“Graduates” of an English-language Father School session this past May celebrate with their wives and children.
Many second-generation Korean American dads vow they won’t be like their own stoic immigrant fathers. Yet once they have families of their own, they realize that’s easier said than done. The English-language father school tries to heal those wounds and engage men on their evolving role in the family.
It’s a sunny Saturday in May, and deep in the mountains overlooking Lake Elsinore, a group of bleary-eyed men are inside a retreat center, sitting around tables with Monster Energy drinks and bottled water in hand. They are here for a special retreat, but many of them didn’t get much sleep the night before, thanks to a challenging “homework assignment.”
“My initial reaction was … Oh, God, why?” said a man at one table.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said another.
The assignment: writing a letter to their fathers.
Welcome to a scene from the most recent iteration of Father School. Originally created in the 1990s as part of a religious movement in South Korea to help transform stoic patriarchs into caring and expressive dads, the program hit these shores in 1995 to address many of these same issues with Korean immigrant fathers. However, while the program has primarily focused on first-generation Korean Americans with the movement’s famous “boot camps,” conducted in Korean, there has been an increasing demand for a school for the next generation of fathers.
This past May’s Father School retreat in the Cleveland National Forest, not far from San Diego, Calif., was conducted in English, and directed at 1.5- and second-generation Korean American dads—and even those who plan on being fathers one day. Fifty-eight men, mostly Korean Americans with the exception of a handful of Caucasian, Chinese and Japanese American participants, attended the retreat, with many admitting they were forced to go by wives, relatives or friends —a consistent theme with Father Schools worldwide.
Men often misunderstand the program’s goal as one targeting deficient fathers or those needing to improve their parenting, reasons that initially discourage them from wanting to join, according to Allen Kim, a scholar who has studied Father School movements across the globe. But, instead, Father School exposes them to an array of intensive activities that make them reflect on not only a father’s influence on his family, but also their own distinctive male journey.
The first English-language Father School was held in Seattle about 15 years ago, but the program’s development was still in its infancy. After all, the U.S.-reared Korean American generation was still relatively young at the time. But, today, many of the children of the sizable, post-1965 immigration wave are themselves parents and are finding that their uneasy relationships with their own dads have crept into their interactions with their wives and kids, said Kim.
These dads, in a sense, are facing an identity crisis. They are encountering paternal images in American popular media that reflect changing ideas about their roles in the family, with fathers seen not so much as the provider, protector and strong authority figure anymore, but rather as the nurturer, a loving and involved co-parent.
“The challenge [is] how Korean American fathers navigate a more intimate, Westernized fatherhood ideal and the sometimes domineering and distant traditional sense of fatherhood in which they were raised,” Kim said.
And that’s why the Father School retreat in California was conducted differently than its Korean-language counterparts.
“We had to treat this program, the English Father School, as a different baby,” said Dean Choi, who served as the retreat’s main facilitator. “It’s got its own identity.”
Choi, a 1.5-generation Korean American who graduated from an earlier Korean-language Father School program, said this marked the first time the program was held as an overnight weekend retreat, versus a daytime program held over multiple weekends. This intensive, truncated schedule allowed the busy participants to maximize the limited time they had together, and also helped nurture an environment of trust and camaraderie among the men, who may not be used to sharing their feelings openly, said Choi.
“The second-generation fathers have a lot of scars, so they need that extra time for bonding and healing,” he added. “[Many of them feel] lost, afraid and directionless.”
Choi’s characterization may sound stark, but it seemed to capture the sense of searching and, at times, anguish expressed by these Korean American dads—many in their 30s and 40s—gathered at the retreat center.
One man revealed to the group how his father left him at an early age, and he was forced to grow up quickly, taking up odd jobs to support his family financially. Another participant shared a sentiment that resonated with others, saying, “I don’t recall ever hearing my father say that he was proud of me.”
The letter-writing exercise also seemed to capture unresolved feelings many of the men had with their fathers.
“The first sentence was the hardest,” Eugene Kim, a 32-year-old father of two, shared with the six men at his table. “However, as I was writing the letter, it helped me to clarify the situation with me and my family. It helped me to see that I was taking after my dad. I am noticing that I am treating my family the way that he treated us.”
Gene Hong, married with four children, was worried about actually giving his letter to his dad. “My dad is prideful,” said Hong, 36. “One of my fears is that he’ll blow off the letter, or that he might get offended. I’m afraid that things are just going to get worse.”
Their small group leader, Daniel Lee, affirmed that what the men were feeling was natural. “When I wrote [my own letter], I just started getting angry. I think I threw away three sheets of paper before finishing it,” he said.
But Lee later told the men, “You can’t really blame [our fathers]. That’s all they knew from their own fathers.”
At the end of the exercise, some got up on stage and read their letters. One confided that he is estranged from his dad, but hoped to reconcile. “Stop disappearing from my life, and show up like a man. Show up like a father,” he read, his voice quivering with emotion. Choking back tears and clutching the microphone tightly, he added, “I’d like to go fishing with you. So let’s go.”
Something happened in the room, as this speaker called out his dad before a roomful of strangers, said Choi, the retreat facilitator. “Everybody in the room started to cry,” he said. “I started to cry.”
The remarks hit a nerve and distilled how important a father’s role can be in a child’s life, even long after that child grows into an adult. Bryan Lee, a chaplain with the Los Angeles County prison system for the past three years, gave a talk at the opening night of the retreat. For his day job, he counsels some pretty hardened criminals, and noted that many of them are there, in large part, because of broken families and a lack of a father figure in their lives. “If you don’t have that relationship with your father, you go out and try to fill that emptiness,” said Lee. “[A father’s influence] is that important.”
Lee believes that immigrant Korean American mothers and fathers who raised the current critical mass of second-generation dads didn’t really talk to each other about how to parent, and this lack of strategy and consistency in child-rearing left the next generation of parents ill-equipped.
At Father School, dads do talk about parenting and are taught that their relationships with their spouses are key to their relationships with their children. They are even taught how to hug properly. The hugs should not be overly physical, they are told, but should be tender embraces. Throughout the May retreat, every time a man shared his experiences with the group, he would be warmly greeted with hugs afterwards. The men were not allowed to slap high-fives or shake hands.