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Asian-American Families

Family Structures And Gender Roles

The vertical family structure of patriarchal lineage and hierarchal relationships is common in traditional Asian-American families, but there is diversity in practice across cultures. Based on the teachings of Confucius, responsibility moves from father to son, elder brother to younger brother, and husband to wife. Women are expected to be passive, and nurture the well-being of the family. A mother forms a close bond with her children, favoring her eldest son over her husband (Hildebrand, Phenice, Gray, and Hines 2000). On rural farms in the west, where Japanese women were isolated and saw other women only once a year, they often became extremely close to their children (Chan 1991). Thus, cultural tradition and living conditions both fostered this close relationship.

Over the generations, as in the case of the Japanese Americans, this pattern changed from the linear male-oriented pattern of kinship to a stem pattern of shared responsibility and inheritance for both sons and daughters (Adler 1998). In contrast to the patriarchal and patrilineal structure of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean societies, the gender structure in the Philippines is more egalitarian, and kinship is bilateral. In employment, women had and continue to have equal status with men (Espiritu 1995). Women held high positions and were role models in all aspects of Filipino society.

For Southeast Asian refugee families, the change in gender relations was a function of the changing gender roles upon relocation. Older men lost their traditional roles as elders who solved problems, adjudicated quarrels, and made important decisions, when they became powerless without fluency in English and understanding of Western culture. Hmong parents found their children were serving as cultural brokers, which undermined the father's ability to support his family, thus reducing his status. Hmong women, on the other hand, discovered that they had more rights and protection from abuse, which made their adjustment easier than their husbands'. In addition, they sold their intricate needlework, providing family income (Chan 1994).

Structurally, Asian-American families historically included split-household families, transnational families, extended families, nuclear families, and multiple nuclear family households. Evelyn Nakano Glen (1983) described Chinese split-household families as part production or income earning by men sojourning abroad, and part reproduction or maintaining the family household, including childrearing and caring for the elderly by wives and relatives in China. Split-household families were common for Chinese between 1850 and the 1920s. In the 1930s Filipino families also had split-household families since men far exceeded women on the mainland. Gender roles became reversed when Filipina women migrated to become domestic workers and nurses in the health care system, becoming family breadwinners with children and spouses in the homeland. Transnational (split-household) families grew out of economic necessity, and transcended borders and spatial boundaries to take advantage of the lower cost of living for families in a developing country (Zhou and Gatewood 2000). Filipina women preferred having kin, rather than strangers, provide childcare, especially during infancy, even if that meant living away from their children. But this arrangement was considered a broken home because the ideal family was the nuclear family, and there was an emotional cost of not being able to supervise one's own children. These kinship patterns reinforced the cultural value of familism, or mutual cooperation, collectivism, and mutual obligation among kin (Zhou and Gatewood 2000).

There are a variety of reasons for the creation of extended family households, including the desire for children to support their parents and grandparents, the inculcation of language and culture, economic stability, cultural obligation, and family reunification patterns. Extended families living in the same household was a function of cultural norms, economic needs, and a process of migration. Discrimination in housing and economic necessity after World War II often brought a variety of Japanese family (and nonfamily) members together in one household. In addition, older Issei, who could not speak English, relied upon their children, the Nisei, to help them negotiate daily living in mainstream society (Adler 1998). Households might include parents, children, unmarried siblings, and grandparents. Traditional Asian-Indian families live in a joint family, which includes a married couple, their unmarried children, and their married sons with their spouses and children. Thus, three or more generations may reside in the same household.

Economic opportunities and upward mobility caused younger professionals to move their nuclear families away from parents, who may have preferred to remain in their familiar ethnic communities. Some Filipino families combined nuclear families into multiple family households for economic reasons. But for Indochinese families who were dependent upon welfare, social service agencies defined their family for them as nuclear, not extended, for the purposes of distribution of assistance. Rather than the family being a unit of production, as in Laos, families became a unit of consumption in the United States (Chan 1994). Regardless of how families were defined legally, Vietnamese families pooled and exchanged material resources within family groups, building a cooperative family economy. Informal women-centered social groups and community networks were established to regulate the exchange of resources among households, and to mediate domestic tensions and disputes (Zhou and Gatewood 2000).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAsian-American Families - Varied Immigration Histories, Family Structures And Gender Roles, Religion And Cultural Values, Regional And Generational Differences