Asian American Families: Diverse History, Contemporary Trends, and the Future

Masako Ishii-Kuntz. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.

Asian Americans are diverse in culture, socioeconomic status, immigration history, and generations. They represent over 28 subgroups; some immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century, whereas other more recent immigrants or refugees arrived after the 1965 Immigration Reform Act (Ishii-Kuntz, 2000). Although Asian Americans share commonalities ethnic origins in Asia, similar physical appearance, cultural values they are not a monolithic group. This chapter focuses on diverse Asian American family experiences over the last three decades and is divided into four parts: (a) demographic characteristics and changes of Asian Americans and their families, (b) theoretical approaches and major research findings on Asian American families, (c) contributions of Asian American family scholarship, and (d) a discussion of future Asian American families.

Demographic Changes

Widespread immigration began in 1852, when large numbers of Chinese laborers came to California to work in mining and railroad construction. The history of these immigrants is tainted by numerous “institutionalized racial discrimination of public policies” (Takaki, 1989, p. 14), including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the National Origins Act of 1924, both enacted to curtail Chinese and Japanese immigration. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II also exemplifies discriminatory treatment of Asian Americans. The period since the 1965 immigration reform has been significant due to the large influx of Asian immigrants. The 1965 reform increased numbers of Asian immigrants, who were extremely underrepresented compared to European immigrants, and also changed the characteristics of Asian American immigration from male laborers to those who were middle class, educated, and urbanized. Most importantly, unlike pre-1965, Asian immigrants arrived in the United States as family units rather than as individuals.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2000), the most notable post-1965 change was the rapid population growth of Asian Americans, from less than 1.5 million in 1970 to 11.9 million in 2000. Today, Asian Americans constitute about 4.2% of the total U.S. population; by the year 2060, they are projected to constitute approximately 10% of the population.

The largest Asian ethnic group in 1970 was Japanese (about 41% of the Asian American population). However, Chinese, Filipinos, and Asian Indians emerged as the first-, second-, and third-largest Asian ethnic groups in 2000 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002b). Asian-born residents in the United States made up 26% of the country’s foreign-born population in 2000 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002c); about 60% to 70 % speak their native languages at home (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000).

Although increasing, the median age of Asian Americans is about 2.6 years younger than that of the total population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002a). Higher fertility rates among recent immigrants (especially Vietnamese) and lower proportions of elderly contribute to the youthfulness of the Asian American population.

In 1999, 80% of Asian American families were maintained by married couples (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999); 10% were female-headed households, and 7% were families maintained by men with no spouses. Hmong had the largest average family size with 6.6 persons, and Japanese the smallest with 3.1 persons (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). The median household income of Asian Americans has been consistently higher than that of non-Hispanic whites, perhaps because among Asian Americans more family members are in the labor force than among their white counterparts (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999) or because they are concentrated in metropolitan areas (about 94%), where average incomes are likely to be higher than in rural areas. Over half live in large cities in the West (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002a).

Despite higher incomes than white families, the rate of poverty among Asian Americans (10.2%) is also slightly higher than that of whites (9.9%) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). Hmong had the highest poverty rate (63.6%), followed by Cambodians (42.6%) and Laotians (34.7%) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). These figures suggest substantial income divergences among Asian American subgroups.

In summary, demographic characteristics of Asian Americans over the last three decades have shown considerable population growth, a dramatic increase of foreign-born Asian Americans, and a slight increase in the median age. However, household size and the proportion of married couples, dual-worker families, and female householders have remained relatively stable. Finally, there is significant variation in demographic characteristics among subgroups of Asian Americans, with recent immigrants reporting smaller incomes, larger household size, younger ages, and higher poverty rates than more established Asian Americans.

Asian American Families

In contrast to the large body of literature on white, black, and Hispanic American families, research on Asian American families has been minimal (Fong, 1998). This may have been due to the relatively small numbers of Asian Americans and/or their problem-free image, derived in part from economic and educational success stories of Asian Americans reported in the media (e.g., Mathews, 1987; William, 1984), low divorce rates, and seemingly strong family commitment. Empirical work focusing on economic and educational achievement has reinforced this problem-free image of Asian Americans (e.g., Hirschman & Wong, 1984; Sowell, 1981).

Popular, recurrent explanations for Asian American economic and educational success and strong family bonds have been cultural. Culturally based explanations dominated Asian American scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Kitano (1969) found that Japanese American assimilation and/or success could be attributed to Japanese values that were compatible, if not similar, to those of middle-class white Americans, such as diligence, punctuality, self-discipline, and high achievement motivation. Caudill and DeVos (1956) argued that because Japanese and American middle-class cultures share the values of politeness, respect for authority, diligence, and emphasis on personal achievement, the Japanese adapted to the U.S. way of life more quickly than other immigrant groups. The implication of the cultural approach is that immigrants’ assimilation can be achieved by adopting mainstream cultural values and that if the cultural values of the immigrants’ home country are compatible to those of white Americans, it will be easier for them to assimilate into American society. This approach also implies that lack of success among other ethnic minority groups can be attributed to weak cultural values (Glenn & Yap, 1994). Thus, the cultural approach used in early Asian American scholarship is a deficit model: Deviations from the Anglo norm in terms of family structures and values are seen as maladaptive rather than adaptive responses to structural forces.

Although the value compatibility thesis may make intuitive sense, it has not always received theoretical and empirical support. Osako (1976) argued that some American middle-class values, particularly concerning kinship relationships, differ significantly from traditional Japanese practice and norms. Japanese families emphasize solidarity, dependence, obedience, and inequality between sexes, values that differ greatly from U.S. kinship values. Sue and Sue (1971) argued that traditional Asian cultural values strongly conflicted with U.S. middle-class values, making assimilation difficult for some, particularly those who adhered to traditional Asian values and who identified with Asian culture to the exclusion of the dominant society.

The cultural argument also has been challenged by contemporary social scientists for its circular reasoning (Liberson, 1980). According to Liberson, “The argument then frequently involves using the behavioral attribute one is trying to explain as the indicator of the normative or value difference one is trying to use as the explanation” (p. 8). The cultural argument also ignores that Chinese and Japanese immigrants differ cross-sectionally between places of origin and across historical periods (Nee & Wong, 1985). Further, although there is considerable overlap in traditional values among different Asian groups, subgroup values are not identical. Filipinos are more likely to be Catholic, Koreans are most often Protestants, and large numbers of Southeast Asians are Buddhists. This religious diversity suggests that one set of cultural values cannot be used to explain behaviors, expectations, and attitudes of all Asian Americans.

After the late 1960s, Asian American scholars began questioning the validity of cultural theories and offered alternative explanations that focused on the role of external structural conditions affecting Asian American families and immigrants’ economic adaptation. For example, Nee and Wong (1985) found the formation of household production units to be an important factor in Asian American social and economic mobility. Profit generated from household production units such as small businesses, unlike that generated under labor contracts, directly benefited families and provided stable environments for socializing and educating an upwardly mobile second generation. Kibria (1993) took the structural approach in suggesting that the increase in Vietnamese women’s control over economic and social resources and the concomitant decline in Vietnamese men’s earning power and social status contributed to a shift in relative power from men to women. A variation of the structural approach is a critical perspective that takes into account the constraints imposed on Asian American families in terms of legal, political, and institutional structures. For example, in her study of first—and second—generation domestic workers, Glenn (1986) found that although all Japanese American family members struggled together against external forces like racism, at the same time, Japanese American women were subjugated by being placed at the bottom of family hierarchy.

Immigration policies also played an important role in the structural approach. In the early 20th century, male laborers could not bring their families to the United States, but entrepreneurs could. Therefore, laborers became small family business entrepreneurs so their families could immigrate. These immigration policies played an important role in creating household production units, which were related to family stability among Asian Americans. Also important in shaping family structure among Asian Americans was the 1965 immigration reform, which limited each country to 20,000 immigrants but exempted parents, spouses, and children of immigrants from the quotas. This means that relatively recent immigrant groups have stronger family ties. They also are more likely to be economically successful because post-1965 immigration policies give priority to successful professionals. Immigrants now represent educated high achievers from the country of origin.

In summary, early studies on Asian American families heavily relied on the cultural theory to explain how Asian cultural values affected the educational and occupational achievement of Asian American children. However, unlike cultural theory, structural and critical perspectives allow us to examine internal family conflicts and diverse relationships across Asian American subgroups. Given the diversity among Asian subgroups, the most fruitful approach to study their families is perhaps the model that combines both cultural and structural components.

Parenting and Socialization

Studies focusing on how parents contribute to Asian American children’s educational achievement (e.g., Julian, McKenry, & McKelvey, 1994; see also Chao & Tseng, 2002, for a summary) have found that Asian American parents’ academic expectations for their children are higher than those of other parents (Peng & Wright, 1994), as is their emphasis on self-control and academic achievement (Julian et al., 1994). Although Chao (1994) found that immigrant Chinese mothers practice authoritarian parenting more than European American mothers, they do not adhere to the strict parental authority and control of European American mothers who practice authoritarian parenting. Chinese mothers also love their children in order to foster close and enduring parent-child relationships; European American mothers love their children to foster children’s self-esteem (Chao, 1995). Chao and Tseng (2002) summarized that “both groups of mothers stressed the same value, but Chinese mothers were motivated toward relational goals, and European American mothers were motivated toward individual goals” (p. 68). These studies point out the need to interpret authoritarian parenting within cultural contexts.

The effects of family socialization and parenting on ethnic identity of Asian American children have also been studied. Parental pressure to preserve ethnic culture affects the Chinese immigrant children’s ethnic identity, but factors such as birth order, sibling size, language ability, age, and gender do not (Cheng & Kuo, 2000). Nagata (1993) found that second- and third-generation Japanese American parents who deempha-sized their ethnic heritage increased ethnic identity among their children more than did parents who emphasized family histories.

Immigration experiences alter parent-child relationships. For example, Kibria (1993) found that immigration had eroded parental power and authority of Vietnamese refugee families over children. Many parents felt the U.S. cultural environment undermined their efforts to educate and socialize their children with appropriate ethnic values and cultural norms. This may also be because immigrant children assist their non-English-speaking parents by playing the role of language and cultural brokers. They often acculturate and learn to speak English more quickly than their parents, so that their parents end up relying on them to interpret or translate (Tse, 1995, 1996), and they assist their parents in daily cross-cultural transactions such as making medical appointments and dealing with schools and the legal system (Chao, 2002). Findings are mixed as to whether children’s language acculturation has a negative effect on communication and cohesion for immigrant families (Tseng & Fulgini, 2000) or no effect (Chao, 2002). Adolescents with East Asian and Filipino backgrounds who conversed with their parents in different languages felt more emotionally distant from them than did youths who shared the same language with their parents; parents and adolescents who mutually communicated in the native language reported the highest levels of cohesion.

In summary, researchers that focused on parenting styles and attitudes reported that cultural values play an important role in Asian American parenting and socialization practices. Because of the emphasis on interdependence in Asian American families, parenting styles used by white families need to be reinterpreted and modified by researchers when examining Asian American parenting. Also, language plays an important role in assessing immigrant children’s roles in the family and parent-child relationship quality.

Interracial Marriages

A relatively large number of studies on Asian American interracial marriage (marriage between two people of difference races) that were conducted in the 1980s and early 1990s (e.g., Shinagawa & Pang, 1990) examined factors affecting the high rate of Asian-white interracial marriages. Kitano, Yeung, Chai, and Hatanaka (1984) found that 49.9%, 30.2%, and 19.2% of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Americans in Los Angeles married outside their own group. Women were much more likely to outmarry than men, and interracial marriages were more prevalent among well-educated and professional Asian Americans (Lee & Yamanaka, 1990).

Three reasons offered for high rates of Asian American interracial marriage are individual choice, the need to assimilate (Sung, 1990), and hypergamy theory (Shinagawa & Pang, 1990). The individual-choice explanation is that Asian American interracial marriage is a matter of individual preference: Asian Americans meet, fall in love, and decide to marry someone outside their race (Tseng, McDermott, & Maretzki, 1977). However, the problem with this explanation is that it fails to explain the lower rates of interracial marriages for other ethnic minority groups. For example, if interracial marriages are solely based on individual choice, why is there such a low rate of interracial marriages for other minorities, such as African Americans?

The second perspective is the need for assimilation. According to this view, intermarriage or marital assimilation is a positive sign of acceptance by the larger society (Sung, 1990). Problems with this approach are twofold. First, this view is strongly embedded within the assimilation-as-a-healthy outcome framework for minority populations. By analogy, it means that ethnic minority individuals who are not interracially married are not assimilated into society. This model also fails to explain why interracial marriages are not evenly distributed across the entire Asian American populations (i.e., why they occur more frequently among more educated Asian Americans with higher incomes). It also does not account for the fact that more Asian American women than men outmarry.

The individual-choice and assimilation perspectives were challenged by Shinagawa and Pang (1990), who proposed hypergamy theory, which states that women are more likely to marry men of equal or higher social status and that men are more likely to marry women of lower social status. In the United States, about 33% of women with 4 or more years of college marry men with less education, and 50% of men with that same level of education marry less-educated women (Goldman, Westoff, & Hammerslough, 1984). However, Shinagawa and Pang (1990) argued that in a racially stratified society such as the United States, race is also an important factor contributing to social status. They concluded that the prevalence of interracial marriage between educated Asian American women and white men is a way for Asian American women to maximize their status (i.e., marrying the most advantaged individuals with the highest racial position). They also projected that Asian American interethnic marriage will become more prevalent. Critics of this view argue that Shinagawa and Pang’s interpretation is based on statistical data that cannot accurately assess personal and subjective topic such as reasons for marriage. Reflecting this criticism, Fong and Yung (1995) interviewed Asian American men and women and found that reasons for interracial marriage are complex and cannot be explained by one perspective. Many respondents gave both individual preference and the need to gain social status as reasons for choosing their partners. Motivations for interracial marriage among Asian Americans seem to be derived from a multitude of complex factors. Recent and projected increases in interethnic marriages are trends that need to be examined further.

Biracial and Multiracial Asian Americans

Given the prevalence in interracial marriages, the number of biracial or multiracial Asian Americans has increased. Information about numbers of mixed-heritage Asian Americans was not available until the 2000 census; previous census data did not include a racial category identifying people with mixed ethnic background. The 2000 census identified individuals as Asian with one or more other races as 0.6% of the U.S. population; approximately half identified themselves as Asian and white. Japanese (31%) were most likely to report one or more other races, and Vietnamese (8.3%) were least likely to be in combination with one or more other races (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002a). Multiracial Asian Americans have geographical distributions similar to those of monoracial Asian Americans, with nearly half living in the western United States.

Racial identity is an important issue for biracial or multiracial Asian Americans (Fong, 1998). Few identify with only one part of their inheritance (Spickard, 1992), and many adopt situational ethnicity: They assume white or African American or Hispanic identity when they are among white or African American or Hispanic relatives and friends and take on mainly an Asian identity when among Asians (Mass, 1992).

Multiracial Asian Americans originally were believed to display lower self-esteem and poor social adjustment due to parental pathology, marital instability, and marginal belonging of children due to their ambiguous status (Root, 1998). However, several studies have found that some groups of multiracial Asians raised in the United States are well adjusted and have high self-esteem (Cauce et al., 1992; Johnson & Nagoshi, 1986). However, large differences exist among multiracial Asians. For example, multiracial Vietnamese Americans experienced more adjustment problems and reported lower self-esteem than multiracial Japanese Americans (Valverde, 1992). Many Vietnamese immigrants settled into areas with a large Vietnamese population where harsh and discriminatory attitudes toward multiracial Vietnamese American children are prevalent. Vietnamese American children are more likely to have problems if they are males, have African American fathers, and have unstable home environments (Felsman, Jonson, Leong, & Felsman, 1989).

In summary, most studies of mixed-heritage Asian Americans have examined multiracial Japanese and Vietnamese Americans. Ethnic identity and psychological adjustment are important issues for all multiracial Asian Americans. It is important to understand the ways in which race is performed and the ways in which this understanding is facilitated by family, community, and peers.

Kinship Network and Social Support

Asian American kinship research focused on historical analysis of kinship networks (Yanagisako, 1985), the nature of kinship relations (Johnson, 1977), social network patterns and social supports (Kim & McKenry, 1998), and the dynamics of kinship-based networks among newly arrived immigrants (Menjivar, 1997). Johnson (1977) explained the Japanese American kinship system as an obligatory rather than an optional system, using the concept of reciprocity within social exchange theory. According to exchange theory, the principle of give-and-take or reciprocity enables harmonious social relationships, and stability and maintenance are enhanced if there is mutual dependence and reciprocal interchange. In contrast, if there is no reciprocal exchange, relationships are likely to be terminated. Johnson found that the Japanese American kinship system emphasizes obligation to parents, reciprocity, and dependence, all part of Japanese values. However, her findings may not apply outside the Japanese American population, whose higher socio-economic status and resources, as compared to those of other Asian Americans, may enable such mutual kinship support.

Yanagisako’s (1985) comparison of Japanese American kinship to white middle-class Americans found that although household composition was similar, Japanese American family gatherings were much larger and genealogically more extended than those of the white middle class. Kinship support and network are more central to Asian American experience than to African American, white, or Hispanic experience (Kim & McKenry, 1998). Asian Americans also are more likely to spend social evenings with friends and relatives, more likely to be involved in personal hobby groups, and, along with whites, more likely to be involved in sports. Kim and McKenry speculated that these findings reflected the importance of the collective orientation in Asian American culture. However, they found more similarities than differences in social networks and social support among the four groups of Americans.

Social and kinship networks play an important role for Asian immigrants all through the migration process. For example, Menjivar (1997) found that the family support network was the most important factor in the transition of Vietnamese immigrants to the United States. However, consequences of heavy reliance on social and family networks for later adjustment have been questioned. For example, recently arrived Vietnamese who settle where there is a heavy concentration of Vietnamese can be provided with the assistance to make their transition easier (Gold, 1992). However, those who settle in areas with no ethnic enclave may find it difficult to find jobs and establish their family life. In summary, Asian American kinship systems and supportive networks are largely based on obligatory relationships, and for newly arrived immigrants, supportive family networks and an ethnic enclave play important roles in facilitating adjustment.

Household Labor and Gender Issues

Gender role expectations of women can vary widely on the basis of class of origin, current class, ethnic group of origin, and generation in the United States. For Asian American women, generational differences as a result of acculturation affect gender roles at home. Because one of the primary goals of the 1965 immigration reform was to facilitate family reunification, the numbers of Asian women immigrants have dramatically increased (Donato, 1992). Some Asian immigrant women had informal resources in their home country because they were the center of family affairs but did not possess more formal resources, such as economic capital, until they immigrated to the United States. In fact, labor force participation among Asian immigrant women surpasses that of native-born Asian American women (Espiritu, 1997). Kibria (1993) found that the most important difference between Vietnamese women’s experience in the United States and the experiences of modern, urban South Vietnamese women was that the relative economic resources of men and women had shifted, giving women more economic resources. That is, whereas many Vietnamese men encountered unemployment and low-wage jobs, women were successful in earning incomes in a wide variety of sectors, thereby creating a more gender-balanced family environment. This also was true for Chinese women (Glenn, 1983) and for Korean men and women in the United States (Min, 1995). Korean immigrant women usually work long hours in small businesses assisting their husbands, a central factor in the success of their businesses (Min, 1988). The necessity to work with their husbands gave Korean women more opportunities to negotiate work roles, and the interdependence between spouses contributed to more egalitarian gender relationships among Korean Americans. It can be concluded that Asian American women gain considerable power after immigrating to the United States, although Asian American men still enjoy overall advantages in incomes and occupational positions (Ong & Hee, 1993).

Although we know little about the division of household labor among Asian Americans, there are a few insightful studies (Johnson, 1998; Kibria, 1993; Min, 1995; Osako, 1980). Overall, Asian American women still bear most of the responsibilities for cooking, domestic tasks, and child rearing even in dual-earner families. Although Osako (1980) noted a tendency toward gender equality among second-generation Japanese Americans compared to their parents’ generation, there still remained a fairly strict division of household labor among the second-generation couples. Although gender equality among Asian American couples has not been achieved, this pattern is not unique to this population. Numerous studies of other populations report that housework and child care are usually performed by women (Coltrane & Ishii-Kuntz, 1992; Ishii-Kuntz & Coltrane, 1992). What is unique to Asian American family experiences with respect to gender is the shift that has frequently occurred among immigrant families. Asian immigrant women have gained more power at home primarily because of their economic contributions.

Elderly Asian Americans and Inter-generational Relations

Although the experiences of Asian American elderly are wide-ranging and depend on their nativity, immigration experiences, residential arrangement, and the existence of supportive kinship and friendship networks, their relationships with their children have been viewed from a monolithic cultural perspective. Because filial piety, including a great respect for the elderly family members, has been a long admired tradition of Asians, it is generally considered that Asian American elderly are accorded authority and privilege over their junior members. Asian American adult children have been viewed as conforming to parental demands and expectations, feeling more obligated to their parents, providing more financial aid to their parents, and interacting more frequently with their parents than their white counterparts (Ishii-Kuntz, 1997; Osako, 1976). Perhaps due to this rosy picture, little research on intergenerational relationships among Asian Americans was conducted until the late 1980s, and most of it was on the Chinese and Japanese, reflecting the higher proportion of elderly in these populations compared to other Asian American subgroups. These studies focused primarily on the quality of relationships between elderly parents and their adult children, residential arrangements, and service needs (e.g., Kamo & Zhou, 1994; Phua, Kaufman, & Park, 2001). For example, Kamo and Zhou (1994) found that older Chinese and Japanese American parents were more likely to live in three-generation households than their white counterparts and that many displayed their own cultural traditions of filial obligations. Recently, Pyke (2000) found that Korean and Vietnamese immigrant children considered filial piety an important value.

The living arrangements of elderly Asian Americans vary among subgroups. For example, elderly Japanese are more likely to live with their spouses only, as opposed to living with other family members, than are Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Asian Indian Americans (Phua et al., 2001). The level of acculturation may be the main reason why Japanese American elderly are more likely than other Asian Americans to maintain independent households. They are more likely to be later generations of Americans than the other groups and thus more likely to be acculturated into mainstream culture. Immigrant Asian elderly in the United States constitute a distinct group of immigrants. First, immigration laws governing the immigration of elderly persons are different from those governing younger persons. That is, elderly immigrants are more likely to immigrate under the nonquota immediate-family preference category as parents of U.S. citizens. Second, elderly immigrants are more likely to immigrate to be with their families; younger immigrants are more likely to arrive for economic opportunities. Last, the older immigrants are at the time of their arrival, the more they are used to their native country’s way of life and the greater difficulty they have in adjusting to the new environment.

Gays and Lesbians, and Their Families

Diversity with respect to sexual orientation among Asian Americans has been rather infrequently discussed by media, the general public, and Asian Americans. This does not mean that gay and lesbian Asian Americans are nonexistent. On the contrary, Asian American gays and lesbians have been active in social organizations and conferences on Asian American lesbian and gay experiences (Takagi, 1994). However, open discussion of Asian American gay and lesbian experiences did not take place until the 1990s (see Leong, 1996, for personal reflections by Asian American gays and lesbians). The year 1994 was particularly important, with the adoption of a resolution by the Japanese Americans Citizens League (JACL) supporting same-sex marriages and the publication of a special issue of Amerasia Journal, the leading scholarly journal in Asian American studies, focusing on Asian American gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Although we are beginning to understand the diversity of sexual orientations and experiences in relation to identity among Asian Americans, knowledge about Asian American gay and lesbian families is still extremely limited. The most important personal issue surrounding Asian American gays and lesbians seems to be coming out to parents. Chan (1989) found only 9 out of 35 interviewees had told their parents about their sexual orientation. Chan concluded that, given the emphasis on conformity in many Asian American families, gay and lesbian adult children who do not conform to the traditional heterosexual roles may assume that their parents would be much less tolerant and more homophobic than parents of other groups. Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Korean mothers and fathers with lesbian daughters and gay sons expressed a wide range of emotions and feelings when they discovered their children’s sexual identities (Hom, 1994). One of the first reactions by parents is self-blame and sadness, with the realization that their long-term goals and plans for their children may never materialize. Not all the parents, however, had negative reactions to their children’s coming out (Ordona, 1994). Given that not all the coming out experiences among Asian American gays and lesbians are negative, it is important to better understand how Asian American families create and construct a new and different set of expectations when faced with their children’s homosexuality.

Contribution of Asian American Family Scholarship

Overall, research on Asian American families over the last three decades contributes to our understanding of these families in two ways. First, scholarship since the 1970s has helped us better understand the complexity and diversity within Asian American families. Whereas studies in earlier decades mainly focused on more established Asians in the United States (e.g., Japanese, Chinese), more recent research has focused on the growing number of Asian immigrants and their children. We now know that considerable parenting and socialization diversity and complexity exists across Asian American subgroups, although there are important commonalities as well (e.g., emphasis on interdependence and education). The diversity, however, is mainly derived from experiences related to immigration. For instance, immigrant children who play a cultural- and language-brokering role for their parents are accorded more power within the family, and foreign-born Asian parents become more dependent on their children. We know that the rate of interracial marriage tends to be higher among more established Asian Americans (e.g., Japanese) compared to more recent Asian immigrants, and we know that later generations of Asian Americans (e.g., Japanese, Chinese) are more egalitarian than their parents and grandparents.

Findings from the studies reported here suggest that it is misleading to speak of the Asian American experience as if all Asian Americans’ experiences are similar. We know from past studies that Asians’ experiences in the United States vary considerably depending on such factors as immigration history and family networks. Thus, professionals helping Asian American children and families may need to create programs that specifically cater to the needs of each Asian ethnic group.

Second, research over the past three decades helped us identify a variety of Asian American family issues. The relationship between Asian American educational and occupational achievement and family values was the main topic of investigation in the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, and although it is still an important issue, Asian American family scholarship since the 1980s has largely moved beyond this topic to a variety of topics such as parenting, interracial marriages, biraciality/multiraciality, kinship networks, gender relations, and intergenerational relationships in Asian American families. These studies generated a wealth of knowledge that helped professionals identify different dimensions of Asian American family life. For example, we know that authoritarian parenting among Asian Americans needs to be redefined because the concept of authority does not have the same meaning for Asian Americans as for non-Hispanic whites. We also need to examine combined aspects of individual choice, assimilation needs, and hypergamy to explain the prevalence of interracial marriage among some groups of Asian Americans. Although biracial and multiracial Asian Americans are often faced with identity dilemmas, they are as socially adjusted as other U.S. ethnic groups. The obligation-based kinship and support networks of Asian Americans may not always characterize intergenerational relationships among Asian Americans. Additionally, although changes in gender relations in Asian American families have been slow, more egalitarian relationships between husbands and wives have been emerging. Women’s labor force participation seems to be an important prerequisite for this transition.

Finally, an area of study that is important for family professionals is Asian Americans’ underutilization of public services, particularly mental health services (see Sue, 1993). Reasons for this may include (a) the lack of accessibility and availability of mental health services for Asian Americans; (b) Asian Americans’ general unwillingness to use these services and cultural stigmatization of them; and (c) the need for culturally appropriate mental health services and culturally sensitive mental health professionals. Similar arguments can be made with respect to other services related to Asian American families and children.

Future of Asian American Families

The Asian American population will continue to expand, with projections indicating that it will reach 20.2 million in the year 2020 (Ong & Hee, 1993). Much of this increase can be attributed to the continuing growth of the numbers of immigrants. For family scholars, this means that a monolithic picture of the Asian American family will no longer be sufficient. At the same time, cultural theory alone does not explain complex relationships within Asian American families. Because immigration is an important factor affecting Asian Americans, it is necessary to look into structural and historical conditions in addition to cultural components surrounding Asian American families. Further, although past studies often compared Asian Americans with whites and/or other ethnic minority groups, it may be fruitful to engage in comparisons among Asian subgroups due to their diverse experiences in the United States.

Considering the multiplicity of Asian American family experiences, I predict that our scholarship will be expanded to better understand (a) the conflict between immigrant parents and their Americanized children; (b) the adjustment and identity issues of biracial and multiracial Asian Americans; (c) the intersection of class, gender, and race among Asian Americans; (d) alternative lifestyles, including gay and lesbian parenting and families; and (e) the extent of domestic violence within Asian American families. Some additional intriguing questions include (a) the extent to which we can use Anglo-centered models and measures to study Asian American families; (b) similarities or differences among and between established and recent immigrant Asian American subgroups; (c) the impact of immigration on children, conjugal relations, and parent-child relations; (d) how major external forces (e.g., economics, policies, institutional barriers) and internal forces (e.g., conflict within the family) affect the psychological well-being of Asian American family members; and (e) the extent to which Asian American family experiences are influenced by the complexity of race, gender, and class in American society.

Also needed is a better understanding of the concept and the extent of Asian American pan-ethnicity. The American public often treats Asian Americans as a homogeneous, pan-ethnic group without recognizing differences among them. Asian American pan-ethnicity is largely a result of political and social, but not cultural, bonds. Espiritu (1992) suggested that at least three things must occur for Asian American pan-ethnicity to continue to survive: the development of pan-ethnic organizations, the existence of pan-ethnic entrepreneurs, and a perspective of individual pan-ethnicity. With the increasing need to protect their common interest in politics, education, social services, and other areas, many Asian Americans may value the power created by such solidarity among Asian Americans. The increase in Asian American studies programs in many U.S. universities may also enhance the diverse experiences of Asian subgroups as well as the need for Asian American pan-ethnic solidarity.

Finally, the continued increase in Asian American population will have a significant impact on social institutions as well as attitudes among the U.S. public toward Asian Americans. First, the increase of Asian American families and their children will have significant effects on public schools, colleges and universities, private corporations and politics. There has already been evidence that Asian Americans have influenced admission policies in higher education. For instance, Takagi (1992) has described controversial college admission procedures in which the most selective universities and colleges in the United States have used quotas and ceilings to limit the enrollment of Asian Americans. Second, Americans will come to better understand and view more positively Asian American experiences. Like other visible minorities, Asian Americans face the danger of always being perceived within the narrow confines of stereotypes. However, research on Asian Americans and their experiences and the emphasis on multiculturalism in the larger society will contribute to positive change. In summary, although past scholarship on Asian American families has generated insightful findings, it is clear that we have only touched the surface of complex Asian Americans family relationships. Many research questions remain. It is hoped that findings from future research will significantly improve the lives of Asian Americans and encourage better understanding of them among other populations in the United States.