Photo by Yann Bean
What do second-generation American family values look like? Writer and actress Diane Farr shares her Korean-Irish-Italian American family’s take.
“Do it because I am your mother, and I said so!” I sternly told my 5-year-old, after some infraction that seemed uber-important at that moment.
Until the next moment when I actually heard these words come out of my mouth—and I cringed. When I looked over at my husband, Seung Yong, his face was just as scrunched up and confused as mine.
We catch ourselves doing this a lot as parents of young children: mimicking a command we both heard throughout our own childhoods, and then realizing it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of our parenting model. For Seung Yong, the son of Korean immigrants, this idea of obeying your parents, without question, was a given. Such respect for elders is one of the core values his parents imparted to him. This was also the case with my first-generation European American parents. Add to that concept a strong work ethic and putting family first, and you have some of the most important tenets he and I grew up with in our respective families.
But decades later, raising our three mixed-race children in Southern California today, Seung Yong and I often have to look at the values our parents claimed, and ask ourselves if we still subscribe to these inherited ideas. Because oftentimes, we’ve found, we don’t.
Despite the different continents Seung Yong’s parents and mine hailed from, recent immigration to America gives our families a great deal of com- mon ground when it comes to culture. Good grades, for instance, were highly valued in my house. My allowance was tied to my final scores at the end of the year, just like Seung Yong’s summer activities were often designed to help him maintain his good grades. But where he and I usually see similarities between our families, our parents have historically seen differences—that often seemed paramount.
At the time we decided to marry, we began to closely look at these parental concerns, particularly those of Seung Yong’s parents, and we realized that what they feared most about his marrying a non-Korean woman was the death of Korean culture. For Seung Yong’s family, as is the case with many immigrants, their departure from their homeland caused them to value their traditions and heritage even more so, which was not lost on either of us. Since this realization, Seung Yong and I have learned to always take “a second look” at our family of origins’ beliefs. It’s often at the secondary glance that we can find the root of our parents’ tra- ditions and decide if they were truly cultural or perhaps just generational. Either way, after finding this core belief and examining how we feel about it as adults, we decide if we will continue that tradition for our family today.
When it came to grades, for example, we believe both our parents focused so much on education because the core belief was about the opportunity it would bring. However, that opportunity is, for the most part, a “given” for our very American, middle-class kids. Seung Yong and I also feel we both learned so much more from traveling—about language, social studies, history, reading, writing and spirituality—than from what we were taught in school or university. So when it came time to look for an elementary school for our brood, we looked for one with no grades in the early years to be sure the strict focus on a number or letter grade would be “off the table.” This helps us to reframe what we want for our kids, since we were reared to value the score more than the lesson.
Same holds true for putting family first.
My Caucasian family is, on the whole, more blue-collar than my Asian in-laws. But in each of their classes, just a few generations back, his relatives and mine needed the whole family to help maintain the unit’ s financial sta-bility. Sons and daughters needed to obey, work and marry according to whatever a matriarch or patriarch deemed appropriate. Today as a fully Americanized generation, none of that is the case for Seung Yong or me or our kids. So putting up one voice as a united front to the world—no matter how little that suits a particular family member—does not seem like a virtue we want to reinforce either.
The first time we had to face this difference was at the time of our marriage, and since doing so, our families have come together to support us and love our children. The ways in which we honor the individual in our family of five today seem small in comparison to that first big hurdle. Choices like in- dividual cakes and festivities for each of our twins on their shared birthday and taking three small family trips that each of our children picked, instead of one big one, help us to carve out individual voices.
I know that my husband and I would rather teach our kids to hear and heed their own voices. We know it took both of us until our 30s to even understand some of our own needs, perhaps because they weren’ t given an audience in our childhood homes. Today we would rather take the time to teach our kids the reasons we want them to do things, and give them the opportunity to follow through—or learn to disagree in a respectful manner. Which takes more time and patience, and often feels uncomfortable because it is so different from the rote responses we were taught. But we are committed to continually examining our own core values because, if we didn’t, there would be no half-Korean, quarter-Irish, quarter-Italian Americans in either of our families today.
Diane Farr is a writer and actress based in Southern California. Her book, Kissing Outside the Lines: A True Story of Love and Race and Happily Ever After (Seal Press), was released in paperback this fall.
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!