(Originally published May 8, 2011, New York Times)
A soft-spoken electrical engineer named Edmond Rhim sat in a packed gymnasium with his wife, Hanna, gripping her tiny hand in his. It was the last of four five-hour-long sessions of Father School, and by the end of the night, 70 men — all of them Korean, and almost all of them Christian — would be declared more emotionally adjusted dads. They would even get a certificate, a group photo and a polo shirt to prove it.
“She’s happy now,” Rhim said, smiling.
Hanna nodded her head. “I love my husband,” she said. “But he is” — she searched for the right bit of recovery jargon — “under construction.”
Like many of the men in the room, Rhim never wanted to come to Father School. (Seven dropped out after the first day.) “I’m not a bad father,” he told me a week earlier. But realizing how difficult it was for him to relate to his wife and two teenage kids — and realizing, finally, how empty that left him — he paid the $120 course fee and agreed to show up.
Father School has been helping Korean men like Rhim become more emotionally aware since 1995, when it started at the Duranno Bible College in Seoul. The mission, drawn up at the height of the Asian financial crisis, was to end what the Father School guidebook calls “the growing national epidemic of abusive, ineffective and absentee fathers.”
“Traditionally, in the Korean family, the father is very authoritarian,” Joon Cho, a program volunteer, told me a few weeks before this session of Father School began. “They’re not emotionally linked with their children or their wife. They’re either workaholics, or they’re busy enjoying their own hobbies or social activities. Family always comes last.”
In 2000, Father School spread from Korea to the United States, and the program — part 12-step recovery, part Christian ministry — was tailored to meet the needs of Korean immigrant fathers dealing with Americanized kids who wondered why their fathers weren’t more like the touchy-feely dads they watched on TV. Since then, Father School has exploded. It now operates out of 57 American cities and has graduated nearly 200,000 men worldwide.
“They are ready to cry,” said Young Chung, a veteran Father School volunteer, as he looked out at the sea of men arranged at a dozen or so small tables in the gymnasium here in this heavily strip-malled suburb of Los Angeles. “All you have to do is touch them.”
There is no denying it has been an emotional journey — the boxes of Kleenex on every table are there for a reason. Over the course of the program, the students, who range in age from 30 to 70, have been asked to examine issues that many of them have never dared to think about, much less share with a group.
“Our communication was lacking so much,” a man in his early 40s wrote in a letter to his father — one night’s homework assignment. “You expected so much from me, but I gave much more than you think. All your time was work, work, work. . . . You really didn’t put much into family life.”
In the midst of another participant’s group testimony, in which he talked about how he neglected his 16-year-old son when his son was battling drug and gambling addictions, he crumpled to the floor in tears. When he stepped down from the podium, a few members of the group gathered around him in a consolatory huddle while the rest applauded.
The syllabus also called for students to practice saying “I love you” and to ask their wives out on dates. One man drew laughs when he said that his wife was so flabbergasted by the invitation that she refused to go. At another session, they learned how to hug, albeit grudgingly. Only when the volunteers who run these sessions insisted did the men rise from their seats and offer a few stiff embraces.
But on graduation night, the mood was far more festive. For the first time, wives were invited to attend, and the men gallantly pulled out their chairs and introduced them around the room. Platters of spicy kimchi and rice were passed around the table, as a quartet of volunteers sang Korean spiritual songs set to a poppy beat. With all the attendant sincerity and awkwardness, it felt an awful lot like prom night.
Toward the end of the evening, the lights dimmed, and the students filed out of the room. Twenty minutes later, they returned carrying a small, plastic tub filled with water. They knelt down before their wives and removed their stockings and shoes. Some of the women wept as their husbands gently massaged their toes.
Over in a corner, Rhim was hunched over, drying Hanna’s feet. She wasn’t crying, but as he worked, she leaned down to rest her head on his shoulders.