wonder what became of the neighbors. Did they learn to embrace their daughters as triple the happiness? Would they allow their daughters to care for them, as sons?

It’s hard to say. Even today, in my husband’s rural hometown, families may have a second child only if their first is a girl. The underlying message — that no one should have to “make due” with one girl — just doesn’t jive with my feminist sensibilities.

Chairman Mao once said that women hold up half the sky. But three young girls, young precious lives, couldn’t hold up a certain family from imagining the possibility of swapping their infant girl for the infant boy that would grow up to be my Chinese husband.

Have you ever heard about families going to great, often outlandish, lengths, just to get a boy?

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12 thoughts on “My Chinese Husband, Almost Switched at Birth

  • January 17, 2011 at 5:15 am

    That is just unbelievable story! How could anyone even suggest something like that? I have heard how important it is to have a boy and some people are willing to go to great lengths to get one. Mothers want to know if they are expecting a girl so they can maybe get rid of it before the pregnancy is too far. But to change your already born child to someone else? How could they live after that knowing that their daughter is living nextdoor?

    Mao made many mistakes, but if Chinese people want to remember something from him, it should indeed be the sentence you wrote: women hold up half the sky.

  • January 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    The opposite is true with my family:
    I have two brothers and one sister, she being 11 years younger than I, and 5 years younger than my youngest brother. In fact, my youngest brother is the “unwanted” result in the attempt to have a daughter. For 10 long years my parents tried it all, & hundreds of thousands of NT$ later (enough to buy a new car), my sister was born on X-mas Eve, 1984.
    Gives new meaning to the proverbial 千金。

  • January 17, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    It happens. I exist merely for the fact that my sister was born first. If my sister was a brother I wouldn’t exist. In fact neither would my cousin his friend Jon and his friend James either! Funny old world eh?

    In the UK I know of a guy called P he and his wife are Chinese (though the mother is half Japanese), they had nine children all were girls. They kept thinking the next one will be….

    The old looking after thing is silly though, in Hong Kong my dad looks after both my grand parents. The daughters also regularly visit their mothers. Communication as in travel is easy now with extensive rail and airnetworks criss crossing China. thus the old going away never to be seen again is not really that much of a problem. That said Jocelyn what about YOUR parents? 😉 Tis a verra long way to go visit. My dad visits me now and again.

  • January 17, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    Nothing that drastic, but the Chinese girl I was dating in college is 1 of 4 sisters because their parents kept trying for sons but never got one. They were born and raised in the Philippines though, so their exposure to Chinese culture and language was mostly second hand. They don’t feel any of those cultural pressures themselves.

  • January 18, 2011 at 3:30 am

    Hi, I’m confused. Did this all happen before the One-Child Policy was instituted in China? How many years ago did this happen? One of my Chinese language teachers had a son about 30 years ago while living in Beijing. If the family had stayed in China, he would have been their only child. Then the family immigrated to the US about 20 years ago and a few years later had a daughter, which they were–of course–very happy about.

  • January 18, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I actually never heard of rural Chinese or other Asian family who wants daughters ESPECIALLY for their only child? Don’t get me wrong! Times are changing. But the fact remains they want sons who can support the family through their old age and continue the family bloodline. With daughters, they usually get married off to their husband’s family.

    This happens in the West too. When the female gets married in the USA, she often changes her family name to her husband’s in effect continuing his family legacy.

    • January 19, 2011 at 12:22 am

      @Sara, thanks for the comment. It is a pretty bizarre idea, but fortunately my husband’s parents didn’t buy into it. I do wish more people remembered that Mao quote!

      @Henry Yeh, how fascinating that the opposite happened for you! Glad your family finally got the daughter they wanted. But wonder if your younger bro feels odd, knowing that he wasn’t the gender your parents had in mind?

      @tcg, How funny that you were a failed attempt to have a girl! Wah, that is crazy that this family in the UK you know of had nine children, always thinking the next one will be a boy. Well, at least they didn’t abort them just because they weren’t boys.

      As far as my parents, well, I’m safe in that department — one of three siblings, and my stepsister lives close to my dad and stepmom. (Whew!).

      @Jason, interesting story on your former gf. I’m glad, as I said above, that the parents still kept the girls, and, at least from what you suggest, loved them.

      @Anna, ah yes, this did happen pre-One-Child Policy (or, rather, in my husband’s case, that he was born just around the time it came out). Yes, definitely, in your friend’s case, if he’s 30, well, he would have fallen into the One Child Policy and been a singleton, as in no siblings. I guess my husband lucked out — that should comfort him in those hours when he laments getting older… 😉

      @Marcus, I don’t think I have heard of such a thing either. As I wrote in the piece, it was a case of wanting that third child to be a daughter (my husband’s family) — since they already had two sons, they finally wanted a girl to balance things out.

      Good call on the Western tradition — it is, in a way, like women in the West are getting “married off to the husband’s family” since we are “supposed to” change our names (but not me, my inner feminist won’t allow it. 😉 )

  • January 19, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    It does happen in China. It reminds me a very famous opusculum in Chuan Wan. It’s a story talking about a spouse moving aroundwith their infant girls in order to give a birth to boy. Because of one-child policy they have to migrate like birds in the different provinces.

    And in China, there is another interesting phenomenon, a man married off to his wife’s family. We call him “Shang Meng Nv Xu”.

  • January 23, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Some wealthy people asked my grandma to sell them her baby boy in… post war Spain. People can go great lengths to “get” (sometimes in a quite literal way) the baby they desire. Luckily my grandma refused, for that baby boy she was asked to sell is my father.

    I feel times are slowly changing in China too. My Chinese husband’s paternal grandmother had 9 children. Only 2 of them were girls. My mother in law also had 2 boys (one of them, my husband), and many of the relatives had boys as well. When I got pregnant, everybody wished for a girl, because there were already too many boys in the family.

  • September 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    It happens.


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