Why do I see so many Asian women riding in the back seat?
January 20, 2007 8:18 PM   Subscribe

Not sure if this is AskMeFi material, but google returns mostly porn results for "Asian wife backseat," and I can't find any previous question: I often see Asian men driving with women (presumably their wives) in the backseat. Nobody is riding shotgun. It is definitely the exception (i.e., most putative Asian couples I see are riding side-by-side). Does anyone know what this is about?

Possible explanations:

Many Asian women are quite petite, and passenger-side airbags are a safety concern. This may be the case, but I've seen this situation in enough older automobiles (presumably without passenger-side airbags or any at all) and women that appeared to be of appropriate height and weight to negate this theory.

Infants: some have a childseat/children in back, most do not.

Personal racial bias: I have seen this situation only once or twice with non-Asians, and in these cases, there was an infant in the backseat. I don't think I'm selectively overseeing counterexamples.

Regional: I have observed this on both coasts and in the midwest.

Any ideas?
posted by oxonium to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

This doesn't specifically answer your question but when my aunt (Eastern Indian) first had her child she would often sit in the backseat with her infant son if he were being overly "grouchy" to calm him and keep the car ride somewhat bearable.

Perhaps this is the phenomena you're seeing with the child out of view?
posted by ASM at 8:28 PM on January 20, 2007

I didn't include a country because, well, I don't work or interact with sufficient Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc., to discern where they were from, but judging from skin tone (and please inform me if this is inaccurate), they weren't Asian Indians.
posted by oxonium at 8:33 PM on January 20, 2007

Also, almost universally no children. Almost positive. I've seen (presumably) couples enter the car together in this arrangement, sans infant.
posted by oxonium at 8:34 PM on January 20, 2007

My parents are Asian immigrants, although they never did this. A couple ideas, though:

1) The front seat is more dangerous. So for safety reasons, she sits in the back.

2) When people are being chauffeured around they generally sit in the back seat. Maybe she likes this feeling.

3) Backseat drivers are actually much more vocal if allowed to sit in the front seat.
posted by pravit at 8:38 PM on January 20, 2007

(East) Asian immigrants.
posted by pravit at 8:39 PM on January 20, 2007

i have seen this also, but in he context of what ASM says. its very, very common for asian indians and chinese mothers to ride in the backseat with their infant children.

not sure about couples with no kids. i suppose i have seen that but always made the assumption there was a kid out of view somewhere.
posted by joeblough at 8:58 PM on January 20, 2007

Huh! I'm in Asia, and here riding in the back with no one in front means the driver is your chauffeur (as opposed to a relative or a friend). Sometimes if families or friends get together and the front seat stays empty, there will be some good-natured griping about how the driver is now the "chauffeur". I have been reprimanded for it when I was younger when one of my parents is driving and I go to the back seat.

Are you sure those are their wives and not hired drivers?
posted by divabat at 9:06 PM on January 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I suspect they are family, because they're not driving cars of sufficient extravagance to make me think they'd warrant a driver. Toyota Corollas and the like. I don't think I've ever seen anything but the side-by-side arrangement from pairs of people (of any race) in a Lincoln, Mercedes, etc.
posted by oxonium at 9:09 PM on January 20, 2007

And I, as well, have been on the driver and passenger end of the "ha ha, you're my chauffeur" phenomenon, which is what puzzled me in the first place.
posted by oxonium at 9:11 PM on January 20, 2007

A caveat: I have seen front-seat/back-seat arrangements in luxury cars (from Whites, Blacks, and Asians), but, as far as I can remember, only when the chauffeur arrangement was obvious (i.e., suit and often hat on the driver). Never in a Saturn or Honda, etc.
posted by oxonium at 9:19 PM on January 20, 2007

Also, from both members of the same and dissimilar races and sexes.
posted by oxonium at 9:20 PM on January 20, 2007

My wife is from Vietnam.

The first thing that sprang to mind is, she sits in the back minding our baby, and our baby is in a child seat and not visible to most other drivers. Unless you're in a big four-wheeler and you're looking down into normal cars, the baby might well be invisible to you.

But anyway, by far the better answer comes from Mrs Chapel who says "When husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends are driving together, the woman sits in the front seat. If a woman is being driven by a relative or friend, they prefer to sit in the back".

It's about propriety, as far as I can tell -- she gives the example of one of her friends whose husband is a really aggressive driver. Sitting in the back with him driving gives her car sickness. So when he drove her home recently, she wanted to sit in the front seat, but she felt obliged to check with the wife first so as not to cause offense.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:55 PM on January 20, 2007

To establish my credibility, I lived in Monterey Park, California, and worked in Arcadia, Korea Town, China Town, and other Asian-American enclaves for several years. I routinely encountered people (including receptionists, personal assistants, executives, etc) who spoke no English. Dare I say this? As recent arrivals to the United States, driving was either a new experience or a very different experience from some metropolitan areas in SE Asia. There are a lot of bad drivers in those communities- maybe they're isolating the passengers in the back for safety!

One other little tibit- my company experienced 2 times as many car accidents in my area as other areas (such as East LA, Compton). Drive carefully!
posted by arnicae at 9:59 PM on January 20, 2007

AmbroseChapel: I drive a small sedan 95% of the time, and this may well be the answer. It's only been a few times that I've seen putative couples enter the car together, and I never followed them out of the building or anything, so maybe you and others are on to something.

For what it's worth, all the observing-people-entering-the-car incidents were in scientific labs (industrial and academic) or office buildings (housing, in my case, computer-related businesses, as well as others).
posted by oxonium at 10:00 PM on January 20, 2007

As for arnicae, this was always in major cities or suburbs thereof, never in an ethnic enclave (save labs, to the extent that they often are). I understand the point, though.
posted by oxonium at 10:03 PM on January 20, 2007

As for new drivers, that may be the case also - I've known people from lots of places (Nigeria, Turkey, China) who got their first license in the States. All the front-back incidents I observed were people who (to my untrained eye) were from East Asia (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese). Two of my good friends are Turkish and Nigerian, and each drove side-by-side with her husband (driving was shared, the husband usually, if not always, drove).
posted by oxonium at 10:09 PM on January 20, 2007

I've seen this a lot. In regular cars, like a Camry or what have you. Older couples, like empty nesters, too. I figured it was cultural somehow, but never anything specific.
posted by rhizome at 10:38 PM on January 20, 2007

My father usually had his car to himself - hence, his paperwork and whatnot from work rode shotgun. It was all a mess, but if they were cleaned up, he'd never know where Document #432446g was. The result of this was, whenever my mother (or I) were passengers, the only remaining comfortable sitting place was the backseat.
posted by Xere at 11:03 PM on January 20, 2007

In A Confederacy of Dunces Ignatious always takes the seat behind his mother while they're driving because he thinks that's the safest place to sit, in a sedan. (This was way before air bags.)
posted by Rash at 11:14 PM on January 20, 2007

So does Dwight.
posted by nervestaple at 11:51 PM on January 20, 2007

oxonium, I feel you've missed my socio-cultural explanation while acknowledging my geometrical one.

Here's a though: Vietnam is very much a motorbike country. Bikes outnumber cars by about ten thousand to one. So that might explain why being alone in a car with someone not your husband might be somewhat frowned-upon. Nobody's getting up to much hanky-panky on a Honda 50cc scooter, so the privacy of a car must seem quite a big deal in comparison. Hence the back-seat convention.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:58 AM on January 21, 2007

Friend in Beijing tells me this is common practice where they are having an affair. Interestingly, the story also extends to it being more common in a VW golf. I cannot fathom why this would be the case.

International urban myth = gold
posted by kaydo at 3:39 AM on January 21, 2007

My Chinese friend pointed this out to me on a recent trip to a large Asian mall in Toronto. She ascribed it to sexism, especially because you would see cases where a young boy was sitting in the front seat while the mother was sitting in the back.
posted by Gortuk at 6:25 AM on January 21, 2007

I always thought the reverse was interesting as a kid: that in north america, you "make the driver feel like a chauffeur" if you sit in back with no one in the passenger seat.

Here in Japan, there seems to be no such thought, and so it's common to see passengers in back. I haven't noticed a sex bias, though.
posted by dreamsign at 6:45 AM on January 21, 2007

This must happen often because my not-always-PC father-in-law calls it "riding oriental" when he and I sit in the back while his wife and my wife sit up front.
posted by terrapin at 7:23 AM on January 21, 2007

I think Gortuk has it.

The ranking in an traditional Oriental family goes like this: Father, oldest son, youngest son, mother, oldest daughter, youngest daughter. This ranking is Very Important.

Oldest son gets the best seat, the best food, etc. Mother is absolutely outranked by him in all things. The most likely explanation (if there's no infant in the car being taken of by Mom) is that Dad simply told her to sit in the back, and she did, perhaps because Eldest Son usually sits in the front passenger seat.
posted by jellicle at 8:08 AM on January 21, 2007

Not an answer, but related. In my LA neighborhood, I see an old Asian couple out walking almost every morning. The man is always ten steps ahead of the woman. Sometimes they seem to be conversing, despite the distance.

Don't know where they're from, so I can't say "it's a cultural thing" but I've always just assumed it is.
posted by largecorp at 8:40 AM on January 21, 2007

My wife (M.) is Japanese (I am from Canada) and our son (K.) was born in Japan. While we lived in Japan, M. always sat in the back seat with K. to help comfort him.

I must say that Japanese parents do not isolate children as parents do here in N. America. We all sleep together in the same room at night. K. will probably start sleeping on his own when he turns seven. M. and I use a different room to...be intimate together (blush).

Here in Canada M. still sits with K., now four years old, in the back seat, to keep him company. We drive a tin can. If someone hits us with anything larger than a shopping cart,we're toast. Safety has nothing to do with it.

In Japan, however, where you sit is very important. Specific seats in a room, or at a dinner table are occupied according to status.

So, generally, the rear seat of a car is usually where someone of higher status would sit. But it's very complicated.

In Japan, you can go a bookstore and by a handbook devoted to this sort of etiquette.

More here
posted by KokuRyu at 10:44 AM on January 21, 2007

For those who don't speak Japanese: in the link that KokuRyu posted, the top left diagram is "In taxis and hired cars", and the top right one is "When your superior or customer is driving". It adds that when someone is driving their own car for business, the "superior" style applies, and when a young employee is driving the "taxi" style applies. The next diagrams down are "On bullet trains/normal trains" (the arrow indicates the direction of movement of the train), and the one on the bottom is "On planes". It also says that they're not meant to be hard-and-fast rules, and that personal preference should be taken into account.

The etiquette rules described on that page are meant for business situations, though, so it doesn't say whether a family would use the "taxi" style or the "superior" style. I'd guess the "superior" style (since the person driving in a Japanese family is usually the husband, not a lower-ranking family member), but that implies that the wife should be in the front seat, not the back. The mystery continues...
posted by vorfeed at 2:10 PM on January 21, 2007

er, let me correct myself: that implies that the wife should be in the front seat, not the back, if the husband and wife are the only two in the car. If the family has a son, he'd probably sit up front when in the car. That said, this sort of thing is usually worked out only between those people who are present -- you don't leave an open seat for someone who isn't going along, even if they're higher rank. So I don't get why a Japanese wife would sit in the back if it was just her and her husband, unless of course she prefers it.
posted by vorfeed at 2:18 PM on January 21, 2007

I'm Chinese. I always sat in the backseat whenever one of my parents drove me to school or wherever. But my parents always rode up front together if they were both in the car. Backseat is considered safer for children and perhaps for those women you see. I wouldn't believe any of that stuff about "lower status" for women who ride in the backseat.
posted by Kimpossible at 3:32 PM on January 21, 2007

I second Kimpossible, and also laud vorfeed's excellent translation - I'm too lazy to do what s/he did.

Anyway, to run with Kimpossible's explanation, strict observations of status in Japanese culture are reserved for formal situations, like work or funerals or whatever, and not for family life (although I myself have the biggest tea mug, have the longest chopsticks and sit at the head of the table in my bicultural house).

Interestingly, just like vorfeed's gloss indicates, my wife, who is from Japan says that if you're driving a guest around in the family car, the point of honor is reserved for the seat next to the driver.

But not many Japanese people are all that aware of these sorts of protocols, and have to rely on crib notes bought at the bookstore.

As for the phenomenon of Asian women sitting in the back of the car, it's hard to know why. It doesn't seem strange to me. In Japan, women are mothers first, and wives and life-partners second. Perhaps they would have nothing to say if they sat in the front seat...
posted by KokuRyu at 7:54 PM on January 21, 2007

When I was small and the family would go out, my mother would complain about the A/C being too cold, the radio too loud, or the car being too sunny. Eventually, our seating arrangements turned into dad driving, me (daughter) in the passenger seat, and mom in the backseat and everyone was happy about it.

Since the trend among older Chinese women (at least in the San Gabriel Valley) is to be as untan as possible, maybe they're chosing to sit in the back to limit their sun exposure?
posted by nakedsushi at 6:12 PM on January 23, 2007

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