Many people like to blame their parents for something in their own lives, and Asian fathers are an easy target, since, in a modern era, it might be easier to think of them as “cold and authoritative.” I have often asked myself, was my dad like the stereotypical Asian dad? What could I “blame” him for? After thinking out loud for a while, even though I have often imagined him as some kind of patriarchal figure, in retrospect he may not have been that authoritarian! An athletic man wanting his son to be athletic seems less stereotypical than most Asian fathers. See my related uncle Reggie story: “An Asian dad who didn’t want a nerdy son.”
For many years, I really had a stereotypical authority figure concept of my dad, probably related to the fact that any conversation between us tended to be a father-son directive. Growing up, it seemed we really did not have one-on-one discussions, where my input was actually invited, at least as far as I remember. Although probably not meant to be that way, it did seem that most communications were in the form of orders, or reminders, like “did you do what you were supposed to do?” Probably quite effective ways of communication, in a sense, because up to the age of 15, it all seemed to work quite well, and I do not remember any great tensions. I just learned to “obey.” And others report I was a “nice boy.” (Hmmm)
However, at age 15, somehow my teenage hormones and chemicals started changing, and I do remember father-son “dialogues” that were definitely “not nice.” In fact, for a few years it seemed like I was always exploding about some so-called injustice I felt. This was particularly related to the “amahs,” or servants that we had at home, when I would find myself “defending their rights,” which sounded like a pretty “righteous position” for me to hold. Whether it was totally true or not, I began to feel that the servants were at times treated like slaves, with little freedom to choose, and whom I felt were abused verbally, especially by my mother, or so I remembered. So, as I “defended them,” my arguments got pretty heated, dad would defend mom, and I would storm out of the dining room (a common place for verbal fights), or even from home, feeling “self-righteous, angry and hurt.”
It was only after I went to medical school, at age 18 years (in the British system, premedical and medical school were rolled into one), that the family tension died down, partly because I was not at home for most of the time. I only returned home on weekends, when we all tried to be rather civil to each other! Presumably, the reduced tension also related to my own growing up, which I think I really did. After all, I was becoming a young doctor, and assuming many heavy responsibilities, even following dad’s footsteps, which must have pleased him significantly.
Love comes in many forms. I know from relatives, that dad definitely had a great deal of love for those relatives that were “stuck” in the hinterland during the early chaotic days of the change of government, while we were living relatively comfortably in Hong Kong. These relatives were often the object of discrimination and even persecution, because they were considered land owners, had foreign connections, were Christians, or just had an enemy who now had power. And because dad was a physician, and considered more well off, many such relatives asked him for “loans.” Which somehow were able to be “transferred back” to the ancestral village. Naturally many of these loans could not really be “repaid,” and I’m sure dad was fully aware of that: after all, it seemed sometimes the needs were matters of life and death.
One of my first cousins has always felt a great gratitude towards my dad for helping support him, when he was young and living inland far from us during this period of great turmoil. So, whenever I visited Hong Kong in the last few decades, as an expression of his ultra-sincere gratitude, he would usually overwhelm me with great dinners and gifts, even though I was a totally undeserving. But I reaped the blessings of an ancient culture. I learned from my cousin also that people used to say, that dad was frugal towards himself and his immediate family, but rather generous towards others in need, which I can believe, and feel proud that he did the right thing. He was a church deacon and I know he tried to be a righteous man, to do his best in a difficult world.
Sometimes people like to think that physical hugs and warmth are indicators of how close, or how non-hierarchal the family might be. I don’t remember that dad ever embraced me (he must have, when I was a child, but I just don’t remember), or showed any warm touch or “cuddliness.” Even though my father was fairly “westernized,” speaking English well, and marrying a very westernized, American born wife. It just wasn’t the practice at the time. Even mom, I think, never did, even though she had been born, and grew up in Seattle. I wonder if I would actually have been embarrassed if they did that, anyway! Even today, traditional Koreans, Japanese, and Thais do not really embrace, especially in public. Even in the most sophisticated westernized Hong Kong, it can be awkward still.
During the Asian SARS epidemic, actually Koreans, Japanese and Thais seemed to escape the epidemic, and I used to joke that they likely escaped, because adults in these cultures traditionally don’t shake hands when they meet each other. Bowing and using elegant no-contact hand gestures for welcome or thank you, should drastically reduce the germ count all round! I think that could be a solution for the annual dreaded flu seasons everywhere! Maybe warm-hearted church ushers can alter their enthusiasm for welcoming church attendees this way. Just bow, it’s an age-old tradition!
So, I must admit that the whole idea of whether traditional, especially Asian, fathers could/should have shown more open affection for their children is really quite complex. There’s really no right or wrong, I think, and culture and habit are such strong driving forces for all our actions. It does seem to be good to move towards better verbal dialogue to improve communication between fathers and their children, and probably a bit “more hugging”. Most people probably know of the classic touching story of the Prodigal Son in a setting 2000 years ago, where the loving father is shown as embracing his prodigal son? Maybe everyone needs at least a good hug? Or a few more pats on the back…..
Thus, how “Asian” or even “Confucian” was my own father? He was loving towards his family, focused especially on providing for the family, materially, physically, and even spiritually. He was not the 21st century Western “cuddly father,” but in hindsight, he was “approachable” in the sense that he would listen to me when needed, especially as I grew up and was more “mature,” as befitting the eldest and therefore, by tradition, considered the “most responsible” child of the family.
Actually, in this traditional system, I probably secretly really liked that “sense of responsibility,” beginning from early childhood. The flip side was it seemed I was made responsible for my 2 younger brothers, and if they caused any trouble, I often bore the brunt of my parent’s displeasure. It could be described as a “tough love” kind of approach to responsibility, and especially “higher expectations,” for me as the eldest. The implied sense of “mission” in my life as the responsible one, was probably “good” for me.
I like to joke that, my dad never told me I had to go into medicine, or “force me,” as happened to some of my class mates. But then, dad just expected it. And I just naturally knew I would go into medicine. And I have always truly loved medicine. Who knows, this approach, as part of the father-son dynamic, of subtly making me sort of rise to expectations, probably influenced the way I often “took charge” at various stages in my life, which seemed “just natural.”
Though unappreciated at the time for years, I have to reflect now that dad probably tried hard to role model a biblical way of life for our family, especially with behind the scenes quiet love and encouragement for us his children, and those less fortunate. Even when I try, actually I find it funny that I cannot find anything I can really blame him! Which is ironic since somehow, I had assumed, from all the writings about fathers, especially Asian ones, that there must be plenty to blame him. I’m sorry, I tried.
And, how has my Asian dad influenced my own parenting habits? That might be another story……