The following article was slightly edited on October 12 to more accurately portray some of the events of my family’s history.
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.
And thirdly, the stereotypes are largely true: many Asian fathers are emotionally distant from their children. Many aren’t verbally affirming or physically affectionate. Many don’t go to their kids’ ballgames. Many don’t sit around at the dinner table and talk without an agenda. In such cases, the fathers are not legally absent but emotionally absent.
There are exceptions of course, but by and large many Asian Americans grow up with semi-absent fathers. And it’s hard to blame any of the fathers. Nobody taught them how to do anything else. In fact, most of them are far better fathers than their fathers were. My grandfather gave my father 5 years. At least I had 21 years.
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?
Over the past year or so, I have been reading Genesis a lot, and one of the things I’m realizing is how many deja vu moments there are in the sin department.
For example, there are three wife-sister cases in Genesis (Gen 12:10-13:1; 20:1-18; and 26:1-11). Three different times in Genesis, a main character goes to a foreign land and tells his wife to pretend to be his sister. In Genesis 12, Abraham goes to Egypt, and he tells Pharaoh that his wife Sarah is his sister. In Genesis 20, Abraham goes to Gerar, and he tells the king of the Philistines, Abimelech, that Sarah is his sister. And in Genesis 26, Isaac does the same thing his father did. He goes to Gerar (the same place), and he also tells the king of the Philistines, Abimelech (the same name), that his wife Rebekah is his sister.
This last wife-sister case actually sets in motion a repeated pattern of identity-deception cases (Gen 27:5-17; 29:21-27). After Isaac asks his wife Rebekah to pretend she was somebody she was not in order to deceive Abimelech, in the very next chapter, Rebekah asks Jacob to pretend he was somebody he was not in order to deceive Isaac. And a few chapters later, Rebekah’s father Laban asks his daughter Leah to pretend she was somebody she was not in order to deceive Jacob.
But that’s not all. There are also three servant-surrogate cases in Genesis (Gen 16:1-6; 30:1-8; 30:9-13). Three different times, a wife who is having difficulty bearing children forces her servant to sleep with her husband in order to inherit children through the servant: Sarai and Hagar, Rachel and Bilhah, and Leah and Zilpah.
Finally, there are two parental favoritism cases in Genesis (25:27-28; 37:2-4). Isaac loves Esau, while Rebekah loves Jacob. As a result, Isaac tries to bless Esau in secret, while Rebekah convinces Jacob to steal that blessing from Isaac. This results in Esau vowing to kill Jacob and Jacob going on a 20-year exile from home. One generation later, Jacob loves Joseph above all of his other brothers. As a result, Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him and conspire against him, and Joseph ends up on a 13-year exile of slavery and imprisonment.
Why are these sins repeated over and over again? I think that they are meant to show that children inherit the sins of their parents. The lying, the deception, the repression, and the favoritism of the Genesis patriarchs are passed down from generation to generation. Because that’s all they know. Like father, like son.
In the same way, many Asian sons inherit the sins of their fathers. Their understandings of fatherhood, marriage, and work are passed down from generation to generation. Because that’s all they know.
So how do we escape?
What is comforting about the Genesis narrative is that God continues to be faithful despite his people’s faithlessness. Despite the failures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God repeatedly echoes his promises to bless them and to multiply them in number (Gen 22:15-18; 26:23-24; 35:9-12). He intentionally repeats himself to each subsequent generation to communicate that he does not change. As it says in Deuteronomy 7:9, “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.”
As Cornelius Plantinga writes in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, “Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still. Creation and grace are anvils that have worn out a lot of our hammers. To speak of sin itself, to speak of it apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way.”
Sin cannot ruin God’s creation, and it cannot wear out God’s grace. His grace outshines our sin, and his faithfulness outlasts our faithlessness. Even when we fail, God’s promises never fail. Even when we fall short, God’s promises will never fall short. Even when we give up, God’s promises never give up.
And we can know that with confidence because of Jesus.
From the dawn of human history, we have all inherited the sins of our father Adam. None of us have been able to rid ourselves of that inheritance.
But Jesus was born of a virgin, and he was the Son of God. And just as God the Father was perfect, God the Son was perfect. Like Father, like Son. But Jesus chose to do something ridiculous. The one and only perfect man chose to become broken for us by dying on the cross, so that we the broken can be made perfect.
Now Jesus says to every man and woman, “Follow me. Stop following all of these broken people around you. Stop following your fathers and your mothers. Stop following Adam. Follow me.”
Because of the gospel, it doesn’t matter what my father did, what my grandfather did, nor what any of my ancestors did. What matters is what my heavenly Father did. And what he did was send his son to restore us and invite us to follow him.
Yes, we have all inherited the sinful nature of our fathers. But even more than that, we as Christians have also inherited the righteous nature of Jesus. And to follow Jesus is to proclaim, “The righteousness of Jesus defines me more than the sins of my ancestors.”
Therefore, in light of the gospel, let us strive to be like our heavenly Father. He is the Father who never leaves us nor forsakes us. He is the Father who gives grace. He is the Father worth imitating.