The Asian Sibling Controversy: Healthy Sibling Rivalry or Unhealthy Competitive Spirit?

There’s an extremely powerful scene in critically acclaimed NBC show, The Good Place, where one of the four primary characters, Tahani Al-Jamil (played by Jameela Al-Jamil), has an aching realisation that her much loathed, millionaire artist sister had been symbolically reaching out to her their whole life. I, and surely many others, cried their heart out when the sisters tearfully reunited, overcoming years of conditioned competition and rivalry.

Powerful cinematography and symbolism aside, the scene made me take a step back and rethink the competitive spirit between my younger sister and myself. I remember blurry instances of marksheets being compared, and veiled taunts undermining one in areas the other would have succeeded in. Things like this; a constant background noise to our impertinent childhoods.

You see, when someone says the same thing to you over and over again, it doesn’t take long before you start saying it to yourself. Sure, sometimes you still need a little bit of prodding and poking, often in the form of emotional and mental gaslighting, but before long you learn the way of things. In our case, it was the haughtiness before every match, the trash talk before a performance or debate, and the unending coldness at the end of another hurdle being passed.


There seemed to exist, in the deepest crevices of my parents unconscious, the idea that a little competition between the two of us (thankfully, my youngest sister, born much later, was too young to be included in this plan) would push us to work harder, smarter, and, in simple words, just more. They weren’t wrong though…but at what cost?


By the time I was sixteen, my sister and I had unconscious lines drawn between ourselves: a means to ensure that we wouldn’t have to fight unnecessarily. We’d divided everything between ourselves from talents to hobbies to art. She got sports, I got public speaking. She got watercolours, I got mandala art. She got math, I got English. She took on science, I fell for poetry.

Sure, some things flowed naturally, like my love for literature, but somethings could’ve been avoided, like how she pushed herself to the emotionless end of the spectrum just to avoid colliding with my overflow of emotional expression. Some was healthy; most parts were not.


A lot of this was unconscious, and you have to believe me when I say that till this day I bear no ill-will towards my sister. I actively try to support her endeavours, unlearning the idea that I will succeed only if she doesn’t or that competing with her will instantaneously improve the quality of my work.


But it is hard to love someone when in the innermost, secret parts of your mind, you are convinced that their success will lead to your failure. The only advice I have for you in a situation like this? Love anyway.


Sometimes it not about the success you have on paper, but the success of that one blooming feeling in your chest, the one you will experience when your once-rival makes her graduating speech…and says that none of her victories would’ve been won without you.


Because at the end of the day, it’s not ALL about the battles you’ve won…but about the people you won along the way.


The aim of this piece is to gently unpack the way the Asian spirit of competition sometimes fosters an unhealthy spirit of rivalry...and the things to remember in times like those.

Biography: Sarah is a kind, hard-working individual. When she isn't busy obsessing over poetry, you can find her making funny videos with her sisters at @sarahmathaii