Two years ago, I became a father myself. The pregnancy process was marked by joy and excitement, but underlying it all were deeply embedded fears. What if I become like my dad? What if I follow in the footsteps of my dad, just like he followed in the footsteps of his dad? What if I am emotionally disengaged? What if I don’t know how to talk to my kids? What if I eventually walk away from my family? What if the saying “like father, like son” applied to me, too?
About a month ago, I officiated my first funeral. She was my father’s mother, and she had passed away at 89. As I was preparing for the funeral, I was struck with the realization that I knew very little about her life. In fact, the day before the funeral, I saw a picture of her husband, my grandfather, and I quickly realized that I had never even seen a picture of him before. It was odd to me that my whole life I had almost never asked about him.
My father’s side of the family had always been a little bit of a mystery to me. I knew some things here and there, but there were big gaping holes. We just simply didn’t talk about the past all that much when we were growing up. And so after the funeral service, I asked my dad about his family history.
My grandfather had three wives—at the same time. In the 1940s this was still pretty common in Guangdong Province, China, where he lived. Some friends of my grandfather convinced him to join them in Shanghai to start a business there, so he moved the family to the city of opportunity. But shortly after the move, in 1949, the Communists took over Shanghai. At the time though, many believed that the Communists would eventually lose and that the U.S.-supported nationalists would win. My grandfather was asked to stay in Shanghai to manage the Shanghai branch of the business until the Communists left, and the rest of the employees temporarily moved to Hong Kong. The Communists never left.
My father was born in 1959. When he was five, my grandfather finally got the opportunity to join his co-workers in Hong Kong, so he did, leaving behind his three wives and eleven children. He would send home checks every month, but that would be the last time my father ever saw his father. In 1976, my grandfather passed away.
That year, my dad left Shanghai for a strenuous rural reeducation for a year (along with 17 million other youths in China’s Down to the Countryside Movement) after secondary school. At the time, university exams had been suspended for a decade, and it was practically impossible for somebody like my dad to obtain higher education. But there were rumors going around that university exams would be reinstated soon, so my dad diligently spent his evenings studying on the farm. Sure enough, university exams were reinstated the following year, and my father passed the exam and went to a well-known university. Eventually, my dad would immigrate to the U.S., work odd jobs while getting a Master’s degree in computer science, and have a successful career as a software engineer in the Silicon Valley.
I was born in 1990, and for the most part I had a very happy upbringing. I admired my dad a lot. He was smart, hard-working, and driven. He had a sense of intense purpose, regardless of what he was doing. But he did work a lot. Sometimes he would travel for work, and he would be gone for months at a time.
In 2011, when I was 21, my dad announced that he was separating from my mom.
I didn’t see it coming, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I had spent much of my life viewing him as a role model and trying to imitate him. But here he was, making a decision to leave. I couldn’t mentally comprehend it. And so, over the next several years, I went through bouts of denial, grief, anger, confusion, and callousness.
During times of clarity and reflection, I would think about all that happened. I would think about the fact that he didn’t have his own father figure for most of his life. I would think about the fact that he came from a country where leaving your family behind was normal (there are currently 61 million children in China who have at least one parent working away from home). I would think about the fact that he was often forced to be a strong, independent man throughout his childhood. And it all made sense. It was almost like a natural trajectory. As the old saying goes, “Like father, like son.”
The Absence of Asian Fathers
The absence of Asian American fathers is a largely under-reported phenomenon because it is so difficult to document. Statistically Asian American parents are not nearly as absent as parents of other races (only 15% of Asian American children live in single-parent families, which is far less than the American average of 34%), but this needs to be nuanced by three things.
Firstly, many Asian single-parent families are not documented. My family, even eight years after my dad left, is still a two-parent household on paper. My parents never legally got a divorce. They still file taxes together. There is no paper trail of their separation. In such cases, the fathers are not legally absent but functionally absent.
Secondly, many Asian fathers are frequently outside of the house. Even before my father left, he would be traveling for months at a time. Growing up, I had many Asian American friends whose fathers did the same. And furthermore, I had many Asian American friends whose fathers, although they were not traveling all the time, were working insane hours, and they wouldn’t be home often. In such cases, the fathers are not legally absent but physically absent.