“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.
The article goes on to describe how the program uses group testimonies (of a parenting not religious nature), foot washing, and hugging as ways to break down barriers between men and their wives and children. I’ve never heard of this program here, but as I’m not involved in Protestant churches which seem to be the main groups signing up for such schools, it’s very possible that I’m just not moving in the right circles. I did an English language search and found this more in-depth article from 2009 written by a Korean American.
The men are encouraged to discuss these contrasting representations, but getting stoic Korean men to share their feelings is no easy task. A combination of guest speakers and testimonials by Father School volunteers, who are themselves former students, facilitate this effort. A volunteer at one conference I attended, for example, shared with the audience how, in an overzealous attempt to impart the lesson of poverty and the importance of studying, he once left his son on a street corner in a poor neighborhood and shouted in outrage whether he wanted to end up like the people there. With tears, the guest speaker expressed deep regret recalling the tears that had appeared on his son’s face that day. He realized there is a “better way” to impart lessons to a child.
While sitting at the table of 40-year-old fathers, I heard several men raise a number of issues related to generational conflict with their Americanized children. Many expressed frustration over their children’s disrespect for their authority, with one even revealing that his child called the police to report the dad’s use of physical discipline. As I listened to these men, I, the son of a Korean immigrant, started to recall my own dad’s use of “tools” like a pool stick or the pulling of a cheek to reprimand the two boys in the family. The linkage between Korean fatherhood and physical violence is an unfortunate stereotype, but at the same time, corporal punishment was long considered an acceptable practice in Korean society, whether within the family, school or military.
And yet, as I sat with these older men, I observed an uncommon scene: fathers choked up with tears and regrets about their past behavior. ”For several years, I was against the person my daughter loved and caused her considerable pain,” said Woojin, 57. Other dads confessed it was difficult to imagine their fathering role beyond breadwinning and scolding their children.
In my culture class, we’re in the middle of a module on different parenting practices, and a few weeks ago we looked at the Swedish government’s attempt to not only encourage fathers to take paternity leave, but also penalize families who do not make use of subsidizes for fathers. After discussing the NYT article on the topic, I asked students to discuss various questions pertaining to Korea in small groups such as ‘How often does your family eat together during weekdays?’ or ‘How often do you spend quality time with your father?’ I find that when students talk in small groups, they tend to be more honest than answering my questions directly because they don’t feel like they have to hide Korean social problems in front of the foreign professor. One student told her group that her family hadn’t eaten dinner with her father and mother together in ten years. Even on his days off, her father preferred to sleep, hike, or spend time with his friends rather than eat with his family. Another student said she hung out with her father about once a month despite living in the same house. A third said she rarely saw both parents growing up (she was raised by a family member because her parents both worked), and one of the male class members said that he always felt sad as a child because his father never came to any special events such as graduation. Not a single student agreed with the statement ‘I feel closer to my father than my mother.’ I haven’t talked about this issue directly with students since about 2007 when I taught at an adult hogwan, so initially I was hopeful that this younger generation had had more time with their fathers, but it does not seem to be so.
Back in 2007, I had one of those usual end of the month (end of the session), situations where I was sitting in an empty classroom hoping hoping hoping that I was going to get a 2 hour block no show. Alas, a female university student arrived 5 minutes late out of breath and apologizing for being late…until she looked around the room and realized she was the only one in class. I admit, I was a bit pissed off because I really really really wanted that no show! Not to mention the fact that the student was normally quite quiet and low level, so I really did not relish trying to pry 2 hours of conversation out of her by myself. But then we went to get coffee, started talking about her life…and she let slip that her father was a taxi driver. I say ‘let slip’ because what she was really telling me was that she was lower class, and as the conversation progressed, she admitted that sometimes other people made fun of her because her family didn’t have a lot of money. I told her that my father had been a blue collar worker, and asked her what the benefits were of a taxi driver father. She thought about it for a few minutes and replied that he was home far more than other fathers she knew because he did a lot of driving at night. He and her mother did all their errands together, he was always available to come to school events, they had father-daughter conversations as he drove her to school in the mornings, and he understood her very well because he spent time with his family. I have forgotten a lot of conversations with the thousands of students I have had over the years, but this one line will forever stick out in my mind because it was said with such joy on her face: ‘There is a lot of laughter in my house.’
Having a school for fathers seems a bit silly from a Canadian perspective, but as Koreans have come to rely on ‘academies’ or hogwans for almost everything these days, including how to get a date or how to smile like a flight attendant, and especially since it is hogwans that are actually one of the reasons why families do not have time to spend together, it seems actually pretty reasonable that a hogwan like program could be used as a culturally appropriate way to educate fathers and bring generations together. Confucianism, military culture, and the patriarchy have all contributed to this culture of absent fathers, but the biggest problem is that fathers do not have time, or do not think they need to make time to build a relationship with their children. On one level jung is supposed to be something that holds Koreans together based on their very Koreanness, and in the case of the family based on their blood relationship. However, when it comes to companies, employers recognize that jung does not happen naturally, but rather has to be cultivated through shared meal time, activities, and bonding time. Father School legitimizes time spent between parents, spouses, and children, as well as provides a safe place to share feelings which family members have not been able to share simply because they have not made the time and space to share in their own homes. It would be interesting to know if many non-Christian groups have Father Schools because I think this format also makes more sense from a Protestant sense by using public testimonies, utilizing cell group style structure, and emphasizing confession and forgiveness. It would be interesting to see how a Buddhist, strictly Confucian, or avowedly secular group approached such issues.