By Allen Kim
Illustration by Kyungduk Kim
The popularized images of Korean fathers in high-profile news articles over the last several years, or even anecdotally, paint a picture of men who are disconnected from their families, emotionally closed, focused solely on their breadwinning duties or, in some cases, even prone to violence. At one extreme, who could forget the horrifying story of the Korean immigrant father who shot his wife, son and daughter before turning the gun on himself in 2006. His daughter, Binna, lived to tell of the traumatic experience, her solitary photo against a black background appearing on the cover of Los Angeles Times’ West magazine the same year. Even abroad fathers are not immune to the negative image: A recent Korea Times article reported that South Korean fathers spend the least amount of time with their families, compared with other dads in East Asia.
But these highlighted “failures” of Korean fathers do not tell the whole story. Across the United States, a growing number of Korean immigrant men are actively searching for the answer to the fundamental question: What does it mean to be a man and a father today?
Since its introduction to U.S. shores from South Korea in 2000, thousands of dads have participated in what’s known as Father School—a religiously inspired movement that seeks to turn the hearts of men toward their families.
Founded in 1995, Duranno Father School developed in South Korea as an evangelical response to concerns over uninvolved fathers, broken families, materialism and other issues considered contradictory to biblical values. Men were viewed as the weak link in their families often because they were emotionally and/or physically absent. Today, as a non-profit organization, Father School sponsors various men’s ministries, both religious and secular, that squarely address men’s responsibility within the family. Their goal is to promote involved and positive fathering.
“We feel that men are disconnected from their purpose, and that positive father involvement is a learned behavior,” said Hyun Kyu In, director of USA Father School in Los Angeles. “The father’s influence cannot be understated. Men must show their love in front of their children, to touch and even kiss their wives publicly, to be reconciled with their own fathers. All of these things translate to the likelihood of better relations with their own children.”
To date, Father School has sponsored more than 2,400 educational sessions in 37 countries, with over 140,000 graduates worldwide, according to statistics provided by USA Father School. In North America, it has operated in 46 cities with over 14,000 graduates and counting. Although it primarily caters to Korean immigrants, it is increasingly taking hold in Latino communities as well.
Conferences are organized as four-day seminars replete with small group activities, testimonials, lectures and writing assignments. Men spend a total of 20 hours at Father School events, with between 55 to 170 men attending a single session. As a grassroots operation, the organization relies on volunteers—graduates of the program—to help run the seminars, recruit and serve as small group facilitators. Members come from a variety of backgrounds and religious perspectives, and, while informed by Christian spirituality, do not advocate a particular faith organization.
Kyu Bae Choi, vice president of USA Father School, said that every year there are several cases of divorces being cancelled as a result of men’s participation in the program.
As a graduate student of sociology researching this movement since 2006, I secured permission to attend three Father School conferences at various churches in Los Angeles, and also conducted several site visits to the USA Father School headquarters in L.A.’s Koreatown to interview organization leaders and volunteers. I was given access to speak with Father School participants and to read their personal letters during these conferences, with the agreement that I would keep their identities anonymous. I use pseudonyms for school participants and volunteers in this article, and their comments published here have been translated from Korean.
With this access, I uncovered a unique world inhabited by Korean fathers that many would be surprised by—even moved by. It was a world shaped by discomfort, despair, tears, regrets, healing, hope and renewed motivation. Here is a glimpse into that hidden world.
Building the Family Builder
It’s 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon, and volunteers wearing the unmistakable blue-and-white-striped Father School T-shirts greet Korean men outside of the entrance to the main conference room. Attendees, who paid a $100 entrance fee, will receive among other items, nametags, an advice manual, evening meals and stationery for homework assignments. Men are then directed to assigned tables separated by age groups. Decorating the room are large banners declaring in Korean, “As the father lives, so the family lives!” and “Lord, I am a Father”—clues that the organization seeks to squarely address men’s role as fathers and husbands.
Meetings are scheduled to run from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday over two weekends. During the four compacted days, these men will learn about what it means to be a “family builder.” Toward that end, all the activities men will participate in are designed to help them open up emotionally and express themselves in more loving ways, which explains exercises like having men hug each other and homework assignments to go on dates with family members.
Of course, such activities cause some participants to feel uncomfortable. I’ve even witnessed some men walk out of the conferences. Despite the “money-back guarantee” of satisfaction promised by Father School leaders, when largely first-generation Korean men, from ages 29 to 75, first enter the seminar room, they appear unsure of what they got themselves into. The look of restlessness among the younger fathers was more apparent, perhaps given the business of their lives and the leisure activities they like to pursue on weekends. Not surprisingly, a majority of the men in attendance didn’t come out of their own volition. In one conference survey I conducted, 75 percent of men indicated that their participation was prompted by the prodding of their wives or persuasion of a friend or pastor.
After a general introduction by school leaders, the men are assigned their first group exercise: creating a team name and chant, and then drawing pictures distilling their experience as husbands and fathers. Armed with colored markers and crayons, men draw images that signify such things as golf, smoking, alcohol, American and Korean flags, money signs plastered on houses and the Christian symbol of the cross.
Representing a group of six men in their 40s, Jiwon describes their drawings to the audience. “We wrote down, ‘Come here quickly, Dad’ because our group all shared a number of obstacles keeping us from our families, including work, drinking with friends, golfing, billiards, even church obligations,” said Jiwon, 41. “We know our families miss our presence as seen by the sad face of this child.”
Another poster proclaimed more boldly: “Children! We will become better fathers!” I will not forget one picture that prominently displayed a cartoon depiction of an angry red face with fumes coming out of the top of his head. “At times the image of an angry father may be in the minds of our family,” Jim explained. “This is not the image we wish to leave for our families.” When asked to elaborate on the image of the angry face, the 42-year-old added that many of the men themselves grew up with overbearing, sometimes abusive fathers and that, despite wanting to parent differently, ended up following in the same footsteps.
“Korean dads confront a new environment in America,” said Sangil, a 37-year-old Father School volunteer. “[They] risk greater estrangement from their kids because … they simply do not know how to father in a positive way.”
Later in the day, men watch two videos that demonstrate contrasting father images: the first shows a man stressed out from work, drinking alcohol and smoking with coworkers, and then arriving home late and irritable to his family. Meanwhile his children have grown up quickly and are left only with images of an authoritarian, emotionally distant father whose sole role was as breadwinner. The Korean man’s legacy, says the narrator, leaves deep pain and regret.
The second image shows a Korean father arriving home early from work with a smile and going on dates with his eager children. He is openly affectionate and encouraging.
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.
No Handshaking Allowed
In a strange and uncomfortable moment during the conference, two male volunteers walk to a center stage and demonstrate how participants are to hug one other, chest to chest (no macho back patting). Handshaking is not allowed at the school. Many men are noticeably feeling awkward, as nervous laughter can be heard.
The hugging requirement is supposed to underscore the point that positive fathering involves open expression, both physical and verbal. It is also intended to help bring participants closer together. The men are encouraged to hug upon first greeting each other and also when the need to comfort each other arises. After all, a key feature of the Father School organization is emphasis on accountability groups, similar to the 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous. School volunteers told me that, in their experience, participants will form friendships that endure long after the conference ends and turn to each other for emotional support.
Similar to transforming men’s body language, the school also promotes language guidelines that are more egalitarian and affectionate than what many traditional Korean dads are used to. Within the Korean language, certain pronouns are used to locate the individual within a Confucian social hierarchy. But here, men are instructed to address one another generically as “hyeongjeanim” (brother), instead of using honorific titles, despite the presence of pastors and elders. I found that abandoning hierarchical formalities did allow the men to share with each other more freely.
The more egalitarian language also extends to their spouses. Among many Korean immigrant men, a common way to refer to one’s wife is as “jip saram” (house person) or “an saram” (inside person), which some perceive as degrading toward women. Instead, the men were told to refer to their wives as “anea” (wife) or “saranghanun anea” (beloved wife) when addressing them in the presence of other men. When some men accidentally revert to the traditional references, volunteers jokingly tell them they will be fined for each verbal slip.
Fathers are not asked, however, to modify their language when it comes to their children, who are still expected to maintain the verb conjugations that denote respect of elders. But by moving away from some of the sexist references toward their spouses, Father School seems to embrace the idea that women and men are partners in raising their children, versus it being the sole domain of the mother.
And the school further promotes a more nurturing role for the father, different from the more rigid, Confucian- modeled patriarchal one many grew up with in Korea. One homework assignment for the dads is to go home and lay their hands on all family members to “bless them.”
If Father School can be boiled down to one signature activity, it would be the writing of letters to family members, something the majority of the men have never done before. Taking a page from Western self-help culture, Father School leaders encourage the men to share good as well as painful memories, regrets and expressions of love in the various letters they are asked to write.
“Writing letters is the most important aspect of the conference to get men to communicate with family members from the heart,” explained group leader Chul. “As you know it is very difficult for Korean men to do this.”
Kyu Bae Choi, vice president of USA Father School, also described the countless instances of Korean American children who were never told they were loved until their fathers expressed themselves in their letters.
Although it may have been difficult, many of the men—often seen frantically working on the missives during free moments throughout the conference—end up expressing themselves quite openly, as with this message from Paul, 57, written to his adult daughter:
Writing this letter to you, I feel a little awkward. I feel sorry that I couldn’t do much for you, but demanded a lot of you instead. Especially since for a few years I was against the person you love and caused you a lot of pain. Even now, please forgive me. However, from now on, I’ll take the things I couldn’t do for you and do doubly better. I’m happy, thankful, and proud that you are doing well and keeping the dream of being a newlywed. …I love you, my daughter.
In addition to writing to their children, the men are instructed to pen letters to their fathers, even if they are deceased. In fact, this letter is considered a key activity because it allows the participant to address his own “father wound”—the psychic pain of being abandoned emotionally and/or physically by his own father. At times, these letters reveal painful pasts, such as with this one from Frank, 43:
But father, there is something you should apologize to me for. When I was a freshmen in college, do you remember the huge fight with mother? I know that mom was the one to blame; however, it was wrong that you hit her.
Another student, Song, 44, appeared to forgive his own father after realizing how difficult it must have been balancing work and family, as the son now struggles to do:
Father, whom I love … it has been a while since I have called out to you. You didn’t speak much at home, right? Maybe because of that reason, I can’t really recall much of anything special. But at times, my wife tells me that I’m just like you. During winter, you wouldn’t return home from work until 10 at night, and maybe because of that, you did not have much time to spend with us. It has been 15 years since I last saw you. Please forgive this undutiful son who hasn’t been visiting your grave. I shall visit you when I go to Korea next time.
On the final seminar day, the wives of participants are invited to attend what’s a climactic event. Women have in a sense been on a parallel journey with their spouses, as the men’s homework assignments often involve their wives. They include the couple going out on a date and the husband presenting a list of 20 things he loves about her. One husband, John, shared his wife’s reaction to this list: “She felt surprised and touched,” the 46-year-old said. “With tears she promised to [write] 20 things that she liked about me. That night, before going to bed, I read to my wife a letter of appreciation and blessed her with prayer. My wife was so touched that she cried. I cried because I was touched too. I now realize what is needed in marriage can arise from more honest expression.”
While women listen to a sermon in the main hall, men enter a separate room and are given the navy blue Father School T-shirts worn by volunteers. Men dramatically put on their new shirts, signifying their embrace of the Father School identity. The whole room is transformed into an army of men in blue and white stripes. They form a single line and, armed with a towel and wash basin, march out to their wives to wash their feet. The feet washing is meant to signify devotion and service to their families, in the same vein as Jesus’ action for his disciples. Every wife I observed was in tears during this cathartic ceremony.
The frailties of men’s own past mistakes and their spoken desire to become more caring and relevant fathers strikes a chord with all in the room—including myself. Spouses share intimate conversations and prayers as music from a praise band plays in the background. During the final meeting, the men are given diplomas. Leaders are quick to point out that they never really “graduate” in the sense of mastering fatherhood, but emphasize the lifelong journey ahead. Graduates will take home a booklet with the names and contact information of their group members so they can continue to serve as sources of mutual support.
I have not not followed men who have completed the Father School seminar nor have I yet interviewed their wives or children. But confessional letters men wrote toward the end of their schooling suggests an awakening.
“Thus far, I lived to just make money. I thought that was enough for my family,” wrote participant Yoojin, 38. “Through this conference, I learned that as a father, I am head of the family. I [learned] that there are many good things I could do without money, specifically through words and activities. From now on, I will offer encouragement instead of reprimands to my wife and children.”
Another graduate, Jinro, 46, wrote, “Before, I was the ruler of my family. I was not able to be a model to my children and was not able to become a generous friend…I thank Father School for clearly showing my misguided path and deficiencies like a mirror. The knowledge I have earned from Father School will transform me into a new father.”
I am weary of saying that Father School serves as a magic bullet for creating the loving, involved father. The issue is far more complex. But after attending hours of seminars, watching grown men cry over their regrets and reading personal letters full of deep self-reflection, what I can say with some degree of confidence is that thousands of Korean dads across the country are longing for better relationships with their children, and oftentimes, their spouses, too. Whether they will be successful in reforming their roles within their families, only time will tell, but clearly, the Father School movement is resonating with immigrant men who want to take that first step.
“Korean men in America often have no outlet for their despair or an opportunity … to reflect on their family life,” said Father School director In. “Even among the younger fathers in our program who have grown up with the norm of being friends to their children, many of them still have much to learn. One father I met shared in a small group meeting how he regretted missing out on the opportunity to play catch with his son. When his son had asked him to play, this father explained that he was too busy and promised to purchase a baseball set so that [his son] could play with his friends. He realized he missed the chance to engage with his son. Instead of giving himself, the father offered something else. This was a painful memory for him.
“The biggest contribution of Father School is that men are able to improve their communication, they are able to match the eye level and heart level of their family members.”
Allen Kim is continuing his research on Father School. If family members of participants are open to speaking with him, email him at email@example.com.