A week and a half ago, I got an email from my father that contained 17 full sentences. I counted; my father has never said that many words to me in the span of one conversation throughout my entire life. The email evoked a lot of emotions: gratitude for the care he expressed, sadness at the struggles he experienced and how they affected our relationship, and annoyance that I had to email him first for him to send me this information.
I developed a sense of my father’s personality early on in my life: hard-working, intelligent, and a free thinker. He always returned home from work past 10pm; I remember myself around the age of five or so, waiting on the hardwood steps near my front door and then running to hug him when he opened the door, the sky outside already a dark black. My grandparents always referred to him as their favorite son-in-law out of the four men their four daughters married – they said that they loved his smartness, which they thought exceeded that of their other son-in-laws by far. I remember reading an article about my father, written by some of his coworkers, in which they described him as an innovative and team-oriented leader who built camaraderie while advancing their company’s status in the field of software development.
Growing up, I idolized my father and then I resented him. As a child, I heard many older family relatives praise my father’s work ethic, and I too saw how hard he grinded to give material comforts to me and my brother and my mom. Over time, as an adolescent, I grew annoyed with his aloofness and detachment from my emotional life, though I still appreciated his way of caring through his financial support of me and my brother. When I went to undergrad, though, my resentment toward him blossomed into an almost alkaline rage: how could this man have stood by and done nothing while my mother emotionally abused me for almost every day of my life for 18 whole years? When he sent me a personal request over email a few weeks before my undergrad graduation, I refused and said he could ask again if he ever went to therapy and took steps to mend our relationship. Since then, we have exchanged a few short emails a few times a year, until the longer email he sent me earlier this month.
I think it will take a lot of time for me to process my feelings about my father. Yes, he failed me by not protecting me from my mother, and he also did and does his best to provide me with financial support, a way he feels comfortable showing care. He went through a lot, like immigrating from the American War in Vietnam and leaving his home country behind, working at a predominantly white company where I imagine he experienced overt and covert racism, and bearing the brunt of my mother’s emotional abuse too. My father told me once that when he dropped off my older brother to a playdate in his early childhood, my brother told my dad to stay in the car because he did not want his white friend and his white family to hear my dad’s Vietnamese accent. I feel sad when I think about what my relationship with my father could have been if not for imperialism, toxic masculinity and patriarchy, and racism.
I guess I write all of this because of how the media and white supremacy often erases the complexity of Asian fathers and many times portrays them as just cold, abusive, or enforcing of hierarchical relationships. I’m not saying that those types of Asian fathers don’t exist, because they definitely do. However, I find it frustrating how people generalize that image of Asian fathers to all Asian fathers while ignoring the racism and gendered racism that Asian fathers experience in the United States. Furthermore, in my experience as a therapist and even simply talking with my few white friends, there are a lot of manipulative, cruel, and toxic white fathers, however, I rarely see the one-sided portrayals and generalizations of white fathers that I witness in relation to Asian fathers.
My father’s most recent email reminded me of the complexity of our relationship. While I still harbor some negative feelings toward him, as I get older, I recognize that for better or worse, I did inherit some of my greatest strengths from him: my independence, my questioning of the status quo, and even though I try to downplay it, my intelligence. Unlike with my mother, I still feel some attachment with my father. Where that attachment will go? Right now, I feel okay that I don’t know.
Have your relationships with your parents shifted at all over time? How do factors such as racism, gender, sexual orientation, as well as imperialism and capitalism influence your relationships with your parents? General reactions to this post? I found this heartwarming article featuring an Asian man reflecting on his relationship with his father which I resonated with a fair amount. Hope you are all well and until next post!
13 responses to “My Asian Father”
My relationship with my dad grew to a different level after my mom died. I wrote about this before he passed away -> https://nocturnaltwins.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/my-moms-last-gift-to-me/
I don’t have the full insight on the relationship between you and your dad. I’m also not a therapist / counselor so even if I did, I don’t have the proper training to figure out the next steps. I have no idea what his relationship was like with his parents and what role models he had. I’m sure the effects of the war didn’t help. And maybe he is unable to figure out how to communicate with you and the only way he knows how is to provide some financial support.
I think the more you find out about him, you’ll gain a different perspective. When my dad passed, my sister found some old photos. There was a torn and faded picture of my dad in his teens. I have no idea how that photo survived the war. He looks a bit like my brother. I wondered what his dreams, hopes and aspirations were at that age.
Your intelligence and your ability to question things will help you find more answers. (poorly worded… I sound like some fortune teller).
Have a great week – take care!
Aw thanks so much Matt for this thoughtful and compassionate perspective! Yeah I agree, I feel like I’m already learning more about my father now that I’m in a healthful place to do so. I’m glad I set a boundary earlier and let myself feel more of my anger toward him, and it feels nice to do my best to practice some compassion toward him while preserving my own mental wellbeing. Your kind words and attention to detail in my posts mean a lot to me and hope you are well. (:
You’re very welcome Thomas. After I wrote this, I was a bit worried that it sounded too preachy. I think what I’m trying to get across is that you have more capabilities than he does to get a better understanding of him and figure out what to do. You have your training, access to a therapist and some really good friends to talk about it. He probably doesn’t and will be less likely to change even if he wants to.
Thanks for the kind words. I hope you are well too. 🙂
Thank you for this clarification, I do not think your initial comment was preachy. I appreciate your sensitivity to the sociocultural factors that are pretty much definitely affecting my father and his ability to relate with me. I do have my training and effort I’ve put into cultivating emotional intelligence apart from my training as well. I’m giving myself space to feel how I feel about his lack of effort in the realm of relational reciprocity while paying proper attention to the many external factors (e.g., imperialism, toxic masculinity) that are present too. Hope you’re well Matt!
I’m relieved. Sometimes things don’t come across the way it’s intended. I’m doing ok – just posted a quick update. Hope you are well too Thomas!
This is fascinating. I resented (or resent) my mother for colluding with my father and not protecting me, but then her mother was AWFUL too and her sister pretty toxic. I’m glad I broke the stranglehold of the maternal line of my family being fairly vile – I know I’m a good, kind, fair and supportive person and I don’t stand by if I see things happening. My relationship changed when I cut them out of my life, and it shifted one more time when my mother phoned me when her mother died and was absolutely foul about her, less than 12 hours after she’d passed away. I realised I didn’t need to make this woman happy or impressed with me in the slightest, that last bit of need going.
Yesssss I love to hear you honoring your kindness, fairness, and many other wonderful qualities! So glad to hear about you setting boundaries with your family and not feeling the need to capitulate to their toxic behaviors. I definitely feel similar about my mother and have no desire to return to her mistreatment and general nastiness. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
I like how in writing this post about your father, you’ve chosen not to limit your perspective by just looking through the lens of the relationship you both share, but instead see him as an individual whose life is influenced/ molded by the many social and political systems as well as personal experiences. I see a lot of empathy and willingness in this choice; I appreciate you being vulnerable here. And I hope that however you choose to take this relationship between you and your father further in the future, it may lead to the well-being of you both. Take care:)
Aw this is such an excellent summary of this post, thank you for taking the time to read it so deeply! Yes so important to honor social and political systems alongside personal experiences. Yay for empathy and vulnerability and I hope you are doing well.
I can’t think of the writer just now, who said that we can spend the rest of our lives writing about the experiences that we had before the age of five…something like that. It makes sense to me! I’m thinking about the memoirs I’ve read about the lives of men and women who left Vietnam because of the American War (aka the Vietnam War) and how much time it took their writers to sort through ideas and feelings from the past, theirs and their parents.
Most recently Dao Strom’s Grass Roof, Tin Roof, a novel in stories, which I really loved and posted about a couple of months ago, for its portrayal of different family members’ experiences in and out of Vietnam (mostly in America, but some background). Multiple perspective novels intrigue me for embodying the same kind of questioning and investigating and musing that you’re carrying out here.
More recently, I’ve been reading Kim Thuy’s Em, which is also about how that war affected people, but I’ve only read twenty pages; I’m trying to read it in French (it’s not available in translation yet, and I loved her earlier three novels and am impatient) but I read at a YA level in French and am too lazy to look up all the nouns I don’t know, so I can’t really tell you what it’s about yet, but maybe I’ll have more of it figured out in another twenty. Heheh
Ooooh thank you so much for this thoughtful comment that is definitely related to what I shared in this post. I feel like the idea about writers spending the rest of their lives unpacking what happened before the age of five may have struck me as fake deep at some point in my life, though that idea within the context of intergenerational trauma and stress makes a lot of sense to me and I appreciate you sharing it. Grateful for your book recommendations as I’ve added both Grass Roof, Tin Roof as well as Em to my to-read list, even though there’s no chance I’ll be able to read Em unless it’s translated into English. Hope you are doing well and thanks for taking the time to read and comment here.
I can definitely relate. My father was the one that worked a lot (overtime) to support the family. My mom raised us and had to be the stay-at-home mom. It’s so weird how we do not have show that much emotional sentiments as children with our asian parents. We changed this as we got older. I feel like my parents do not share as much with us about their past so its hard to relate to them also. I wish my relationship with my parents are better (even though its pretty good right now).
Thank you for sharing your perspective and the ways you relate! Yeah, I feel like from what you’re sharing I find it interesting to think about what societal forces condition our fathers to work a lot or to have to work a lot, as well as what influences our own expectations of how much emotion our parents should show us. Appreciate your vulnerability in sharing about where you wish your relationship with your parents was.