In popular usage, the ideal family unit is a nuclear household consisting of a mother, father, and children residing together. However, the U.S. Census Bureau defines the family more broadly as “two or more people (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption residing in the same housing unit.” In other contexts, “family” may refer to (all) those related by blood or marriage, regardless of whether or not they live under the same roof. Societies differ in how they reckon blood relationships. They may recognize kinship through only the male line (patrilineal), only the female line (matrilineal), or both male and female lines (bilateral). Moreover, the question of “what is family?” can be considered via its functions, namely, producing and reproducing persons as biological and social beings. These functions are accomplished through a gender and generational division of labor. Alternatively, family relations can be imagined; sociologists and anthropologists have used the term “fictive kin” to refer to those who are considered to be family members even if they are not formally related. As Alvin Gouldner (1960) observes, families also encompass “status obligations”—duties that are attached to one’s kinship position in the family. For example, in many cultures, mothers are expected to care for young children; fathers to contribute economically; and children to obey parents. Importantly, status obligations have moral relevance. Others (both within the family and in the larger community) may judge whether a woman is a “good” or “bad” mother/daughter/wife/etc. based on whether or not she performs her familial duties. Status obligations are also internalized in that members feel that they should perform them, and if they do not, they feel guilty.
This brief review highlights the socially constructed nature of the family and its malleability while pursuing a two-pronged inquiry into the Asian American family. On the one hand, given the socially constructed nature of the family, we can ask, what are the cultural, political, and economic factors that have influenced Asian American family formation? On the other hand, given the family’s malleability, what strategies have Asian Americans pursued to maximize family survival and well-being? Integral to understanding the function of “family” within Asian American studies is an analysis of how successive histories of immigration prohibition, state segregation, and socioeconomic exclusion contributed to the development of particular family units in the United States.
In particular, Asian immigrants confronted laws and policies designed to prevent them from establishing conventional families. From 1850 to 1882, Chinese men were recruited to fill the demand for labor in agriculture, mining, and railroad construction in the American West. The few men of the merchant class who immigrated during this era were allowed to bring wives or concubines, but the vast majority of Chinese men lacked legal and economic means to do so. The Page Act of 1875 effectively barred Chinese women, while the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 cut off all legal entry for Chinese laborers. Unable to attain the ideal of a coresident family, the estimated half of Chinese immigrants who had left spouses in China developed “split household families” in which one member worked abroad and sent remittances while the rest of the household remained in the country of origin and engaged in reproductive labor (Glenn 1983). Restrictive U.S. immigration policies and antimiscegenation statutes ensured that Chinese America remained a “bachelor” society. As Nayan Shah (2001) documents, the prevalence of homosociality and the paucity of families fueled white imaginings of Chinese as inassimilable aliens and Chinatowns as disease- and vice-ridden slums.
The next major wave of Asian labor migration (1890–1907) consisted of single young men from Japan. Unlike the Chinese, Issei men were eventually allowed to bring or send for spouses. Under the terms of the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, Japan halted the emigration of laborers and in exchange the U.S. issued passports to wives and children of Issei already in the United States. Thousands of Issei men took advantage of the opportunity to go to Japan to marry or to send for picture brides. The Issei population remained gender skewed, but by the time the Immigration Act of 1924 cut off all immigration from the Asian subcontinent, there was a significant presence of Japanese American families. These families were heavily concentrated in agricultural pursuits, particularly truck farming, plant nurseries, gardening, and produce marketing. Wives worked alongside husbands in field and shop, and children helped after school and during summers.
The Philippines became the next major source of Asian labor migrants (1924–1934) after the 1924 Immigration Act cut off immigration from other parts of Asia. As residents of a U.S. colony, Filipinos were deemed to be U.S. subjects and therefore eligible for entry. As with the Chinese and Japanese, Filipino migrants were overwhelmingly male and single; they were employed primarily as migratory laborers in farm fields and canneries. This migratory flow ended with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. Filipino men were more inclined than other Asians to transgress color lines by forming relationships with and even marrying white women and establishing mixed-race families. Yet formal and informal barriers to “miscegenation” ensured that the number of Filipino families remained small.
The situation for Chinese and Japanese families diverged with the outbreak of World War II. Japanese residing in the Pacific Coast states were forcibly removed and interned. In addition to destroying communities, internment placed undue stress on family relations and sometimes broke up families. Among the impacts of the internment were the Issei generation’s loss of authority due to their enemy alien status and lack of English-language fluency; the premature responsibility assumed by young Nisei who became mediators between the family and U.S. authorities; and family conflict generated by the federal government decision to separate out “disloyal” internees by administering loyalty tests. In the postwar years, family relations were haunted by the losses and traumas internees had suffered. The 1980s Redress Movement that sought an official apology and token payment for losses proved to be cathartic as family members finally openly talked about the internment. Meanwhile, opportunities for Chinese to form families expanded at long last. In 1943, in recognition of China’s role as a U.S. ally, the U.S. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and extended the right to become naturalized citizens to resident Chinese. The latter provision opened up non-quota slots to relatives of naturalized Chinese Americans. Special legislation at the end of the war allowed Chinese American service members to bring wives and fiancées. Augmented by a small number of Chinese professionals and intellectuals, the 1950s saw growing numbers of Chinese Americans who lived and worked outside the confines of Chinatowns. This period of pro-Chinese sentiment saw the publication of popular memoirs that portrayed Chinese American family life for mainstream American readers. Pardee Lowe’s Father and Glorious Descendent (1943) and Jade Snow Wong’s best-selling memoir, Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945), focused on cultural differences between immigrant parents and their children.
These developments were dwarfed by major changes that started with passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. This act removed national quotas and restrictions against immigrants from Asia, specified occupational preferences, and prioritized family reunification. In practice, three-quarters of visas for new immigrants were allotted to relatives of citizens and permanent resident aliens. In addition to large-scale immigration from China and Taiwan, sizable numbers came from Korea, the Philippines, and India. Compared to earlier immigrant cohorts, post-1965 immigrants were relatively well educated; indeed they had higher average years of schooling than the U.S. population as a whole.
The passage of refugee acts in 1975 and 1980 enabled the entry of large cohorts of Southeast Asians. Under the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, the U.S. accepted 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. This cohort consisted of mostly skilled and educated asylees who had had close ties with the U.S. or South Vietnamese governments. Later, between 1981 and 2000, the U.S. accepted 531,310 Vietnamese who had fled Vietnam in small boats and found temporary sanctuary in asylum camps in Southeast Asia. Generally poorer and less educated than the first cohort, many of the “boat people” endured prolonged hardship, displacement, and separation before they could reconstitute families in America. Still, refugees from asylum camps were dispersed among many different nations for permanent settlement, so most Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. had relatives living in other countries. Given the loss of family members as a result of the war and during their escape, Vietnamese refugees value extended kin ties, so they make special efforts to maintain contact across national borders.
These post-1965 immigrants and refugees entered an economy undergoing transformation by globalization, deindustrialization, information technology, and neoliberal economic policies. By the late 20th century, the American labor market had become almost bimodal, with high demand for educated professionals in such fields as medicine, high technology, and engineering and for low-wage workers in domestic services, elderly care, janitorial, and food services. Civil rights struggles had weakened, if not dismantled, racial exclusion in employment. Consequently, Asian immigrants who had degrees from U.S.institutions or whose training was easily transferable could enter the market for skilled professionals. However, those lacking requisite education, language, or transferable skills were relegated to the low-wage sector or self-employment in small family businesses.
Educated Asian professional families are able to settle in suburban locations characterized by high performing public schools and excellent public services. For example, families of South Asian (primarily Indian) doctors, engineers, and high-tech professionals enjoy some of the highest family incomes of all Asian Americans and their high-achieving children are viewed as models of success. However, South Asian Americans are socioeconomically diverse and, like other Asian American families, are not without their problems. Margaret Abraham (2000), Shamita Das Dasgupta (2007), and other social scientists have exposed domestic violence as a social problem facing South Asian families. South Asian women activists have organized shelters and support services for survivors of abuse. Such “self-help” efforts reflect the high degree of organization of South Asian communities, which are knit together by cultural, political, and business organizations. The ethnic community encourages adherence to “traditional” cultural and religious beliefs, including the ideal of the patriarchal joint family system. Under this system, marriage is considered essential for both men and women, and parents are responsible for arranging appropriate marriages for their sons and daughters. Sons and daughters are afforded some power to accept or reject a match, but they also often recognize their parents’ authority and plan to live with them until they marry.
At the other end of the spectrum, less advantaged families, especially refugee families, tend to be concentrated in economically disadvantaged communities plagued by failing schools, poor resources, and high crime rates. Among working-class and refugee Asian families, two incomes are needed to support the family. The growth of low-wage, female-intensive industries in services and some light manufacturing provide opportunities for women to find paying jobs fairly quickly. Immigrant men reportedly have a harder time, because their inability to speak English and their lack of U.S. credentials shut them out of jobs that are commensurate with their training and experience. Men may also be loath to take up “feminized” or devalued work. In this sense Asian women’s “disadvantage” (being small, foreign, female) becomes an advantage, at least in the low-wage labor market. Regarding Vietnamese immigrant families, Nazli Kibria (1995) and Yến Lê Espiritu (1999) have each reported that gender relations may become more egalitarian, but also more conflicted as a result of shifts in men’s and women’s economic roles. As in other immigrant communities, a plethora of organizations supports ethnic cultural values, including the centrality of family, status obligation, and respect for parents and elders. Zhou and Bankston (2006) have found that youth who are more actively engaged in ethnic organizations are more likely to do well in school and less likely to become involved in alienated youth cultures.
The presumed role played by Asian American families and ethnic cultural values in children’s school success raises the related issue of the model minority trope. The model minority image was first popularized in the 1960s when the focus was on explaining Asian American assimilation and success in contrast to the downward assimilation and lack of mobility of other racialized minorities. Explanations honed in on the supposed strengths of Japanese American and Chinese American families in contrast to the “pathologies” of single headed black families and authoritarian Latino families. By the 1990s and 2000s, the focus had shifted from lauding Asian Americans for their success to anxiety about their competitive advantage over native-born whites. The pot boiled over with the appearance of Amy Chua’s 2011 best-selling quasi-humorous memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Her account suggested that Asian American parents stressed high standards, achievement, and parental authority while white American parents were more concerned with nurturing individualism, self-esteem, and emotional well-being. The anxieties expressed in public debate reflected declining confidence in American exceptionalism and middle-class fears that America had become “too permissive,” “too soft,” “too complacent.”
While it appears that Asian immigrant parents do indeed stress dedication and hard work, the reasons are not altogether cultural in origin. Vivian Louie (2004) points out that their orientation stems from historical and social circumstances. Parents have experienced restricted opportunity for higher education in their home countries, and they anticipate greater opportunity for education in the U.S., where there are more universities and less rigorous competition. They are also aware of U.S. racism and believe that their children have to try harder and do better than whites to overcome their disadvantage. For their part, children see their parents as having sacrificed much to give them a chance. They feel the sacrifice as a debt that must be repaid, which they can do by studying hard and succeeding.
Paradoxically, the post-1965 period also witnessed the reappearance of split household families. The economic and legal regime that enabled Asian immigrants to establish conventional families also facilitated the formation of transnational households. Family separation is perhaps most common among Filipinos, as adults migrate abroad to work. Unlike earlier cohorts, dominated by men, the majority of contemporary Filipino labor migrants are women, many of whom leave children and husbands behind in the Philippines. Most are relatively well educated, but were unable to earn enough as professionals or small business owners to pay for children’s education and accumulate a nest egg. English speaking and skilled, they are in great demand as housekeepers, nannies, and care workers. Their remittances constitute a significant share of the Philippine economy. Some migrants plan to return eventually to the Philippines, but many hope to sponsor their children and other relatives to join them in the United States. In the meantime, female relatives take responsibility for childcare and housework in the country of origin. Parreñas (2005) and others have found that the domestic burden does not fall on fathers, thus preserving the gender division of labor and the ideal of “mother care.”
Another type of transnational family arrangement is found among some affluent Taiwanese, Chinese from Hong Kong, and South Koreans. Under current immigration law, migrants who invest significant resources in the U.S. or Canada can gain entry and legal residence. However, male heads of household may find it advantageous to retain their businesses or occupations in Asia. At the same time, parents calculate that their children will have better futures with an American education. Thus, school- and college-age children are sent abroad for schooling to establish a beachhead in America. Mothers may live full time with junior high–and high school–age children, while fathers live and work in Asia. Alternately, children may be placed with relatives or friends or in boarding facilities run by co-ethnics, or they may live on their own with older siblings in charge, while the mother and father visit for varying periods of time.
Amid these developments, conceptions of family continue to be challenged by formations that deviate from the heteropatriarchal ideal. Even in earlier periods, some Asian Americans engaged in homosocial living arrangements, same-sex intimacy, interracial relationships, and transnational households to meet their needs and desires. In the current period, such practices as same-sex marriage, childrearing by same-sex couples, interracial marriages, and transnational and transracial adoption have become increasingly visible in the Asian American community. These historical and contemporary snapshots of gender, sexual, and generational dynamics capture only selected aspects of the panoply of issues and topics that can be considered under the rubric of family. They also reveal the flexibility of the family and the creativity of Asian Americans in fashioning their relationships and households to help them navigate their lives in America.