Haenah Hwang cuddled her 4-month-old son, Evan, as her husband, Mike, a 37-year-old Taiwanese-American, shared stories about his father.
“He showed me his love by making sure that I did the best I could in everything,” he said.
The Hwangs were reflecting on their first-generation immigrant Asian-American fathers while looking forward to celebrating their first Father’s Day as new parents.
“I have a different type of father’s experience,” said Haenah Hwang, a 32-year-old Korean-American.
She recalls her father as a family man who spent a lot of time playing with her growing up. But she said she felt a weight of responsibility early on, having to translate English to Korean for her parents.
“I had a little bit of resentment. My dad felt more like a friend to me, almost,” she said, adding this made her question her parents’ love for her at times.
The portrayal of Asian-American dads and masculinity has a long history in the U.S.
“For Asian fathers, when their main concern was on survival, fitting into the new culture and bringing bread on the table, what America considers ‘male’ was not their priority,” said Dr. Josephine Kim, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who specializes in child development and immigrant issues.
The Asian cultural definition of masculinity relies heavily on scholarship and not showing weakness, she said, which translates into men showing less emotion.
She added that the difference in values often led second-generation Asian-American children to misunderstand their fathers as unloving and uncaring, seen through the lens of their Americanized cultural perspective.
Perry Li, a second-generation Chinese-American born in Chicago, said he resented his father most of his life until recently because he rarely showed him affection.
“It’s going to be hard,” said Li, 29, about treating his dad to a Father’s Day dinner. He said he has told his father directly that he loves him only twice. He plans on telling him again at dinner.
Li has been trying lately to be more understanding of the struggles and stress his father went through to provide for the family over the years, he said.
Korean-American actor Randall Park also can relate.
Park, who plays Louis Huang, an Asian immigrant father on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” said his father operated a photography store in Santa Monica, Calif., where Park observed firsthand “all the struggles that he went through to keep that business afloat.”
Park said he finds similarities between his character on the show, which, in its second season, is the longest running Asian-American sitcom, and how he and his father were.
“At times, (my father) does walk that line of being the classic bumbling sitcom dad. But there is always that undercurrent (of) struggle and sacrifice, which is something I see in my own father and, in some ways, myself,” said Park.
Despite the hardships Asian immigrant fathers faced, they were considered not “manly” enough throughout history.
“There is a long history of ways in which Asian-American males were deprived of masculinity in American society,” said Dr. Mark Chiang, the interim director of the Asian-American Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said the histories of Asian countries bring different experiences to the table.
When Asians started immigrating to the U.S. in the 19th century, Asian men were mainly engaged in manual labor. Toward the end of the 19th century, when the U.S. economy grew rapidly, then collapsed, Asian-American men became unemployed and wound up as scapegoats and targets. Often, Asian-American men had no options but to engage in laundry work and cooking to provide for their families.
“The issue of masculinity comes in here. Laundry work and cooking are seen as women’s work. So the Asian men became feminized because of the labor they were pushed to perform,” said Chiang.
Influenced by media portrayals, stereotypes and the model-minority myth, Asian-American males continue to face difficulties in how their masculinity is perceived in American culture today.
The recent #StarringJohnCho movement is not only a push for diversity in Hollywood, but also the Asian-American community’s attempt to reclaim the portrayal of Asian-American masculinity in the media.
“I’m team #StarringJohnCho all the way,” said Park.
Park said he has always been conscious of the way Hollywood portrays Asian men.
“I do understand the importance for us to have more images of ‘masculine’ Asian males to balance out all the Long Duk Dong’s of our time. Asian kids are still getting bullied, and I’m sure the lack of strong media images plays a part in that. But for me, personally, what’s more important than masculinity is that we, as men, just feel good about who we are and to do our best to represent that unapologetically,” said Park.
“I don’t want Evan to grow up feeling different in any way. At the same time, I want him to grow up knowing his heritage as half-Korean and half-Taiwanese,” said Haenah Hwang. She said she is positive Evan will overcome the influence of Asian stereotypes in the media.
She said her husband, Mike, will be a good role model and help their son distinguish what is right and wrong in portrayals of Asian masculinity.
“I want him to be compassionate – quick to listen and slow to speak. I want him to love the diversity of the city and the country that we live in,” said Mike Hwang. He hopes to demonstrate the “quiet strength” that comes from leading by example and sacrifice that his father showed him.